What is in the eggs you eat?
On April 9, the Supreme Court looked for the answer to this question and did not like what they found.
The answer is known to many who frequent the Hazaribagh tannery town. A walk through the area would mean encountering suspicious blue piles of scrap leather. They'd be everywhere - stacked up along the sides of factories, clinging onto the banks of the pitch black canals and ditches, like clumps of weeds, scattered all along the long-stretch of the road that runs through the district and ends at the Institute of Leather Engineering and Technology.
The scraps are all various shades of blue, ranging from lush pastels to a muted steely hue – the colour of slate. They add a variance in colour in what is otherwise a drab landscape made so dead with pollution that there is barely any vegetation.
Whatever scraps aren't found lying about are getting boiled in large vats in any of the squat buildings of this factory district. Or they are getting dried in the sun, taking up field upon field - upon field.
That is what is bagged and sent off to factories to turn into poultry and fish feed.
The waste gets its distinctive blue colour from chromium - chromium (iii) to be exact. An important part of leather tanning is the use of chromium (iii) sulphate and other chromates for processing. When boiled in vats to turn into poultry feed, the pretty blue colour is lost. The chromium in the leather gets catabolised into a dark, woody brown - the colour of chromium oxide.
Chromium – this is what is in the egg you possibly eat. Unfortunately this affects young children - especially those from lower income households disproportionately. Eggs and milk have been shown by scientists, over the years, to contain unsafe levels of lead and chromium.
“We take milk and eggs to be indicators of a good, nutritious diet in children,” says Rimu Byadya, a Brac divisional manager who collects field-level data about health across the country.
“A young child is recommended to eat at least three eggs in a week,” she adds, “especially because this is the most accessible source of protein for the families from the lower socio-economic classes.”
In 2009, Bangladesh Council of Scientific and Industrial Research did one of the most cited researches on eggs to date, and found that one egg on average has a “chromium content of 23.3809 µg, which exceeds adequate daily dietary intake of children up to 8 years of age”. A more recent study of 2014 done by researchers from Independent University, Bangladesh (IUB), found unsafe levels of chromium in poultry meat, liver and gizzards. Referring to the acceptable weekly amount of chromium intake, the study says “one needs to consume only 57.4 g of chicken per week to reach this [the] limit.” That is barely one serving.
Chromium is a carcinogen according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer. “While there is not enough research to link it up to pediatric cancer, it increases the chances of cancer in adulthood,” Dr Zafar Mohammad Masud, the oncology department head of Bangladesh Medical College Hospital.
Are cancer patients in the country ever linked back to heavy metal poisoning in reality? “Not so much. We do not have the infrastructure to screen for heavy metal poisoning, other than arsenic,” says Dr Masud, “The health sector is not at all concerned about this.”
Chromium in eggs, however, barely scratches the surface of how heavy metals from industrial pollution have been contaminating the food chain. Various studies spanning the last two decades have shown that chromium - along with other heavy metals like lead and arsenic - are completely ingrained within the food chain - starting from the soil. That is how they end up in milk.
The latest such study, published last year by a team from Jahangirnagar University, found unsafe levels of chromium in milk. They estimated that per day, an adult will be taking in 0.413 micrograms of chromium when drinking packaged cow milk from popular brands. According to the study, the permissible value is 0.2mg/day for adults. The situation isn't any better for those choosing to shun factory-processed products for the farmer's market, hoping for better quality - milk from cows bred in households exposes the consumer to 0.352 micrograms of chromium per day.
This study comes right on the heels of another in 2014, done by Bangladesh Livestock Research Institute (BLRI), which also found high samples of chromium in milk.
This poses a risk particularly to children. In many children, the daily intake value is higher, while the safe limit is lower.
“A large part of the population cannot afford infant formula milk and are wholly dependent on cow's milk for subsidiary feeding,” said Bachera Aktar, a research coordinator with James P. Grant School of Public Health, Brac University, who works extensively with maternal and infant nutrition.
Children as young as newborn babies are affected by it. “Although a child should be getting all the required nutrients from breastmilk, poor mothers can't sit at home and breastfeed - they need to go out and earn money and often their workplaces pose several barriers to breastfeeding,” said Aktar.
What all these experts sum up is how there is no choice - that everyone's hands are tied. As Byadya says, “We are fighting malnutrition in children. Heavy metal poisoning through food just is not in focus enough.”