Formalin in fish: Not a new issue

Maneka Sanjay Gandhi

Formaldehyde is a chemical which, when mixed with water and turned into a paste, is used for embalming dead bodies and preventing the decay of dead cells.

Formalin is a saturated solution of formaldehyde gas in water, making for about 37 to 40 per cent with a stabiliser, mostly methanol, which is also toxic to humans.

Can formaldehyde/formalin cause cancer? As far back as 1980, laboratory studies showed that even sniffing formaldehyde could cause nasal cancer in rats. In 1987, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classified formaldehyde as a probable human carcinogen. Now the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classified it as a human carcinogen.

Since the 1980s, the National Cancer Institute (NCI), a component of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), has conducted studies to determine whether there is an association between formaldehyde exposure and an increased cancer risk.

NCI surveys of professionals who are exposed to formaldehyde in their work (anatomists, embalmers, funeral industry workers) have seen that these individuals are at an increased risk of leukaemia and brain cancer. The study, which looked at funeral industry workers who had died between 1960 -1986, showed that those who performed the most embalming, and those with the highest estimated formaldehyde exposure, had the greatest risk of myeloid leukaemia.

An additional 10 years of data on the same workers were used in a follow-up study published in 2009. This analysis showed a possible link between formaldehyde exposure and cancers of the blood and lymphatic systems. Earlier analysis of the NCI study found increased lung cancer deaths among industrial workers.

A study of 11,039 textile workers, performed by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), also found an association between the duration of formaldehyde exposure and leukaemia deaths. Several studies have found an association between formaldehyde exposure and nasopharyngeal cancer.

Research done by Martin H Fischer of Rush Medical College, Chicago on the toxic effects of formaldehyde and formalin on humans shows:

  1. The inhalation of formaldehyde gas in even small quantities is followed by bronchitis and pneumonia. Pneumonia is due to the gas inhalation and not to secondary infection.
  2. Formalin is capable of producing death suddenly when swallowed.
  3. The introduction of formalin into the stomach is followed by the production of gastritis which varies greatly in character. The duodenum and small intestine may get inflamed.
  4. Even a very dilute (1-1000 parts) formalin injection causes inflammation of the stomach lining. Once in the abdomen, formalin exercises a destructive action upon all organs, with which it comes in contact.
  5. The injection of formalin into the muscles produces myositis or inflammation of the muscles.
  6. When formalin is dropped into the conjunctival sac, a painful inflammation of the iris follows and may even destroy the eye.
  7. Formalin, in whatever way introduced into the body, is absorbed and capable of producing lesions in the respiratory organs.
  8. Changes in the liver after formalin absorption consist of mild or severe cloudy swelling. Necrosis may result.
  9. A formalin injection, or the inhalation of formaldehyde, produces cloudy swelling of the kidneys. Necrosis may result.

Why am I telling you this?  Because in June 2018, authorities found 9,600 kilograms of fish, preserved in formalin, being exported to the rest of India at the border check post of Arayankavu in Kollam district. Raids followed. 6,000 kilograms of fish were found laced with formalin in eight trucks in Palakkad. 14,000 kilograms of formalin prawns were found entering Kerala from Andhra Pradesh. Instead of burning them, officials returned the trucks to A P and they were probably rerouted by the factory owners to another state. The state food safety department officials intercepted a cargo of chemical-laced fish from Tuticorin, Tamil Nadu.

Keralites eat 2,500 tonnes of fish daily of which 60 per cent comes from local sources and the rest from other states. The Central Institute of Fisheries Technology (CIFT) in Kochi has found 63.9 milligrams of formalin in every kilogram of fish and 4.1 milligrams in every kilogram of shrimp.

The office of the Food Safety Commissioner has been busy. Thousands of kilograms of formalin fish and seafood are coming in and out of Kerala daily. In the last month 28,000 kilograms of adulterated fish have been destroyed.

Is this a new practice? No. Formalin has been used for many years to give the appearance of freshness to weeks old fish. First it used to be used when fish moved interstate. Now it is used on all fish. Why are the authorities cracking down on it now? Because, only now has the CIFT developed a kit to detect ammonia and formalin!

Does this happen only in Kerala? The fisheries department in Punjab sounded an alert 15 years ago saying that all fish coming from Delhi was contaminated, specifically naming the pangasius or basa catfish. The then health minister of Delhi, A K Walia, said he was unaware of it and didn’t take any action. Every day about 30-50 tonnes of fish arrive at Ghazipur fish market from Orissa, Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh. No checks have yet been done. But whenever a truck has been checked in other states the basa fish, farmed and exported from A P, has been found adulterated. It takes a week for the trucks from A P to reach North India. Between September and March, Punjab consumes nearly 250 tonnes of basa fish every day, mainly eaten by very poor farm labourers from other states.

In Nagaland the practice is so prevalent that a notification had to be issued this year prohibiting the sale of formalin-laced fresh fish products. So far the Kohima district administration has seized four vehicles. Nagaland Food Safety Commissioner has prohibited the storage, distribution, and sale of fresh fish products treated with formalin or ammonia, with a fine of Rs 10 lakh for any violations. This includes crabs, lobsters and prawns. Assam has put a ban on all fish entering it, after they found formalin in all the fish. Odisha has issued an order to collect fish samples from all markets after they found formalin from the Unit IV fish market on July 13. Maharashtra is bringing in laws to regulate the fishing industry which will now make it mandatory for all fish sellers to get licences, and which lays down norms on prohibited preservatives. There is currently no law about sale/purchase/transport/storage/use of preservatives and where fish should be dried.

Fish sale has increased by 5.6 per cent in the last year. You will find that the sale of formalin has increased by ten times that amount. This means a similar increase in abdominal pain, vomiting, unconsciousness and cancer.

If you want to test the fish you buy, get a kit from the CIFT. Remove the strip and rub it on the fish. If it turns blue, you are eating formalin.

Categories: Panorama
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