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Lead in milk, surgery in kitchen

New Delhi, March 1: Pesticides in packaged water just bobbed up first. There’s plenty else to worry about — from lead in infant food and vegetables to kitchens transformed into operation theatres, experts say.

Food and medical researchers say quality control mechanisms and standards governing food toxins and medical services in India are either less stringent than in developed countries, non-existent, or easily ignored.

They add that while mechanisms for surveillance of toxins and medical services are poor, some health consequences stemming from lacunae in quality standards might even be going unrecognised.

“Many young boys and girls in schools across India with learning disabilities might actually be unrecognised victims of lead poisoning,” said Thuppil Venkatesh, head of biochemistry and director of the National Lead Poisoning Centre at the St John’s Medical College, Bangalore.

His studies in Karnataka have revealed high levels of lead in milk as well as in the air around battery repair shops.

“We find unacceptable lead levels up to 500 metres from such shops,” Venkatesh said. “The analysis was conducted in Bangalore, but such backyard battery repair shops are found in all major cities.”

“There might be regulations against this, but surveillance and implementation is poor,” Venkatesh told The Telegraph.

Children are particularly vulnerable to lead poisoning. Growing children absorb five times more lead than do adults. Some of the lead deposits in their brains, impairing their learning abilities.

Dairy representatives had a few years ago requested a committee monitoring the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act to raise the maximum limit of lead in infant food from 1 part per million (ppm) to 1.5 ppm, an authoritative source said.

“That was a desperate request because they found they just could not meet PFA standards because of high levels of environmental contamination,” said a member of the committee. The PFA committee dismissed the appeal.

Preliminary results from a study supported by the British Department for International Development also indicate that vegetables such as cauliflower, okra (ladies’ finger), and spinach grown in farms around New Delhi and Varanasi have higher than permitted levels of zinc, lead and cadmium.

“The maximum limit for lead in fresh vegetables under Indian standards is 2.5 ppm, which is several times higher than European standards,” said Dolf Te Lintelo, a researcher at Imperial College, London, and study coordinator. Details of this study are expected to be released in March this year.

Health sector analysts in the country have long been lobbying for standards in medicine. “We have standards for electric bulbs, but none for quality in medical services,” said Dr Abhay Shukla, programme coordinator at the Centre for Enquiry into Health and Allied Themes (Cehat), a non-government organisation in Mumbai.

The National Health Policy released last year had urged state governments to enact legislation for minimum infrastructure for quality standards in medical establishments by 2003. No state has passed such a legislation yet.

A Cehat study in western India a few years ago had revealed deficiencies in standards in medical institutions, including the case of a kitchen in an apartment converted into an operation theatre, Shukla said.

The National Accreditation Board for Laboratories of the department of science and technology helps laboratories get certified. “But this is a voluntary programme, only those interested seek certification,” said board director A.K. Chakravarty.

Only 30 pathological laboratories across India have accredited themselves in the past three years since the board began to accredit medical laboratories.

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