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Dangers of eating newsprint

March 6, 2008

Last week while waiting for my dosa (Indian crêpe) to get done at a stall in a large mall, I watched a man behind the counter start to rub some white paste with his thumb into a piece of newspaper. I watched as more and more of the white stuff was added accompanied by more vigorous rubbing. Finally I asked the man what he was doing. He was drying salt he said, nodding at the now grayish mixture. The salt, he explained, had accidentally got a little wet.

onions_1_1.jpg I was quite aghast as I studiously resist the temptation of buying all those ‘cut’ vegetables packed so enticingly in clean food grade plastic in supermarkets, well aware that that the veggies are chopped in unhygienic conditions and onto newspapers.

Just one example…winding my way through a crowded shopping area once I almost stepped on some bright red pomegranate seeds spread out on a newspaper. The newspaper occupied half the pavement, and a boy was half crouched over it, his sweat dripping on to the paper as he peeled the pomegranate with enviable speed. When I apologized for crushing some of the fruit, he flashed a smile, telling me there was no problem, all the while his fingers continuing their daily grind. I asked him which supermarket he was packing the pomegranate for. Many, he said, quite proudly. He did the work 2 hours a day in addition to some other odd jobs.

Newspapers are used for everything…even to dump freshly made rotis/chappattis (Indian flat bread). The reason why I don’t buy ready-made rotis. Walk into any dhaba and the chances are that you will see the rotis being cooled on newspaper. It’s these small places which deliver them to shops…

Indians I think, are being slowly poisoned due to old newspaper being widely used by small hotels, shacks and also in people’s homes in lieu of absorbent paper. And ofcourse the fancy supermarkets which sell everything from peeled pomegranate to cut veggies to grated coconut are selling you food of dubious origin…unless you see it being packed you can’t be sure how it was prepared.

In the west, there are regulations which ensure that toxic metals are not used in the manufacture of printing ink used in the newspaper industry. There are even stricter regulations on the manufacture of printing ink which is used on labels on food packets and wrappers…toxic metals are forbidden. Despite this, any label with writing is not permitted to come directly in contact with food. In other words, extra safety for those who live in the developed nations!

Coloured newsprint is also deemed unsafe, even though the newspaper industry in developed countries uses vegetable dyes…but a gardening blog in the UK warns against letting vegetables come into contact with coloured newsprint even if the ink contains only vegetable dyes as even these dyes can be toxic.

What about us? :( In India we do have stringent food packaging laws, yes, and certainly newsprint is disallowed as a packaging material, but what’s the use of all the regulation when the unorganised sector uses newspaper freely? True, there has been an improvement and many hotels will use aluminium foil for packing your take-away food…but in that same hotel you will find newspaper being used as absorbent paper! Newsprint is used by all and sundry and probably your neighbour as well! We are decades behind the west when it comes to awareness of such issues…in the UK and Ireland it was way back in the seventies when fish and chips were sold in wrapped in newsprint. This practice has been phased out now due to fears of poisoning, despite the fact that the newspaper industry in the UK does not use poisonous metals anymore.

And in India, do we use the ‘safe’ printing ink that is used in developed countries? Do we use vegetable dyes to colour the inks? Type in ‘printing ink regulation’ and you will get no India based information. I talked to some people in the industry though and they said there is no law banning toxic metals in printing ink in India and that vegetable dyes are not used. Why should there be such a requirement anyway…printing ink is not supposed to come into contact with food, that is what the mandarins sitting in Delhi would think. Why, we have a long way to go even when it comes to banning toxic colours in food and medicine, so where is the question of banning toxic metals in printing ink? After all we are not supposed to be eating printing ink are we!

Worse, even with the limited food and drug laws we have, strict supervision is still a long way off, even where large companies (they are watched more) are involved. So today even if a law exists which bans food being packed in newprint, it is impossible to control the thousands of small packaging and food preparing joints that dot our country. Only consumer awareness can help.

Poisonous metals like cadmium and lead are often used in the manufacture of printing ink and the dangers of lead and cadmium poisoning are well known. There is an interesting article which talks about how we are poisoning not just ourselves but Mother Earth. It also explains that it’s developing nations like ours which have this big problem. Underdeveloped nations are not in danger as they have not yet started using toxic metals on a large scale and the developed nations are not in danger either as they have laws to forbid it! Here is a brief quote from the same article:

India’s cities. Over 50 percent of children under twelve in metropolitan areas have unacceptable levels of lead in their blood (over 10 micrograms per deciliter), according to a study on lead poisoning conducted by the George Foundation (www.leadpoison.net/INDEX.htm ). The study, “Project Lead Free,” was conducted during 1997 and 1998. It found, for example, that about 40 percent of Bangalore’s children have high levels of lead. Just twelve years ago, Bangalore’s children had one of the lowest rates in India, just 15.8 percent.

This is an old article, and lead in our blood must have decreased as today lead is banned in petrol…but what about other sources? That article lists these:

Canned food and drinks, newspapers used for packing food, cosmetics like eye makeup, hair dye, sindhoor, lead-based paints, ceramic glazes, industrial emissions, exposure at battery units, diety-making units, and tea are all potent media for lead poisoning.

There are certain things that we cannot control…but we can certainly stop eating food that has been touched by newsprint.

(Photo by me)

Related Reading: Toxic food packaging
Chemicals in our food and drugs

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24 Comments leave one →
  1. March 6, 2008 10:48 pm

    Interesting. But we in India treat newspaper as best for packing. its cheap, easily available and considered hygiene.
    we even treat that as tissue paper as well( at the local snacks walla, he wraps fried items in newspaper to absorb oil) :)

  2. March 6, 2008 11:07 pm

    I agree with you. We find newspaper as a easily available packing material for packing food items. All roadside,railway platform stalls widely use newspapers for packing. Indian public is not fully aware of this risk. Awareness can be created only through this type of interactions.

  3. March 6, 2008 11:46 pm

    Once again you have produced an excellent article about something that’s so very important. We all are what we eat and the last thing we need is to ingest food that has been contaminated by printer’s inks. However, as you point out laws are not effective as small producers will be the last to change. IMHO the government’s responsibility in this is to create and promote wide spread awareness of the issue.

  4. March 7, 2008 5:29 am

    Thanks so much for responding Xylene, Old Sailor and Brightfeather! :) Am rushing off now to spend a whole day with a blogger friend from another country… the joy of blogging will be felt by me in it’s entirety!

  5. March 7, 2008 7:17 am

    Too much of free radicals and toxic metals will put stress on your liver.Proper Liver detoxification is essential for the normal metabolism.

    The sad fact is such metals which get into your body are not excreted easily. They stay in your body for a long time resulting in many chronic diseases.

    But, we are not in a position to talk about hygiene to the poor boy who is doing this for this survival.

  6. O'Maolchathaigh permalink
    March 7, 2008 11:01 am

    Good points about metals and free radicals and newsprint, but the danger of eating food off of newspapers is greatly exaggerated! 1.) I grew up eating crabs, shrimp, etc. of of newspaper – it is the only way people in my hometown will eat steamed crab or shrimp! I’ve have been sick a long time ago. However, that is purely anecdotal and not scientific, so: 2.) What I am aware of is this: the dangers of printing ink are to the environement and the typesetters and other laborers. Same as the reasons for no longer using abestos. However, it is not possible for toxic, or even dangerous levels of metals in the inks in newsprint to get into you unless you eat the newspaper! Many newspapers! Only traces of ink come off on the food, not enough to sicken you or cause disease. Ink actually comes off on your hands while reading, and no correlation has been found between reading newspapers, magazines, books, or anything else, and ill health. It’s true, it is less likely for you to absorb such things through your skin, but people touch their mouths and eyes while handling such things, and no danger has been shown. There was a rumor at one time that the newspaper ink was bad for you, but it was never substantiated. It is still a good idea to call for removing metals from printing ink, but not for the reasons you state. Sometimes people don’t care about the environment, or the workers, so such rumors are used to bring about stricter regulations. Just don’t eat entire newspaper editions every day, and you don’t have to worry. That is my opinion from following this argument since the early 1970s in the U.S.

  7. March 7, 2008 3:35 pm

    Nice post Nita.

  8. March 7, 2008 7:12 pm

    We joined friends for dinner in their home last fall for a lovely meal wrapped in . . . newsprint. Months later, we’re still feeling fine from this one-time wandering but your commentary raises important concerns.

  9. March 7, 2008 7:14 pm

    Nita,

    Thanks for raising awareness about this issue.I do not know why we still use newspapers when banana leaves are a much better option.

    Regarding the lead content in petrol,though we use “unleaded” petrol and “low sulphur” diesel these days,we are still way,way behind the day when we can call truly our petrol as “unleaded petrol” and diesel as “low sulphur diesel”.The standards for these two fuels in India are not as good as those in some countries,most notably the E.U.,though they are slowly improving.And in any case,the fuel sold in the large cities is of a better standard than that sold in other places because of the introduction of emission norms in a “staggered manner”.The large cities have the Bharat Stage III norms while others still have the Bharat Stage II norms.(The Bharat Stage ‘n’ norms are the equivalent of the corresponding Euro norms)

  10. March 7, 2008 8:38 pm

    thanks for the info…will warn ppl who use newspapers as packing materials..

    Hey, thanks Vishesh! I think we need people to spread awareness! – Nita.

  11. March 7, 2008 9:52 pm

    Priya, Prerna, thanks for your response.
    O’Maolchathaigh, you have a point…but the fact is that all the effects of using even safe ink are not known. And in many countries it is toxic printing ink which is used. So I prefer to be on the safe side. If you are healthy today, you are lucky that you have been blessed with good health.
    Why, some people smoke and nothing happens to them…so basically what I am saying is that i want to take no chances.
    Contentmama, a onetime meal would perhaps not make a difference, but to me it would. Maybe it’s psychological but overall I prefer to eat food! :)
    Raj, I love the concept of bananna leaves. I didn’t know that our unleaded petrol was not the same as that in developed countries! Thanks for this very useful info.

  12. March 7, 2008 11:30 pm

    In the US, I’ve seen some magazines and newspapers use soy or vegetable-based inks, which are probably less toxic and also less harmful to the environment.

  13. March 8, 2008 5:35 am

    Amit, in the developed countries they are more concerned about the environment because human beings rarely eat off newspaper. But the environment protection angle is very strong but in India we haven’t even come to it as yet! :( not that I am saying that environment shouldn’t be tackled first as it’s all connected actually.

  14. Ravi permalink
    March 8, 2008 7:44 am

    I have seen some vendors selling stuff like dosa in a steel plate with a polythene paper/banana leaf in it. That could be an alternative to eat in a healthy way though I doubt how healthy those stuff are. But polythene paper costs more to that persona and we end up paying more money per item. Maybe it should be made mandatory to serve food in a polythene paper or in a leaf. First we should tell the advantages/disadvantages of those practices we are concerned about and make them aware of our concerns.

  15. March 8, 2008 8:14 am

    If you eat newsprint, you could end up getting mediasinitis, also known as Editor’s disease. We ornery pippuls know it as flatulence.

  16. March 8, 2008 8:31 am

    Nita, I think the concern is more for babies/kids/toddlers who can get their hands on newspaper and put it in their mouths. Environment comes a far second, and the soy-based inks are used by a minority, though becoming more popular.

  17. March 8, 2008 9:56 am

    thanks for the caveat emptor
    nita

    in india cash is the standard tender for deciding standards

  18. March 8, 2008 11:17 am

    Our stray holy cows eat whole news paper, polybags, tissues with other garbage.

    So, we eat in newspapers since our holy cows eat it.

    Eating in newspapers, help us wash our sins. Sick or no Sick doesn’t matter, we are getting cleansed, baptized.

  19. March 8, 2008 5:58 pm

    Thanks Ravi, actually as far as I know it is mandatory to do all that, but no one listens! And who is there to supervise? Not many seem to care!

    R-doc, In the times of india (mumbai) where I used to work, we had recycled newspaper which was kept in a stack in the canteen on which you could take away food, and this paper was a dubious gray….but I think that explains the frequent attacks of mediasinitis amongst the editors. :)

    Prax, alas, the situation the world over! We are a poor country and at every stage there’s a reminder. The only thing I envy about those guys who live in developed countries is that they aren’t getting slowly poisoned…but on the other hand I think I am optimistic. Perhaps we will mutate into a superior species! :)

    Anshul, haha! that’s a real good one. :lol:

  20. March 8, 2008 7:18 pm

    yes europeans are freakish recyclers and nature loving
    they have like 4 recycling dustbins
    they prefer cycles over walking and bio/ organic over normal.
    they even have a greens party … phew !!

    im back from malvan – and the air quality here is bad and i feel lathargic – and there i felt so much more energy

    yes , a whif of mumbai air or a taste of bhel or pav bhaji on the streets means sickness to them – to sum it – their immunity is totally f*ed up

  21. March 8, 2008 7:29 pm

    Prax, yeah it sounds pretty wierd doesn’t it! I heard the Japanese have 7 or something! :) Sort of makes me feel that that’s what these guys do the whole day…either recycle or think of it even when buying it! makes me think that perhaps Ignorance is bliss! :)
    Malvan btw is beautiful, we went there the year before last, it was an a beautiful trip, what scenery!!! And what pure air… today I was in Pune and all I saw was gray skies and pollution and in a way I think I am frightened. We are so used to this now that we see this as how life is.

  22. Lilja permalink
    March 10, 2008 4:57 am

    It is quite interesting to read your post and the comments. I live in Iceland (Europe), a fairly clean country, and I do believe we can do something more about cleaness and recycling, wherever we live in the world. We used to wrap our fish in newspapers, but today we use plastic, plastic bags, plastic films and plastic boxes for our food. That’s very clean for the food and for us, but not the environment.
    I think it would be ideal if the different parts of the world could exchange more knowlegde and learn from each other, and that could create more balance.
    Let’s hope for a better future in the global environment for all of us and specially our children :)

  23. March 10, 2008 7:23 am

    Thanks Lilja for that opinion from Iceland! You have brought out a very important point. That when it comes to the environment, plastics as an alternative to newspaper aren’t any good. In India in some places banana leaves are used and I think this is the most environmental friendly way to do it. The only problem is that with our huge population any method is going to harm the environment.

  24. raghav permalink
    February 16, 2009 3:36 am

    I love the banana leaves solution. And I don’t know what is it called but there are plates and cup plates made of dried leaves woven together and mostly used for serving gol gappas, tikkies and used in mandirs for giving out Prashad. I like those ones as well n not a threat to environment.

    Newsprint is a prob. but another big prob. is food contamination with pesticides. Please have a look at this video from Journeyman pictures to undertand how grave is the prob. in india due to pesticide pollution.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IySuIPP6oI4

    Pesticide + Newsprint = Death in long term
    and disfigurement of body parts in short term

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