“Machher jhol khaabe? (Would you like some fish curry?)” The air in Bengal is almost always filled with chatter about special dishes of fish — with much debate around “chingri na illish (prawn or hilsa)”. But other than Bengalis, people from coastal areas in India too feel that a meal without fish seems incomplete.
With the advent of monsoons in July, the fishing season kick-starts in the Southern states after a break of almost two months. However, this time around, there seems to be another danger lurking for fish lovers. In a series of shocking events, health authorities recently seized nearly 10,000 kg of formalin-laced fish at the border check post of Arayankavu in Kerala’s Kollam district. A toxic chemical, formalin is used to preserve bodies and prevent its decay in mortuaries.
A total of 21,600 kg of fish — including 7000 kg of prawns and 2600 kg of other species — with traces of formalin had been seized after the launch of ‘Operation Sagar Rani’. Not just that, after Nagaland prohibited the sale of formalin-laced fresh fish products, the Kohima district administration seized such products treated with preservatives from four vehicles, worth about Rs 10 lakh. Hitting the panic button, the news created chaos among consumers in the major fish-eating states.
How to detect formalin in food?
Shedding light on the first sign one should notice, Dr Ritika Samadar, the chief dietitian at Max Hospital says, “Fish preserved with formalin will be stiff, hard scales, no fishy smell and no flies around.” Dr Kunal Das, principal consultant of Gastroenterology at Max Super Speciality Hospital adds, “Formalin in food can be easily detected by chemical based tests which change colour due to presence of formalin.”
Below are a few more ways recommended by Dr Joydeep Ghosh from Fortis Hospital in Kolkata to find out whether the fish has been preserved with formalin:
* If the fish is preserved with formalin, it gives out a very pungent smell.
* If the fishes are preserved with formalin, it will not have any flies sitting on it as flies do not wander near the formalin-preserved fishes.
First step to treat formalin-laced fish
“The only way to do away with the formalin on fishes is to wash it in running tap water for 10-12 minutes. Merely soaking it in water will not be sufficient,” Dr Ghosh suggests.
Rapid detection kits, developed by Central Institute of Fisheries Technology in Kochi, for checking adulteration of fresh fish with formaldehyde and ammonia, are the best way to test the fish. The kits are handy and consist of simple paper strips, reagent solution, and standard chart for comparing results.
A person wanting to test the fish will just have to remove the strip and rub it on the fish. Then put one drop of solution on the paper strip and check if the colour changes. If it turns dark blue, then it means that the fish is contaminated. The colours are indicated on the package so that a consumer can get the result on the spot.
What is formalin?
“Formalin is a dangerous and anti-decomposition agent. It is a colourless flammable chemical used in pressed wood products, fabrics, insulation materials,” Dr Das says, adding that it is also used as fungicide, germicide, and disinfectant. In mortuaries it is used as a preservative for bodies and organs.” Dr Samadar calls formalin a “colorless chemical substance, which is highly toxic”.
Harmful health effects of formalin
“Short term damages for formaldehyde are watery eyes, coughing, wheezing, nausea and skin irritation. Formaldehyde increases risk of leukemia, blood cancer and other lymphomas. International agency for research on cancer and US FDA both classify formaldehyde as a human carcinogen,” Das also says. Shedding light on how serious the complications can be, Samadar says, “Exposure to it causes irritation to mucous membrane like throat, respiratory tract causing sore throats, bronchitis and pneumonia. Can also cause allergic reaction. It is considered carcinogenic and exposure for long can cause various cancers. Formalin causes kidney and liver problems.”
Symptoms of formalin in the human body
Dr Ghosh from Fortis Hospital in Kolkata lists down the various effects it can have on human health:
* Gastrointestinal concerns like vomiting and diarrhea
* Upset stomach
* Harmful effects on liver
* Skin diseases, if the chemical comes in contact with the skin
* If the person suffers from asthma, the respiratory issues can worsen
* Watery eyes and can start itching
* Can have serious consequences, like malignancy, leading to cancer
While the widespread use of formalin is a shock in many cities, the reason that formalin turned into the favourite preservative for the fishing industry is that once the component is laced into fish or other sea produce, the seafood stays intact for many days — promising better market value for the old stock. However, it needs to be stopped before it spreads deadly ailments among people all across the country to alarming levels.