The Platform

Bananas at a market in Abuja, Nigeria.

Nigerian farmers have taken to using chemical ripening agents.

Across Nigeria, markets boast an array of fruits, their vibrant colors drawing in consumers. Yet, beneath this beguiling facade lies a pressing public health crisis and a betrayal of consumer trust: the prevalent use of chemical ripening agents.

In the nexus of consumer demand and the quest for profit, the adoption of substances like calcium carbide has surged. This chemical, known for its efficacy in hastening the ripening process of fruits such as bananas, mangoes, and plantains, is also notorious for its health risks, including potential carcinogenic properties and harmful effects on the respiratory and digestive systems.

In response to this alarming trend, Nigerian legislators, in April 2018, pressed the executive branch to curb the sale and consumption of chemically ripened fruits and to prosecute those complicit. Additionally, calls were made for the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) and the National Orientation Agency (NOA) to launch comprehensive public awareness campaigns.

Edward Pwajok, the lawmaker who spearheaded this initiative, illuminated the grave health risks posed by calcium carbide, which contains carcinogenic and radioactive elements. The unchecked use of these chemicals by some farmers and vendors, often unbeknownst to consumers seeking nutritional benefits from fruits, represents a significant public health oversight.

“These acts are reported to cause serious health problems because of their radioactive elements that cause cancer. The application of the noxious chemicals is done by farmers and/or sellers without the knowledge of innocent buyers and consumers who take fruits because of their nutritional value,” Edward Pwajok said.

Moreover, Dr. Grace Olasumbo, a leading nutritionist, has advised consumers to be vigilant about the appearance of fruits and vegetables. In an interview with the News Agency of Nigeria in Abuja, she highlighted the signs of artificial ripening, such as uneven coloring—often patches of yellow amid green. She underscored the urgency of this issue, especially at the onset of the fruit season when the pressure to expedite ripening is most acute.

“The texture will also be hard even when it appears yellow. The fruits will also be low on flavor, less juicy, and often will not be as sweet as they should,” Grace Olasumbo said.

Dr. Olasumbo detailed the severe health implications of ingesting calcium carbide, drawing parallels to its use in firecrackers and pesticides. She described a spectrum of possible adverse effects, including gastrointestinal distress, eye irritations, ulcers, emotional disturbances, and severe skin reactions.

“This is the same chemical that is used to manufacture firecrackers; they are also used as pesticides. When an individual takes in such a poisonous substance, the chemical components would cause a fatal reaction which could affect the liver, kidney, and throat. Intake of calcium carbide has also been found to be the leading cause of various health conditions such as diarrhea, severe gastrointestinal upset, eye problems, ulcers, and emotional trauma. Others are restlessness, seizures, tremors, irritation of the skin, mouth, throat, liver, and cancer,” Grace Olasumbo said.

Anecdotal evidence from a mango seller in Sokoto State, who spoke under the condition of anonymity, reveals that the use of calcium carbide remains widespread, especially during the off-peak season. Describing his method, he mentioned placing unripe mangoes in a specialized container, where they are treated with calcium carbide and left to ripen over several days.

The gravity of this issue is further underscored by NAFDAC’s public warnings against the consumption of artificially ripened fruits. At a recent workshop in Abuja, Prof. Moji Adeyeye, Director General of NAFDAC, decried the unethical practices of some merchants using calcium carbide. She detailed the chemical’s reaction with moisture to produce acetylene gas, mimicking the natural ethylene ripening process but introducing harmful impurities like arsenic and phosphorus into the fruits. These substances, she warned, could lead to a host of severe health problems, including organ failure and cancer.

“Fruits provide the body with micronutrients that improve immunity and prevent diseases among other benefits. Fruit ripening is a unique aspect of plant development, which makes the fruit edible, softer, sweeter, more palatable, nutritious, and attractive. However, the consumption of fruits such as mango, banana, plantain, guava, orange, grape, etc, or any other fruits ripened with calcium carbide is dangerous,” Moji Adeyeye said.

“These fruits do not possess uniform color and are less juicy than when ripened naturally and have comparatively shorter shelf life. Calcium carbide when sprayed with water reacts chemically to produce acetylene, which acts like ethylene and ripens fruits by a similar process. Calcium carbide generally contains impurities such as arsenic, lead particles, phosphorus, etc., that pose several very serious health hazards. Consumption of fruits containing these impurities may cause cancer, heart, kidney, and liver failure. They may also cause frequent thirst, irritation in the mouth and nose, weakness, permanent skin damage, difficulty in swallowing, vomiting, skin ulcers, and so forth. Higher exposure may cause undesired fluid build-up in lungs (pulmonary edema),” Moji Adeyeye stressed.

While artificially ripened fruits may present a facade of ripeness and readiness, the underlying risks they pose cannot be overstated. As Nigeria grapples with this challenge, the concerted efforts of government agencies, informed by scientific research and public education, remain crucial in safeguarding public health.

“NAFDAC has commissioned a scientific study on the best approach towards mitigating the health hazards posed by ripening of fruits with carbides. I have mandated some of my directors and support staff to take these campaigns to the nooks and crannies of this country. We are confident of winning the war against these two hydra-headed public health menaces,” Moji Adeyeye said.

Mutalib Jibril is a third-year Pharmacy student at Usmanu Danfodio University, Sokoto, Nigeria. He's an active member of the campus journalism community, contributing to the News Digest Press at UDUS as both a writer and columnist. Mutalib pens articles under the banner of 'Health Stack,' focusing on various health-related topics. Many of his pieces have been featured in the Nigerian Tribune.