The ICIR’s investigation has shown that some of the chemicals that were banned 12 years ago and those that were recently considered too unsafe by the government to be sold in open markets are still very much available in various Abuja markets. Fruit, fish and meat sellers and farmers flagrantly use the chemicals to ripen or preserve their goods or yields in order to maximize profit, without having regards for the health of the consumers. Therefore, most of the food items eaten by residents of Abuja contain poisonous chemicals that are considered dangerous to health. Marcus FATUNMOLE reports.
UNSCRUPULOUS Nigerians are exploiting the ineffective or rather failed regulatory system of agrochemicals administration in the country to afflict fellow citizens, findings by The ICIR have shown.
Fruit, fish and meat sellers and farmers flagrantly use the chemicals to ripen or preserve their goods or yields in order to maximize profit, without having regards for the health of the consumers.
The ICIR’s investigation has shown that some of the chemicals that were banned 12 years ago and those that were recently considered too unsafe by the government to be sold in open markets are still very much available in various Abuja markets. Pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, and other chemicals can be found in the open market. The chemicals are used on foods such as grains, cereals, legumes, and later taken to the market against approved duration when the potency of the chemicals should have worn off.
The investigation has also revealed that while the administration of some of the chemicals is allowed at permissible levels for food storage to avoid post-harvest losses, those who administer the chemical on the food items are untrained to do so.
Pests such as weevils, moths, flour beetles, borers, et cetera and rodents, fungi as well as bacteria destroy farm yields. They also produce substances that are toxic for humans and animals, such as aflatoxins, fumonisins, patulin among others. It is for these reasons that many farmers choose to preserve their products with chemicals.
Such activity is expectedly supposed to be done outside human and animal residences, but The ICIR found out they are being done right inside living rooms. Wrong uses of the products in Abuja are common among illiterates who constitute the majority of sellers of agro-chemicals in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT).
The reporter observes that, at least, two out of five sellers of agro-chemical products in satellite communities in the city can hardly read or write. Communication is usually a barrier and there is a possibility for buyers to get the wrong products.
Whereas, the National Environmental Health Practice Regulations (2016) as amended, under Public Health and Pest Control says, “Before any person or company engages in the selling of any agrochemical products or chemicals, such person must have a permit from NAFDAC.” It is clear that the majority of merchants visited by our reporter in Abuja communities have no operating license from NAFDAC.
Experts are, however, unanimous in their reactions to the findings that pesticide and related chemical residue from inhalation, ingestion, absorption, or direct skin contact would make persons who are exposed to it susceptible to gastrointestinal illnesses, cancer, hypertension and other killer ailments.
The ICIR learnt that apart from using agrochemicals to preserve grains, cereals, fish, fruits, they are also administered on animal skins and are used at abattoirs for preventing insects “and keeping the slaughterhouses clean.”
Most households in the city use the products as well for insect control, rather than on farms where manufacturers recommended them for use.
“When you come here, you check what you want. If I have it, you pick it and I give you the price. I don’t speak or understand the English language,” said one of the merchants, Musa Abdullahi, who spoke with our reporter through an interpreter at the Kwali market.
Findings showed that some big outlets selling the products distribute them to some youths to sell in open markets. Perhaps because of school closure over COVID-19, a lot of teenagers are among the sellers.
Our correspondent visited six major markets in the FCT, namely Gosa, Kwali, Kuje, Bwari, Deidei and Lugbe.
Shehu Garba was one of the sellers who spoke with our reporter at Deidei. Pointing to a pack of aluminium phosphate, a fumigant, he said: “You can put this chemical in your beans for storage. You can keep the chemical in a cloth and keep inside the beans or you throw two or three pieces inside it. No pests can come near the beans for months, he said.
Garba did not specify the quantity of beans that could be kept with the deadly chemical and duration the product would remain in the yield. He also said the chemical could be mixed with fish and kept at the corners of the house as rat poison. The packet of aluminium phosphate does not carry information on how it is used.
Aluminium phosphate is very popular among the merchants, farmers and food vendors for beans and storage of grains. The product clearly has “poison” written on its label. The pack of aluminium phosphate also has two death signs boldly inscribed on its top and bottom. The popular brand in Abuja markets contains “20 fumigation tablets”, while “each tablet generates 33 percent W/W phosphine.” It is sold between N500 and N700.
Aluminium phosphate has a similar odour with some rat killer chemicals sold in neighbourhoods in the FCT which kill rats and don’t allow them to decompose, but dry.
Another common chemical in markets across Abuja is the executor (DDVP 1000G/L). This product is very popular for its effectiveness in killing pests. Rather than being used in farms, warehouses and large stores for which it was produced, many residents of the city see it as an alternative to conventional insecticides because it is cheaper and are said to be more effective. A few chemical sellers in the city also recommend the dangerous product for grain and cereal preservation. They say it could be poured on the sacks of grains and cereals to ward off pests.
Executor “contains 1000g/l as emulsifiable concentrate organophosrus insecticide with a wide range of activity…is an insecticide and acconcide (sic) with respiratory, contact and stomach action,” according to information on its label. 100ml size of executor is sold between N500 and N600 in the market; cheaper than popular insecticides many of which sell above N1000.
Also, the use of lindane (gammaline 20) is very common. Though this product was banned with 29 others in the country 12 years back, retailers have specialised way of selling it to members of the public, perhaps to avoid suspicion and arrest by regulatory authorities, if they are found selling it in its original container.
Gammaline 20 is sold in injection bottles and is well-repackaged to avoid spillage. There are bottles for N100, N200 and at higher prices. Every market visited by our reporter had this product.
Other products that are used as alternatives for lindane, executor and aluminium phosphate are dizvan, axitin, amitex, vibrant, termitex et cetera, all of which are meant to kill strong pests like insects, mites, nematodes and gastropod molluscs. They are not meant to be used in homes, let alone indiscriminate use for food storage.
Our reporter observed that many of the merchants are cautious of how they bring out some of the chemicals for would-be buyers, raising suspicion they might be hoarding banned products like binapacryl, heptachlor, lindane, parathion, Aldrin, chlordane, endrin, mirex and the likes. Joining most countries of the world, NAFDAC had banned 30 of such chemicals in 2008 because of increasing reports of hazards they constitute to human health. But, there are indications some of them still find their way into the country.
In Abuja, calcium carbide is used for ripening fruits. Farmers and sellers use this chemical for unripe mangoes, pawpaw, orange, plantain and banana so they could appear like very ripe fruits for unsuspecting buyers, according to our findings.
Calcium carbide produces acetylene gas when it comes in contact with moisture in the fruits, which is similar to the natural ripening agent, ethylene.
A fruit seller in the city explained in a video how her colleagues use the ripening-inducing chemical. She said she was taught how to do it but was afraid because of her faith. She also revealed the features of naturally ripe fruits and those that are ripened with chemicals.
Against government regulation, agrochemicals are seen with persons who specialise in non-chemical products, such as roadside shops at the Kuje and Deidei markets, where electrical and other products are sold. The chemicals were also seen being sold at many places around food stores and shops against the law. Of the six major markets visited in the FCT, only Gosa market had a designated area for agrochemicals, perhaps because the market was relocated less than two years ago. Products at the markets were nonetheless vulnerable to abuse as others.
Our reporter observed in most of the markets that sellers convince buyers to go with wrong “alternatives” whenever the products they ask for are not available.
More shockingly, agrochemicals are used at abattoirs to ward off flies and other insects, in homes for killing mosquitoes and other pests as well as outside residences for preventing reptiles and other predatory arachnids. Some of the retailers who buy meat at the slaughterhouses confirmed this to The ICIR.
“Contamination depends only on the level of hygiene at the abattoirs,” one of the retailers said.
“Those chemicals are used to ensure the abattoirs are clean. But, they are strong chemicals,” another vendor stated.
At an abbatoir inside Bwari main market, skins of rams and sheep were seen lumped on one another. Some of the skins were rotten. But, two locals who spoke with our reporter said the skins would be preserved with chemicals so they could dry and be produced into leather. “When the treated skins are dry, they can still be eaten,” one of the locals, Shuiabu Ahmed said.
Some youths in Deidei community said increasing joblessness in the country was pushing them into farming and the use of chemicals, which they had to use for the first time. “We have a large population of youth here who are into farming. Since the lockdowns and closure of schools, a lot of us have gone into farming. This has resulted in increased use of these chemicals. Many of us do not know how to really apply the chemicals. Sometimes, we have to keep trying until we get how they are used.”
The manner in which 2.2 Dichlorovinyl Dimethyl Phosphate (DDVP) compound otherwise marketed and known as sniper and other brands of agricultural formulations of dichlorvos flood the city’s market smacks off inefficiency of regulatory authorities. The chemicals are being used as a synthetic organophosphorus, having lethal effects on human health if misused. Sniper was banned in 2019 by the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) but the product is everywhere in the city’s markets.
NAFDAC fails to rid markets of deadly chemicals after ban
Abuse of agro-chemicals goes on in Abuja, despite hosting the most powerful policymakers in the country, including NAFDAC whose responsibility it is to regulate the products and other consumables in the country.
Whereas, in its response to the rise in cases of suicide in the country in 2019, NAFDAC, through its Director-General, Prof. Mojisola Adeyeye, had at a press briefing assured Nigerians it would ban the use of the 100ml diclorvos products to which sniper belongs.
The agency had said: “NAFDAC is gravely concerned about the recent trend in the abuse and misuse of 100ml of sniper insecticide and other brands of agricultural formulations of dichlorvos to commit suicide. The other brands of the agricultural formulations of 100 ml pack size of dichlovos include: (tankill, gladiator liquid, executor liquid, smash super liquid, DD force, glovan, philopest, wonder liquid, rid-off, NOPEST and SUMODDVP). These products are misused as a household insecticide and direct misapplication on agricultural produce. The abuse and misuse of 100ml of these products are associated with serious public health hazards such as cancer and respiratory disorder.
“Sniper and other brands of dichlorvos formulations are agricultural insecticides, registered for use as Crop Protection Product (CPP) only. The availability of these products in small retail pack sizes of 100ml and their sales in open-markets and supermarkets have made the product readily available for abuse and misuse as a household insect repellant, as an agent to control insect infestation in agricultural food and a tool for suicide in the country…
“NAFDAC bans the importation and manufacture of 100ml pack size of agricultural formulations of dichlorvos with immediate effect; NAFDAC bans with immediate effect hawking of all agrochemical formulations; NAFDAC is giving a two-month (up to 31st August 2019) notice to brand owners/distributors to recall and withdraw their products from open markets and supermarkets that do not have garden corner/shelves to the agro dealer outlets. The sales of sniper insecticide and other dichlorvos brands in open markets and supermarkets nationwide are prohibited with effect from 1st September 2019.
“NAFDAC is giving a six-month moratorium up to 1st January 2020 for brand owners to exhaust the products that are in various accredited agro-input dealers (distributors/marketers/retailers); mandatory listing of dealers (distributors/marketers/retailers) of agrochemicals. All NAFDAC formations are to collect the list to ensure continual monitoring of all agro-dealers in their states…”
The products are all over markets and shops and Abuja, as the agency, through its Director, Veterinary Medicine and Allied Products Dr. Bukar Ali Usman blamed continued sale of the chemicals on COVID-19 which he said had disrupted the withdrawal process in an interview with ICIR.
The World Health Organization says unsafe food containing harmful bacteria, viruses, parasites or chemical substances, causes more than 200 diseases – ranging from diarrhoea to cancers.
An estimated 600 million – almost one in 10 people in the world – fall ill after eating contaminated food and 420, 000 die every year, resulting in the loss of 33 million healthy life years, the agency notes.
In a message on its website, WHO reveals that US$110 billion is lost each year in productivity and medical expenses resulting from unsafe food in low- and middle-income countries.
Also, children under five years carry 40 percent of the food-borne disease burden, with 125, 000 deaths every year, the organization says.
Nigeria currently parades some of the world’s largest burden of communicable and non-communicable diseases. Its life expectancy, according to the 2019 report by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) showed the country having the third worst figure – 55 years. It came behind Sierra Leone, Chad and the Central African Republic which had 53, 54, 54 years respectively.
Victim of food poisoning speaks
Isa Tosin Victoria is a civilian working in an office of the Nigerian Air Force, Abuja. The 35-year-old shares her experience with our reporter. She had bought beans preserved with chemical. She took it home and cooked, only to thereafter face serious stomach ache after taking ill.
“The problem I had was that when I bought the beans, it was stored with chemical. At the time I bought it, it was not time for them to bring it out. They brought it out and sold to people. When I got home, I opened the nylon and perceived the chemical that was coming out from the beans was too much.
“Despite the fact that I parboiled the beans, I ended up landing at the hospital after cooking and eating the beans. We have different types of stomach ache, but this one was not common. It was as if something was eating my intestine. I started feeling like vomiting. In the long run, because I read articles a lot, there was one of the articles that said immediately one suffers food poisoning, if one discovers the hospital is very far from where one is, one should get a particular drug from the chemist shop and use. So, I managed to get into a pharmacy, got the drugs before heading to the hospital where I was eventually treated with a series of injections and medications.”
How ripening-inducing chemicals are used on fruits – Fruit-seller
One of the fruits sellers in the FCT shared her experience with The ICIR. She said she was taught how to use chemicals to ripen fruits when she was new in the trade.
The woman, who preferred to talk by veiling herself in a video recording and pleading anonymity with our reporter, said carbide is widely used on fruits such as orange, banana, and plantains by sellers.
“Fruit sellers use carbide for orange. Some people use it on plantain but you don’t need to use it on plantain that is already mature,” she said.
She said bananas that are ripened with chemicals have marks on the skins and that people who eat banana very well should be able to differentiate the taste of those that ripened naturally and those that were forced to ripen with chemicals. She said bananas and plantains that ripe naturally are always fresh and will not spoil quickly if left at home for a few days.
According to her, fruits that are ripened by chemicals do not last at home, especially banana and plantain.
Dr. Solomon Chollom is a Medical Laboratory Scientist, National Veterinary Research Institute, Vom. He told our reporter that the public health implications of the use of pesticides in countries with weak legislation and regulation on food safety are grave.
He said although the industrial use of pesticides is to ensure food security, the uncontrolled and indiscriminate use of it threatens public health.
“Incidentally, health crises ranging from respiratory, cardiovascular, dermatological, endocrinology and reproductive diseases have all been associated with consumption of food with a significant residual concentration of pesticides. This happens most times when farmers sell food with high concentrations of pesticides without allowing the concentrations to wane.
“For instance, there are long-acting and there are short-acting pesticides. This means that upon application, farmers or marketers must not sell these goods for consumption within the active period of the pesticidal effect. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Without knowing, the unsuspecting public is exposed to this hazard and inadvertently suffer health crises.”
Dr. Chollom said it is therefore of utmost importance for the country to come up with clear policy and legal framework on the use and misuse of pesticides, stating clearly guidelines for use and punishments for violators.
According to him, it is important for appropriate regulatory agencies like NAFDAC to ensure regular surveillance of food markets and make the random screening of foods at the point of sale to ensure they are free from potentially deleterious concentrations on pesticides.
He also said there is a need for periodic environmental impact assessment in places where there is high use of these chemicals to ensure there is no disruption of the flora and fauna in the delicate ecosystem.
Speaking on abuse of herbicides in the country, the expert said the use of herbicides in agriculture is meant to assist farmers to reduce the cost and duration of labour involved in mechanical weeding of farmlands before or after cultivation of crops.
. “The public health challenge in the use of herbicides stems from a phenomenon called persistence. This is also referred to as residual action. This is the extent to which the chemicals remain active in the soil and the extent to which they alter and interfere with microbiota of the soil, surface water, and environment.
“Effect on soil microbiota reduces the fertility of the soil due to impedance on the action of nitrogen- fixing bacteria and other elements of the ecosystem while effect of herbicides on water could lead to consumption of contaminated water by man and animals, leading to severe health crises…
“Accidental consumption of herbicides by kids or intentional consumption by adults for suicidal purposes has all shown grave impacts on health. This has unfortunately led to untoward consideration of the use of some herbicides for biological warfare,” he said.
Similarly, Registrar, West Africa Post-Graduate College of Medical Laboratory Science and former President, Association of Medical Laboratory Scientists of Nigeria (AMLSN), Dr. Godswil Opara, explained that there are obvious adverse effects of the chemicals on human health because some of the chemicals are toxins and they have toxic effects on the human body. He said they could be carcinogenic. He cited an instance where people who ate contaminated food had all died.
Speaking on ineffective regulation of the products, Okara stated: “That is the bane of our society; poor regulatory framework. We have organizations empowered by law to evolve regulatory measures to avoid continuous marketing and abuse of these chemicals and substances.
“Unfortunately, either because of poor funding of such organizations or poor enlightenment of the public about the dangers of exposure poses to the public, we have continued to see a high prevalence of these things in the market.”
He said the most important thing to do, especially on the safety of fruits which are eaten without going through cooking processes, is to adopt hygienic practices to be sure that whatever vegetable or fruits one buys, one does proper washing with water. Once it is washed properly before consumption, the chances are that the danger of getting poisoned will be reduced to the barest minimum, he said.
Doctor Obasi Ndubuisi is a general practitioner and works at Faith Mediplex Hospital, Abuja. In an interview with the ICIR, he said organophosphorus chemicals are not generally safe.
He said the disease conditions that could be linked to the ingestion of chemical compounds include disease of the kidney; diseases of the kidney like reduced kidney functions, kidney failure, nephritic syndrome, excessive release of protease from the urine.
These, he said, could happen as a result of the ingestion of chemical compounds, especially in high doses.
“The challenge of eating food containing these agrochemicals is that you take these foods almost every day: rice is a staple in Nigeria. So, you are eating these almost every day, thereby accumulating some of these chemicals in your system. Before you know it, you might be having muscle ache, muscle pains, increasing tiredness.
“Furthermore, potassium increase in the system can affect the heart. It can cause the heart to be beating irregularly. When the heart is not beating regularly, it can reduce the effectiveness of the heart. In addition, the brain itself requires some of these chemicals to function, and there can be impaired cerebral function if these chemicals are disproportionately used due to lack of concentration and sleep.
“Some of these illnesses are not as obvious as cancer. You might just be feeling tired with muscle ache after many years of ingesting foods with these chemicals. You may not even know why. You may just be having loss of concentration, loss of sleep, some difficulty remembering stuff. You may not even know that you’re probably ingesting foods that contain a high level of magnesium or any other chemicals you see. This is the reason why the Standard Organization of Nigeria needs to play a vital role here,” he said.
He explained that if the trends are not checked, the country has a lot of food produce for export which might be rejected by the international community if they are discovered not to be safe for human consumption.
Ndubuisi explained further that the challenge with the use of agrochemicals in the agro-allied industry is that the effects are insidious, making victims not to understand the source of their ailments.
While urging Nigerians to parboil their grains before final cooking, he appealed to the government at all levels in the country to take a leading role in the preservation of farm yields for the people.
We have shortage of staff to monitor markets, says FCTA
Principal Environmental Health Officer, Awobajo Sunday Alaba spoke with ICIR on behalf of the Director, FCT Public Health Department, Dr. Josephine Okechukwu over the findings.
Asked if the Department was aware of the unchecked sale of agro-chemical products in the city, he said: “I will not say we are not aware. We work in collaboration with other agencies to notify them of these.”
He said the FCTA sensitizes the public on the hazards inherent in the use of the chemicals. Asked if the department was also aware of the consequences of using the products, he said: “we are aware, not that we are not aware.”
He explained that the consequences of having the agrochemical market dominated by illiterates are that “somebody that does not know what he is selling and the content of what he is selling will actually not know how to use it. The consequence is the health implications; that is wrong use of it. There is a tendency for the seller to sell banned chemicals and the approved ones. He does not know which one is banned and the one that is approved because he does not know what he is selling.
He added: “NAFDAC is part of the authority that is supposed to look into it” and other tiers of government.
Speaking on the continued sale of banned agrochemicals in the FCT, he said he was not aware that the products were still in the market. “I don’t think the authority is even aware or has been notified that these products are in the markets,” he stated.
He averred that wrong use of agrochemicals for farming could ruin the health of persons who eat yields from farms where the chemicals are administered. “If you don’t go by the correct usage by the manufacturer, there is a possibility of causing more havoc. These chemicals have their own toxicity level. If it is in excess, they will be retained in the soil. The plant will absorb it. When it absorbs it, apart from the fact that it can kill the plant, the plant that survives and produces fruits or seeds for people to buy and eat will have the chemical retained in the fruits. Definitely, it will have effects. Once the root absorbs it, out of the content, once people get it and eat, definitely, it has effects on the human body. It can create gastro-intestinal disorder, cancer, and other sorts of ailments… and sometimes, it could be poisonous.”
He blamed the shortage of manpower in the FCTA on an increase of unlicensed agro-chemical merchants and unchecked activities of meat sellers in the city.
According to him, the FCTA is doing a lot of sensitization on the dangers of ripening fruits with ripening-inducing chemicals. He also warned persons who indulge in the act to desist or face the wrath of the law.
We develop standards for NAFDAC, NESREA, others on chemicals, says SON
Similarly, the Standard Organisation of Nigeria (SON) said it was the responsibility of NAFDAC and National Environmental Standards and Regulations Enforcement Agency (NESREA) to look into ICIR findings.
In response to inquiries by our reporter, SON said it coordinates the development of standards for such chemicals that the two regulatory authorities reference in developing relevant regulations.
Speaking through its spokesperson, Mr. Bola Fashina, the organization said in the elaboration/development standards for agricultural produce, the permitted agrochemicals and their permitted levels as well as how to use them are indicated in standards.
“SON as coordinator involves all relevant stakeholders including relevant regulators authorities like NAFDAC, NESREA and the federal and state ministries of agriculture as well as other ministries, departments and agencies ¹(MDAs) in the standards development processes.
“At the state levels, the ministries of agriculture and their agencies are responsible for implementation and enforcement of the standards e.g. through agricultural extension workers. Also, the produce inspectorate units at the federal and state levels also use these standards to inspect storage warehouses to ensure good practices as per the application of these chemicals on stored agricultural produce and while these produce are in transit (transportation from storage points to the ports, markets for sales).”
Why banned products remain in markets, abused – NAFDAC
Director, Veterinary Medicine and Allied Products, NAFDAC, Dr. Bukar Ali Usman, said the agency had embarked on the listing of agrochemical marketers in the country to curb the menace of abuse.
He however said the process had been hampered by COVID-19, resulting in the continued sale of banned chemicals in the country.
He said the agency continues to sensitize the public to ensure they adhere to instructions on all products by manufacturers.
“But, the primary thing is that those that are selling, the products are not being sold by every Dick and Harry. The process to clean that thing is ongoing. It’s not surprising; you might see a few things that these people are selling. We started, like for example, the major producer of some of these agrochemicals, what we told them is that first, they must make sure that all their retailers must be listed. For them to be listed, we said their shops must be in a place that is not close to food materials.
“If you go to some markets, you can see agro-chemicals, the next shop with fruits. We are frowning at that. The attention of NAFDAC offices across Nigeria has been drawn to this. They have been on surveillance. Anywhere they see this, the practice does not continue. There is a wide range of activities that is ongoing,” he said.
He explained that one of the criteria for selling agrochemicals in the country is that sellers must be able to read and write.
According to him, in line with global best practices, the agency is urging product manufacturers to translate the safety procedure into the three major languages in the country namely Hausa, Yoruba, and Ibo. However, none of the products seen in the market by the ICIR carried the translated information yet.
He also fielded questions on why banned products are still in the market. “I want you to understand the sniper, the emphasis there is that the 100ml size is very much available in the market and it is there in every nook and cranny of this country. Most cases of suicide are through the use of that 100ml size. The other aspect of that sniper and co is the original reason they made them so in that quantity is that the smallholder farmers can afford this 100ml size to store their grains. But, unfortunately, it is being abused. Now, we say since these things are being abused and it is becoming a national issue, we said NAFDAC should ban the 100ml packs. So, the 100ml size is banned, it is supposed to be a total ban, it is supposed to take effect from last June, so that by that June, all we said was we would not want to see that 100ml size, not even with the major agrochemical dealers, not to talk of the retailers.
“The condition is that all the 100ml packs, the major retailers will withdraw them to their main stores. They will not be in the open market. So, if they withdraw them back, it is up to them if they like, they can repackage them into the bigger pack size. The process is going on. Unfortunately, this COVID came. The major agro dealer said they would not be able to withdraw all these things until this ban came into effect.”
He said the wholesalers were moving the products back to their warehouses, but the coronavirus pandemic is causing a delay in moving them all.
He also explained that the agency sensitizes meat vendors against the dangers of using chemicals to scare flies away while preparing or selling meat “so that the final food that comes to the human table is not affected.”