Eating food wrapped in polythene bags (kaveera) during cooking could expose one to the risk of getting cancer, a new report indicates.
“Food sources such as vegetables, grains, fruits, fish, matooke, posho and shellfish can become contaminated by accumulating metals from being heated in polyethylene bags,” reads the report compiled by Makerere University’s School of Food Technology Nutrition and Bio-engineering.
Whereas different communities in Uganda have traditionally wrapped and prepared different foods in banana leaves, the use of polyethylene bags in place of banana leaves is on the rise.
According to the report which was launched last week, polythene bags contain cancer-causing metals.
The report warns: “Exposure to some metals, such as mercury and lead, may also cause development of autoimmunity, in which a person’s immune system attacks its own cells. This can lead to joint diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, and diseases of the kidneys, circulatory system, and nervous system.”
The report also warns that the heavy metal exposure causes reduced growth and development, cancer, organ damage, nervous system damage, and in extreme cases, death. Prof Noble Banadda, the head of the Agricultural Bio-Systems Engineering at Makerere University, said coloured polyethylene bags (buveera) have even heavier metals with the capacity to cause cancer. “The major metal found is Lead and its migration from the kaveera to the food during cooking at high temperatures is faster,” he said.
According to the report, despite a remarkable growth in the development of food packaging in the past decades, very little attention has been given to the potential risk of bio-accumulation of plastic bag contaminants to human health.
Prof Banadda also notes that use of banana leaves to cook requires skills which are gradually becoming extinct. “It is a tedious job to use banana leaves and they cannot easily be handled in terms of solid waste unlike the kaveera which is convenient because it can be re-used and disposal is easy,” he said.
The scientist also warned that people who buy hot food and pack it in buveera in a period of 45 minutes to one hour also face similar risk. The report comes at a time when Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA) is running a campaign to discourage people from cooking food using polythene bags.
Mr Peter Kaujju, the KCCA spokesperson, said the authority is carrying out mass sensitisation in the slum areas and food joints, discouraging the use of kaveera in cooking as well as packing hot food. “We are alerting people and the last resort for those who decline to comply with the regulation will be arrest and prosecution because the Public Health Act allows us,” he said.
In the 2009/2010 budget, government announced a total ban on all polythene bags as an environmental protection measure. The move by government had sought to prohibit the importation, local manufacture, sale and or use of polythene bags.