Banned pesticides that cause serious health hazards have been found in fruits, vegetables, milk and milk products and dry fish, according to a FAO-sponsored test at a government laboratory.
The presence of toxic substances in the food samples was three to 20 times the limits set by the European Union, show test results of the National Food Safety Laboratory (NFSL).
Forty percent of the 82 samples contained pesticides that had been banned more than one and a half decades ago for high toxicity.
The banned pesticides include DDT (Dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane), Aldrin, Chlordane and Heptachlor that are extremely harmful to humans.
Carrot, bean, tomato, lettuce, capsicum, banana, apple, pineapple and mango were contaminated with highly toxic pesticides. And the presence of banned pesticide Aldrin was found in milk, according to the NFSL tests.
A number of agriculturists have blamed lax government monitoring at field level for the use of banned pesticides in food. These pesticides are probably being smuggled into the country, as import of the highly toxic substances has been banned for long, they say.
Some 50 percent of the vegetable samples and 35 percent of the fruit samples were contaminated with chemical pesticides, which the lab analysts said are unsafe for humans.
These pesticides are toxic to both humans and animals, say food safety and public health experts.
Accumulation of toxic substances in human body over a long period can lead to cancer, neurological and reproductive problems, said Sridhar Dharmapuri, food safety officer of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Bangladesh.
Heavy metals such as lead, chromium and arsenic also accumulate in the body and may cause kidney and liver failure and abnormality among children, he said.
"It is surprising that these pesticides are found in common food items, despite the fact that these chemicals were banned long ago because of high toxicity," said Syed Nurul Alam, chief scientific officer at Entomology Division of Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (Bari).
A test at the Bari lab also found the presence of banned pesticides in dry fish last year, he said.
The plant protection wing of the Department of Agricultural Extension (DAE) is responsible for regulating and monitoring use of pesticides in farming. Its field offices have specialists and inspectors to look into matters relating to pesticides and plant protection.
DAE Director General Md Abu Hanif Miah told The Daily Star that all field offices have instructions to take action against sales and use of banned and substandard pesticides.
In every upazila, there is a vigilance team to check sales of the prohibited toxic chemicals. It conducts drives with the help of local administration, he said.
"You will not find banned pesticides in stores," he said.
Asked how such pesticides are being used in fruits and vegetables, he said those might have been smuggled into the country.
Ruman Hafiz, chairman of Bangladesh Crop Protection Association (BCPA), claimed, "None of our members deals in banned pesticides, as there is no scope for importing and selling these highly toxic chemicals."
These banned pesticides might be smuggled into Bangladesh from neighbouring countries, said the leader of BCPA, a platform of pesticide marketers in Bangladesh.
"It is the duty of law enforcement agencies to check trade of such prohibited chemicals," he added.
The NFSL also tested samples of rice, turmeric, poultry meat and juices, and found the presence of heavy metals in those.
Arsenic and chromium were present above safe limits in three of 13 samples, and formalin was found in coriander, mango and shrimp, it said.
The presence of lead chromate in turmeric was much higher than the permissible limit set by Bangladesh Standards and Testing Institution.
The NFSL also detected presence of antibiotics in chicken and fish samples. "High microbial populations were found in several samples of pasteurised milk indicating poor processing procedures by the manufacturers," it said.
Dr Subimal Sinha Choudhury, director at the Institute of Public Health (IPH), said the use of pesticide, fertiliser and fish or livestock feeds should come up as a major issue since chemicals or metals start getting into the food chain from production level.
"Regulations should be framed accordingly," he said.
The NFSL test results buttress the previous findings and media reports on widespread food adulteration due to lax monitoring by government agencies.
“The findings are only the tip of the iceberg. The real problem is much bigger,” said Dr Mahmudur Rahman, director at the Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control and Research.
Of the substances found in food, heavy metals like chromium, arsenic and lead can cause cancer and liver and kidney failure, he said.
Harmful chemicals could be put into food either in a deliberate or unsuspecting way. “Unfortunately, it is done deliberately in most cases, and this is very problematic,” said the epidemiologist.
He regretted that the adulterators are hardly punished.
The laboratory could test more food samples, but the most important thing is to enforce related laws, said Rahman.
The government should immediately form the Food Safety Authority to check adulteration and use of harmful chemicals in food, suggested Rahman.
The food ministry said it has drafted rules for implementing the Safe Food Act passed in November last year.
It also wrote to the public administration ministry early this month for appointing chairman and four members for the Food Safety Authority.
"We are trying to go fast," said Food Secretary Mushfeka Ikfat.
The food ministry has already sent copies of the draft rules to 13 ministries for opinions. It will then finalise the draft and send it to the law ministry for vetting, she said.
It might take three months to finalise the rules, added Ikfat.