MAY 18

Chemicals make mangoes forbidden fruits

The Hindustan Times [18 MAY, 2001]

EACH TIME the smell of ripe mangoes wafts by, tempting you to pig out, desist. Mango lovers may not live till ripe old age. That's because the fruits flooding the market are being artificially ripened with a chemical known to cause cancer.

The culprit is calcium carbide and here is how it ends up in your tummy. The raw fruits, mangoes, bananas and papayas, are brought to Delhi by road and reach the wholesale depots. Here the fruits are wrapped in newspapers, and calcium carbide -- in powder form -- is sprinkled on them.

Calcium carbide helps in hastening the ripening process because of the acetylene gas it produces. Acetylene not only changes the colour of the fruit, it also causes enzyme action that breaks down the glucose in the fruit, quickening the ripening.

Studies have revealed that calcium carbide when used for ripening fruits may have a carcinogenic effect. An Agricultural Ministry official says that while calcium carbide is generally used for gas welding (because of the intense heat this chemical generates), its use for ripening fruit is banned.

But wholesale fruit merchants are flouting the ban. "Mangoes come to Delhi from Bangalore, Mumbai and Hyderabad. The fruits are transported raw because if we let them ripen on the tree and then transport them, most of the fruits would rot on the way," explains a fruit dealer.

But he does not see anything wrong in using the chemical. "We do not have adequate storage so we cannot keep the fruits in our godowns for long, allowing them to ripen naturally. And in any case, the chemical does not get inside the fruits, it is only sprinkled outside and everyone washes mangoes before eating," is his absurd excuse.

Even more deadly chemical concoctions coat other vegetables. If you think the seasonal favourite okra is looking exceptionally green, it is because of malathion. "Entire bundles of okra are dipped in malathion to give them a better colour," says Dr J P Dabas of the Pusa Agricultural Institute. "Malathion is a common pesticide but once sprayed, the fruits and vegetables should not be consumed for at least seven days," he adds.

The potency of malathion can be judged by the fact that its consumption is the favourite means of committing suicide among farmers.