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Is our food safe?

Published:Monday | March 26, 2012 | 12:00 AM

By Garth A. Rattray

Numerous factors impact on our physical and mental health. Aside from genetics (which we can do nothing about), things that affect our psyche and things that affect our bodies (stress, microorganisms, chemicals and radiation from several sources) may have adverse effects that can lead to mental and physical problems, such as learning disabilities, behavioural problems, criminality, diseases and even some cancers.

As one Ministry of Agriculture official that I interviewed deftly explained, it is plausible that the combinations, concentrations and accumulation of all the man-made environmental toxins and radiation are causing several, if not many, of the cancers we see today. After all, one school of thought postulates that for cancers to develop, there has to be a predisposition and biological, chemical or radiation triggers.

It, therefore, spurred me to check on pesticides - any chemical substance, biological agent such as a virus or bacterium, antimicrobial, trap, disinfectant or any device intended for preventing, destroying, repelling or disturbing the mating pattern of or mitigating any pest. The natural pesticides, like liquid soap, tobacco, alcohol, salt, garlic and onion spray preparations, were safe in non-toxic concentrations, but the unnatural, or man-made, pesticides were potentially dangerous, especially for those applying them.

I learnt that, aside from the intended targeted use as herbicides, insecticides and so on, and mode of application (contact or systemic), pesticides are classified according to how toxic they are - from 'extremely hazardous' to 'unlikely to present acute hazard'. The more toxic pesticides are being phased out and we may be left with only fumigants in that class.

Health hazard

Although Jamaica utilises a large and variable number of pesticides, the most toxic one, Lannate, has a short residual action and rapidly disintegrates, in one to two days, into water and carbon dioxide. Less-toxic pesticides take longer to disintegrate (three to seven days) but sunlight and heat accelerate the breakdown. Washing and cooking destroys most pesticides, and peeling fruits removes them.

But what really got my attention was the far more insidious health hazard in our soil. From the work of Professor Gerald Lalor et al and highlighted by Dr Homero Silva, PAHO environmental health adviser, we are reminded that we have high levels of cadmium, manganese, copper, arsenic and lead, individually or combined in several areas. (Only Japan has higher cadmium levels that we do). Jamaica is 10,099 square kilometres, of which 5,130 square kilometres are being used for agriculture. However, according to Dr Silva, only 159 square kilometres is safe from too much heavy metal contamination - and this appears to be within an urban area not traditionally used primarily for agriculture.

High levels of heavy metals have been found in plants and animals. They bioaccumulate and are neurotoxic in elevated amounts - causing IQ reduction, anaemia, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (which is reportedly found in 12 per cent of our children - only Taiwan has a higher percentage of ADHD). There are other implications for our physical health and for the levels of violence that we experience here.

The concern for heavy metal soil contamination was also made public in a recent Jamaica Observer piece ('Cancer in the soil, farmers not aware of contamination', March 11, 2012).

So, although not all local crops are routinely tested for pesticide residue, under normal circumstances, the likelihood of health problems from them appear to be extremely low. But that may not be true for health concerns from our soil.

The heavy metal contamination, coupled with information gleaned from the staunch campaigner for problems associated with soil degradation and resultant inadequate human nutrition, Mark Brooks, is cause for genuine concern and begs for further investigation.

Garth A. Rattray is a medical doctor with a family practice. Email feedback to and