Dangers of eating newsprint
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.
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)