For the family of the late Emmanuel Okwuke, banana and plantain have become forbidden fruits. No member of the family dares bring them home. This was after Emmanuel’s life was cut short after he consumed a bunch of his favourite fruit, banana, which he bought on the way home.
The former information and communications technology editor of Daily Independent Newspapers first battled a damaged liver before giving up the ghost on December 24, 2016.
Two years after the incident, his widow, Juli, said their life had been changed forever by the incident.
Recalling how it all started, she said: “In March 2016, he went for an event on Victoria Island and on his way back he bought the banana at the Ketu market. My husband did not like late hour food and he always told me not to prepare food for him when it was late. So, even the food they gave him at the event, he did not taste it. He brought everything home.
“He started eating the banana inside the BRT bus en route to the house. On getting home around 12am, I was inside the room when my mother, who had come to stay with us, woke me up to say my husband had been going to the bathroom since he returned from work.
“I rushed there and he told me since he ate the banana he bought at the market, his stomach had been troubling him. He said he was in the office all day without feeling anything, until he took the fruit. He was also vomiting blood.”
She said he was admitted to a general hospital for four days and later transferred to the Lagos State University Teaching Hospital, Ikeja, for tests.
The widow said it was there the fruit he took last was examined and it was discovered calcium carbide was used in the ripening.
She noted that after some treatment, her husband was fine until he relapsed in July of the same year and was in and out of hospitals until he died on the eve of Christmas.
His liver was said to have been damaged.
Emmanuel was survived by his wife and three girls; Treasure (12), Sharon (9) and Delightsome (3).
Delightsome, the couple’s last child together, was all over this correspondent, as she fondly called him ‘Daddy.’
The mother said the three-year-old called every male visitor to the house, ‘daddy,’ because she had a faint idea of her father.
Juli said banana had become a forbidden fruit in the family.
“Before now, my husband bought bananas, plantains and all kinds of fruit in the house, which we all ate. And that particular Ketu was where he bought the fruit. We had a fridge reserved for fruits.
“But now, everything has changed. I would rather plant fruits in my yard than buy outside. Even my second daughter usually says, ‘Mummy, I cannot buy banana outside. It was banana that killed my daddy.’ Even the last child, you cannot buy banana and give her; she will not collect it. If I am not at home and any visitor brings banana as a gift, none of my children would take it,” she added.
While fighting back tears, Juli said since her husband’s death, things had been hard for the family.
She said her dreams had been shattered by her husband’s most loved fruit.
“When I pass by and see where plantains and bananas are sold, I point at it and say, ‘See what killed my husband,’” she added.
Calcium carbide, a poisonous chemical used in artificial fruit ripening, may be one of the silent, under-reported killers in Nigeria.
The National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control says consumption of fruits ripened with carbide can lead to several diseases, including cancer.
Calcium carbide contains impurities such as arsenic, lead particles, phosphorus, which pose serious health hazards, can also cause heart, kidney and liver failures, NAFDAC had warned.
It said acetylene produced by calcium carbide affects the neurological system and reduces oxygen supply to the brain, which induces prolonged hypoxia.
Experts say because consumption of fruits ripened with carbide usually cause secondary diseases which are slow to manifest, it is often times difficult to get an official statistics of deaths linked to carbide.
NAFDAC began a sensitisation programme earlier in the year to educate traders on the dangers of using carbide to ripen fruits.
However, findings from field and laboratory investigations by our correspondent showed that not only is the substance still in use in some public markets, not many traders cared about its effect on the health of their customers.
Worse still, many Nigerians are unaware of its use and the danger it poses to their wellbeing.
Although NAFDAC says it is criminal to ripen fruit with it, not a single person has either been arrested or prosecuted by the government agency.
Investigations by our correspondent showed that despite several campaigns to stop the use of the harmful chemical, some markets not only ripen their fruit with calcium carbide, the substance is openly sold to anyone who wishes to buy.
Our correspondent visited Iso Ogede on Ikorodu Road, in the Kosofe Local Government Area, where people come from different parts of Lagos to buy plantain in bulk.
On a cursory look, the market appears like an abandoned scrap yard or a dumpsite but after moving through the dusty road, a clearing with displays of plantain becomes visible.
There are stalls lined up on either side of the open field.
Our correspondent, during a five month survey of the market, observed stalls with covered heaps of what appeared to be plantain.
And indeed on several occasions, it was observed that the wrapped heaps were open for their content to be sold to interested buyers.
Every time a buyer enters the market, sellers approach him or her seeking patronage.
Our correspondent observed a stall where a woman, who appeared to be the trader, sat and instructed her assistant (mallam) to wrap her plantain.
While our correspondent stood afar, watched and recorded the process, a man, Usman (not real name), approached him to enquire on his mission in the market.
Our correspondent led Usman to the trader’s stall to assist in negotiating a good price for another set of plantain on the floor in front of the woman.
While the haggling was on, our correspondent monitored what the woman’s assistant was doing.
Our Correspondent observed that the man lumped bunches of plantain together, as thin smokes wafted from underneath.
The smell of the smoke was choking and intolerable, but except for a few reactions of passersby, it appeared everyone in the environment was used to it.
Usman later assisted our correspondent in getting a fair bargain for the plantain from the trader, who was oblivious of our correspondent’s real motive.
The reporter asked Usman about what he had just witnessed the woman’s assistant doing.
“Carbide is used to ripen plantain because some people cannot wait for four to five days that it could take for the normal ripening process. If you use carbide, in less than a day, the plantain will ripen,” he said.
Prodded for more information on how our correspondent can replicate the process, he said: “What you need to do is to get an empty sachet of pure water and put the carbide in it. Then you put little water. You need to be careful when doing it because it can be dangerous. You place the sachet under and cover it up with plantain. By the following morning, check to see what would have happened,” he said.
Usman directed our correspondent to a stall where an elderly woman who should be in her late 70s sold the killer chemical for N100 per portion.
Our correspondent bought some of the chemical and later threw them away.
During another visit, this reporter witnessed another trader repeating the process as narrated by Usman.
However, on other occasions, some traders were observed covering up their plantains with sacks without applying calcium carbide.
In Inu Koto, Ketu, where truckloads of banana are usually delivered to a horde of buyers in a decrepit marshy pit, there was no such open ripening.
Our correspondent gathered that the bananas were usually brought from Osun, Oyo, Ondo, Ekiti, Edo, Ondo states.
Some of the traders, who insisted that the use of carbide was not allowed in the market, said some retailers who bought from them sometime used calcium carbide.
A market leader, Akeem Oyebanji, said traders in the market usually covered up the unripe bananas without using calcium carbide.
“Carbide is a poison. What we do is to cover the bananas and after three days, they will be ripened. I don’t use carbide,” he said.
Another trader, who identified himself only as Kamorudeen and claimed to have been in the business of selling bananas for about 12 years, said the use of calcium carbide in the market was a punishable offence.
Our correspondent took a random survey of 10 passersby, including a trader, mechanic, driver, hawker, student, tricycle rider, on their awareness of calcium carbide.
However, only two persons said they knew about it. The other eight persons said they were not aware of it or its use in fruit ripening.
Three others, who were spotted buying plantain at Ketu, gave different responses when questioned on the subject.
A man, who identified himself only as Godwin, said he loved to buy ripe plantain and did not know anything about calcium carbide.
When our correspondent tried educating him on it, he said he did not believe it.
Godwin said, “I am a science student by the grace of God. All these things are just oyinbo (white men) ideas. People that have been eating these things for a long time are fine. I don’t know whether the traders use carbide or not, all I know is that I need ripe plantain. If it is not ripe, my children will not like it.”
A trader, Adesanya Funke, said she believed that frying the plantain “detoxifies it,” adding that she tried to always wash her fruits to avoid contaminants.
Calcium carbide experiment
Our correspondent obtained samples of two fruits – banana and plantain – to test them for calcium carbide.
The experiment, which was done in July 2018, covered Gbagada, Ketu, Mushin, Ikeja, CMS, Ajah and Lekki areas of Lagos.
Ten samples of fruit collected from the areas were taken to Searchgate Laboratories Limited, an accredited analytical laboratory services company and member of the Institute of Public Analysts of Nigeria.
After a week of analysis and testing for ripening with calcium carbide, the results were returned.
According to the report, seven of the 10 samples were ripened with calcium carbide, while three were ripened through a natural process.
“All samples that are physically suspended (x) are artificially ripened with calcium carbide, while those not physically suspended (-) are not artificially ripened with calcium carbide. In addition, all samples analyzed are found containing hazardous elements: arsenic and phosphorus are artificially ripened with calcium carbide and those that do not contain the mentioned elements are not ripened with calcium carbide.
“In conclusion, the results above indicate that the samples from Ketu (banana and plantain), Ajah (plantain), Lekki (banana and plantain), Ikeja (banana) and CMS (banana) are all ripened with calcium carbide, while the samples from Kosofe (plantain), Mushin (plantain) and Gbagada (plantain) are not ripened with calcium carbide,” the report from Searchgate said.
There are, however, arguments on the two elements (phosphorus and arsenic) highlighted by the laboratory as evidence of calcium carbide.
A scientist, who did not want to be identified, said while arsenic might be poisonous and injurious to health, phosphorus was a needed nutrient present in all fruits.
He noted that it was difficult to test the use of calcium carbide in fruit ripening.
“Phosphorus is a nutrient present in virtually all fruit. However, arsenic is poisonous. It is a toxic heavy metal and affects the renal system. It is not only in calcium carbide that arsenic is found. It can come from the soil where the fruit is planted. The fact that I see arsenic in fruit does not totally mean calcium carbide is used to ripen it,” he said.
The World Health Organisation may have also confirmed this when it said arsenic is naturally present at high levels in the groundwater of many countries.
The WHO, however, said long-term exposure to arsenic could cause cancer and skin lesions, adding that it had been associated with cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
Sweet fruit, slow death
An emeritus professor of Food and Environmental Chemistry, Faculty of Science, University of Lagos, Bolanle Osuntogun, said accumulated effect of taking chemically-induced fruits might be responsible for inexplicable cancers in the society.
She said, “The use of calcium carbide is toxic to the human body. Arsenic is one of the heavy toxic metals released which affects the body. It could have adverse effect on the kidney and the liver.
“The effects are not immediate. They take time to manifest. There are many things that cause cancer now that people simply cannot explain. That is why cancer is endemic now. While we can say explicitly that smoking causes cancer of the lung, there are other forms of cancer that are hard to pin down to anything.”
The Head of Department of Family Medicine and Consultant, LASUTH, Dr Shodipo Oluwajimi, said the case of the late journalist, Emmanuel Okwuke, might not be isolated.
He explained that the problem most times was that unlike Emmanuel, many patients who visited hospitals with similar symptoms could not recall the last thing they consumed.
Oluwajimi said the diagnosis was, therefore, usually mixed up.
“The truth is that most of the cases are under-diagnosed. Most of the time patients present with features of gastroenteritis (stomach flu). Maybe they have taken a meal or taken some fruits and they developed some passage of loose stools, some abdominal pains and fever.
“However, a lot of time, the patients may not be able to give you an accurate history of what precipitated that. So, what we noticed is that we have been missing a lot of the diagnosis that have been occurring. It is therefore difficult to directly link the use of these substances. This may also be because a lot of people take these fruits and vegetables as part of their regular diet,” he added.
The doctor, however, said the traders applying the chemicals were more at risk because they had direct contact with the substance.
The Director, Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, NAFDAC, Sherif Olagunju, said the agency had also gone rounds market in the country, including Lagos, to conduct tests on fruits, using local and international laboratories.
He said over 2,000 samples had been collected from the six geo-political zones.
The director noted that although the results were mixed, with some ‘good’ and others ‘not too good’, there was nothing yet to warrant a declaration of an emergency.
“Internationally, artificial ripening is not something that is not permissible. It is permissible under certain conditions. In the case of ripening of fruits like plantains and oranges, one of the approved agents is ethylene gas. It is safe because it is natural.
“However, when people take calcium carbide and put water into it, it emits a gas called acetylene. Acetylene behaves the same way as ethylene, but they are different.
“What they do locally is to put the plantain on a pallet and then put the carbide under. They put water into the carbide and the gas is emitted.
“When the acetylene gas touches the body of the plantain, it ripens it. The gas, however, is not usually retained on the body of the plantain making it difficult to test for the gas on the plantain.
“But when they were applying the gas, some particles or dusts of the carbide falls on the plantain. If you pick any of the plantain that the particles fall on, then you can identify certain contaminants that are in the carbide and then you can analyse it.”
Olagunju said the agency had intensified efforts at public enlightenment, adding that some markets had also been placed under constant surveillance.
He noted that to discourage the use of calcium carbide for fruit ripening, the importation of calcium carbide had also been placed under restriction.
“An importer of calcium carbide is required to obtain from the agency Permit-to-Import a certain justifiable quantity every year. The importer is also required to obtain Permit-to-Clear any importation any quantity within limit of approved quantity on the permit to import. If not an end user, the importer is expected to obtain a Local Purchase Order from a verified end user,” he added.
The director said NAFDAC inspectors now monitors the storage, use and distribution of calcium carbide, adding that a fraction of the chemical used by artisans in the unorganised private sector, especially welders and panel beaters, might be the source of leaks leading to misuse.
The director, pharmaceutical services, Lagos state ministry of health, Mrs. Moyo Adejumo, while saying that the use of calcium carbide was rampant, urged residents of the state to report any use of the substance in fruit ripening.
“The ministry of health and NAFDAC have been creating awareness and encourage members of the public to make report to relevant authorities. Where there is concrete evidence that this chemical is being used in artificial ripening of fruit and vegetables, we encourage prompt reporting for action,” she added.
The Iyaloja General of Lagos State, Folashade Tinubu-Ojo, declined response despite repeated calls and test messages from our correspondent.