Cancer in Kenya: How Kenyans are eating and bathing themselves to early death

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Cancer in Kenya

Cancer in Kenya

Before you buy that sukuma wiki for your dinner or your favourite toothpaste and anti-bacterial soap, you may need to find out how it is produced if you want to keep your chances of getting cancer low.  

Ten days after the World Cancer Day was marked globally, it is emerging that the rising cases of cancer deaths in Kenya are fuelled largely by cancer-causing substances found in the food we eat everyday as well as the hygiene products in use in our homes.

The most alarming is a recent about turn in US government about substances used to produce antibacterial soaps and handwash that have become very popular in Kenya. Previously, the US government had given the chemical a clean bill of health until independent research proved that it was cancer causing.

The US Foods and Drugs Administration (FDA) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have had to take an about-turn on an earlier decision on Triclosan, a chemical used in the production of antibacterial soaps and toothpaste.  FDA said antibacterial soaps (sometimes called antimicrobial or antiseptic soaps) contain certain chemical ingredients that plain soaps do not. These ingredients are added to many consumer products in an effort to reduce or prevent bacterial contamination.

“A large number of liquid soaps labeled “antibacterial” contain triclosan, an ingredient of concern to many environmental and industry groups. Animal studies have shown that triclosan may alter the way hormones work in the body. While data showing effects in animals don’t always predict effects in humans, these studies are of concern to FDA as well, and warrant further investigation to better understand how they might affect humans,” said FDA in a recent update.

One of the studies conducted on rodents showed that regular use of products with triclosan disrupts the flow of oestrogen. Disruption of the oestrogen has been found to be the main cause of breast cancer in both men and women. “Recent data suggest that exposure to these active ingredients is higher than previously thought, raising concerns about the potential risks associated with their use regularly and over time” said FDA in statement.

Apart from the carcinogenic effect of triclosan, FDA also warned that laboratory studies have raised the possibility that triclosan contributes to making bacteria resistant to antibiotics. “Such resistance can have a significant impact on the effectiveness of medical treatments,” said FDA. Then there is the chemical that is added to shampoo, shower gels and face cleansers to produce foams.

The chemical is known as Sodium Laureth Sulphate and has been listed by the International Agency for Cancer Research, a UN body as lethal carcinogen. The variant of this lethal chemical which is equally cancer causing, Sodium Lauryl Sulphate is used in the manufacture of frangrances, anti-perspirants and deodorants.  Both chemicals penetrate the skin and besides its carcinogenic effect, it is poisons the nervous system as well as liver and kidneys.

A casual look at the most shampoos in our supermarkets and beauty outlets shows that most shampoos whether locally manufactured of imported, have a dose of Sodium Laurate Sulphate.  Closer home, the indiscriminate use of pesticides in farming has been pointed out as one of the main contributor to the rise of cancer in the country.  In the case of Kenya’s favourite vegetable, sukuma wiki, its potential for giving you cancer depends on what pesticides were used by the farmer to keep off pests such as aphids.

The culprit in the case of this popular vegetable is dimethoate, a compound used in most pesticides in the country.  Stanley Mruu, a pest control expert told The People that most commonly used pesticides in vegetable and fruits in Kenya are carcinogenic, meaning that they have substances that directly cause cancer.  “Their effects may come as an acute poisoning or chronic toxicity.

One of the chronic toxicities of pesticides comes about in form of causing cancer,” he says.  Common forms of cancer associated with pesticides include, lymphatic cancer, brain cancer, lung cancer, colon cancer and prostrate cancer  But the use of dimethoate stands out because of its effects on human health. In fact, its use in pesticides has been banned in Europe.

“The EU reviewed the maximum residues levels that are accepted to remain on the produce after harvesting to minimise the cancer risk of this chemical,” he says.  Unfortunately, it is still used in Kenya to produce vegetables for the local market.  Mruu says there are, however, efforts to slowly withdraw the products with dimethoates in Kenyan market.  “The withdrawal of dimethoate was brought about by a ban on its use on all fresh produce exported to the European Union,” he says.

And it is not just sukuma wiki that is protected using pesticides. Pesticides are also used for control of pesticides in many other vegetables. What is disturbing in the fact that the chemicals in question have passed through government standards bodies where they are passed as safe for human use.  The products containing such cancer causing substances are readily available in the Kenyan market that you can pick them up in the neighbourhood shop or supermarket.

Such products are sold without a clear warning that substances used to produce them can cause cancer. In other parts of the world, such products are clearly labelled to caution users.  Asked how accessible the cancer-causing chemicals are in Kenya, Mruu said pesticides are easily accessible all over the country. A visit to any agro-shop near you, will find dimethoates, 2, 4, Ds, Cabaryl, Amitraz, carbendazim, and Alpha-cypermethrin all over,” said the Israel and China trained expert.

Besides the consumers, farmers who use these pestcides are at higher risk of getting cancer because of their long term exposure.  Two years ago, the government placed an inconclusive ban on the use of dimethoates on vegetables and fruits. But this ban is only executed by farmers selling their produce to the EU.  However, many farmers who sell their produce in the local market still use it.

And there is currently no way of stopping them. For example, the vegetables and fruits sold in Nairobi and other urban centres in Kenya do not go through the inspection process.  Mruu says farmers are attracted to the use of the toxic pesticides by many reasons.  “In spite of the danger they pose, such toxic pesticides are preferred by farmers because of their easier availability, high-level effectiveness on pest control, and quite a number like dimethoates are the cheapest,” he says.

The Kenya situation of high cancer risks is not helped by the fact that the government is yet to develop to a policy to regulate the use of pesticides.  “The ministry of agriculture is yet to come up with an appropriate agrochemical policy,” says Mruu.  He says that in today’s pest control strategies on crops and animals, there has been a call to minimize the use of pesticides.

“Indeed, pest and disease control in crops and animals require a new strategy known as Integrated Pest Management (IPM). This is the integration of all available pest control methods and agronomic practices that are safe to humans and the environment. Pesticides in IPM are used only when necessary and only those that are safe to humans and the environment are selected. Quite a number of the carcinogenic pesticides have safer alternatives,” says Mruu.

Source: The People

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