Apart from its various industrial uses, calcium carbide is increasingly becoming popular as a means of force-ripening fruits in many urban communities across the country, in spite of the potential health risks involved.
Unfortunately, very little attention, if any, is being paid by the relevant health and regulatory authorities to this dangerous practice which has been outlawed in several countries across the world.
A visit to the Garki Market in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) and the Maraba Fruits Market, also known as Orange Market, in Nasarawa State revealed that the markets were full of varieties of fruits that were artificially ripened.
Recent investigations revealed that some unscrupulous traders were fond of applying various chemicals, including Calcium Carbide (CaC2) and formalin, to force-ripe fruits for sales to unsuspecting consumers.
A trader in Maraba Fruits Market, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that over 10 types of fruits, including banana, plantain, mango, African star apple (Udara in Ibo and Agbalumo in Yoruba), as well as avocado pear and orange were ripened via chemically induced processes.
He said that over 30 trailers usually ferried fruits into the market every day, adding, however, that over 80 per cent of the fruits might not be suitable for human consumption.
A meat seller in Garki market, who also preferred anonymity, said that he had been observing the unwholesome fruit-ripening process for a very long time, adding that the practice had now become a norm for most fruits traders in the market.
“When they bring unripe fruits into the market, the traders would gather them under the shed and sprinkle the powdery chemical or spray the chemical on them. They then cover the treated fruits with sacks or canvas for a few days.
“The ripening agents speed up the fruits ripening process; as most of the fruits were picked before they were fully ripe,’’ he said.
The man, however, noted by the time the sacks or canvases were removed, the fruits might not be looking attractive, as they would be unevenly coloured.
However, a trader in the Maraba Orange Market, who simply identified himself as Alhaji Tajudeen, rejected the claims that the ripening process of most fruits in the market was induced with the application of calcium carbide and other chemical substances.
He argued that most fruits sellers in the Maraba Orange Market would never engage in such unwholesome practice, adding that he could, however, rule out entirely the possibility of the practice in the market.
He said most of the fruits being sold in the market were usually brought from Benue, Katsina, Gombe and Nasarawa states, adding, however, that the fruits packaging methods always made the fruits to become ripe on time.
Besides, Tajudeen said that the market task force would never tolerate the use of chemicals to force-ripe fruits, vowing that anyone caught in the act would be handed over to the police and banned from trading in the market.
Sharing similar sentiments, a trader in Wuse market, who identified himself as Idi, said that the act of ripening fruits with chemicals did not exist openly in the market.
He, nonetheless, could not rule out the possibility of bringing chemically ripened fruits for sales in the market.
Idi, however, believed that some middlemen usually perpetrated such acts on the farm and in warehouses because they engaged in the bulk purchase of fruits.
An agriculturist, Dr Tunde Arosanye, also shared similar sentiments.
He said that some middlemen, who bought fruits from farmers in farms, could be engaged in artificial fruits ripening with calcium carbide and formalin.
Arosanye, who is the National Coordinator of Zero Hunger Commodities, lamented that the act had created a bad image for farmers.
He described the act as an unwholesome practice which should be stamped out at all costs, in view of its health hazards and other implications.
Arosanye said that those middlemen, who were usually engaged in such act, were always in a hurry to sell the produce and make money.
“Some fruits and vegetables, which naturally take 12 to 15 days to ripe, are being compelled to ripen forcefully with carbide and other substances.
“They do this so as to make quick money without recourse to the natural maturation periods of the fruits and vegetables,’’ he said.
Arosanye noted that such unscrupulous middlemen also used pesticides such as Acetamiprid and Imidacloprid on vegetables to make them ripe on time and look attractive to buyers.
However, Dr Bidemi Ojeleye, National President, Federation of Bee keepers Association of Nigeria, condemned the act, saying that most pesticides that were applied to the fruits and vegetables were injurious to human health.
He said that some of the pesticides being applied to the fruits and vegetables contained cancer-causing agents, which could also harm the brain, while interfering with the development of the soil.
Ojeleye said that although pesticides were beneficial to farmers, particularly in efforts to control pests and prevent plant diseases; most of the chemicals inadvertently destroyed the colonies of bees which pollinated plants.
Some fruit sellers in Dutse and Bwari markets, however, denied using calcium carbide and other substances to force-ripe fruits such as oranges, banana, plantain, pawpaw and pineapple, among others.
The traders, however, conceded that they usually adopted natural ripening systems for their produce.
“We don’t engage in the unwholesome practice of using carbide; instead, we use pack the fruits in sacks and keep them away from sunlight for a few days in order to make them ripe.
“We also ripen our fruits by spreading them out under the sun or in warm areas to make them to become ripe quickly,’’ said Mrs Florence Ojimba, one of the traders.
Mrs Dorothy Bernard, a fruit seller at Dutse market, however, confirmed that the habit of force-ripening fruits was very rampant in the market.
She said some of the traders were afraid to admit their involvement in the practice because of environmental officers who usually came to apprehend those traders who used carbide to ripen fruits.
Bernard said that if traders were not using calcium carbide to force-ripe fruits, environmental officers would not be coming to raid the market at times and apprehend offending traders.
“Some of us use carbide to force-ripe our fruits whenever we buy immature fruits that can spoil very quickly but using carbide will make the fruits to become ripe on time; this enables us to recoup our investment and avoid losses.
“Though, we know that using carbide is not good for consumer’s health but we normally use it in a moderate way, and most of the time, we wash the fruits very well with clean water before selling them,’’ she said.
Mr Ike Ubaka, an agriculturist, said that application of calcium carbide and formalin on fruits always put the fruits under severe pressure to become ripe prematurely.
He said that the practice usually distorted the generic process, natural taste and flavour of such fruits.
Ubaka said that the natural agents responsible for the fruit ripening process would naturally be destroyed and this could have some side effects on the consumers.
He, however, warned that it was not only fruits and vegetables that were affected, saying that imported frozen chickens and gizzards as well as some canned fruits were fortified with chemicals that could damage human health.
Ubaka also challenged the regulatory agencies to engage in series of research on the safety and wholesomeness of certain fruits, vegetables and canned fruits that were imported into the country.
He underscored the need for the action because of the dangers of chemically preserved or chemically ripened fruits to Nigeria’s economy and the health of its citizens.
All the same, Dr Abdulrahim Abdulrashed, Consultant Family Physician, NISA Premier Hospital, Abuja, said that the use of calcium carbide and other chemicals to force-ripe fruits and vegetables was unwholesome, as it could cause severe damage to the vital organs of the body.
“Calcium carbide is a chemical compound that is industrially used in the production of calcium cyanamide for fertiliser and also in welding iron.
“The chemical is very dangerous and its consumption is deadly because it contains traces of arsenic and phosphorus, which both have dangerous effects on the human body and could lead to organophosphate poisoning,’’ he said.
Abdulrasheed also noted that apart from using chemicals that accelerate the fruit ripening process, the use of pesticides to force-ripe fruits could damage the people’s health.
The physician said that if chemicals were used to accelerate a fruit-ripening process, the fruits always contained residual components of the chemicals, which the body might not be able to digest after consumption.
He said that the chemical components could affect the liver, kidney and throat; while leading to various conditions such as anxiety, emotional trauma, restlessness, confusion, tremors and seizures or even coma, depending on specific body reactions.
He challenged the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) to swing into action by inspecting fruits and vegetables in the market to determine those treated with chemical contaminants or additives used above the permitted levels.
Abdulrasheed said that all approved pesticides and chemicals and their usage should be evaluated by NAFDAC before registration for sales to ensure their safety to human health and the environment.
“Through these evaluations, NAFDAC could ensure the overall safety of all consumers and order the immediate removal of any product with potential risks from the market immediately.
“NAFDAC and the relevant agencies should educate fruit dealers on the danger of using chemicals to ripen fruits meant for human consumption and ensure effective monitoring to avoid unnecessary deaths,’’ he said.
He, nonetheless, advised the people to ensure adequate washing of fruits before consumption by keeping the fruits under running water for a few minutes to wash away the chemicals.
He particularly warned pregnant women to desist from consuming such fruits or vegetables because the chemical contaminants in them could be injurious to them and their unborn babies.
Sharing similar sentiments, Dr Mustapha Bature, Clinical Mentor, Kebbi State Primary Health Care Development Agency, said that the consumption of fruits that were forced to become ripe with the aid of calcium carbide could cause serious health conditions like cancer.
He said that such fruits were not fit for human consumption because such chemicals used in force-ripening the fruits contained some radio-active elements.
According to him, people, who are exposed to silicon carbide, are likely to go down with lung cancer.
Bature said that the findings of a research conducted on certain factory workers, who were exposed to silicon carbide, indicated that some of the workers developed lung cancer after prolonged exposure.
He reiterated that prolonged exposure of humans to silicon and calcium carbide could cause cancer.
Bature, however, advised the people to always wash their fruits under running water for about two to five minutes, so as to wash away the chemical pollutants before their consumption.
He called on the government to introduce a national policy that would outlaw artificial ripening of fruits with chemicals, adding the National Orientation Agency and other stakeholders should educate the public on the best ways of identifying such fruits.
“We need a cancer free society; therefore, continued consumption of such fruits will make the prevalence of cancer in the society to be high.
“The tacit exposure to cancer from carbide-ripened fruits may not allow Nigeria to have a cancer free society in a near future.
“It is important for the government to look into the artificial ripening of fruits and ensure that such practice is put under control,’’ he added.
He also urged public health officials in local government councils across the country to ensure that the fruits being sold are not forced to become ripe artificially to enable Nigeria to have a cancer-free society.