Research was conducted by the Aga Khan University, in collaboration with Japan’s Jichi Medical University, with the findings presented at the seminar Heavy Metals, Food Safety and Child Development at AKU on Monday, 5 December.
Researchers examined common sources of lead and arsenic exposure across rural and urban areas of Pakistan, with a focus on low- to middle-income areas of Karachi and in Gambat, rural Sindh. To determine the results, researchers looked at foods, petrol, drinking water, house-dust and soil. Blood samples were taken from pregnant women, newborns and young children to assess the health risk of these vulnerable groups.
While potatoes presented the highest risk of lead exposure for pregnant women, and boiled rice for children, it was chicken that displayed a concerning level of arsenic. Regardless of the type of cookware used, it had 15 more times the chemical element than potatoes, and up to five times more than lentils that had been cooked in identical water.
Dr Zafar Fatmi and Dr Abdul Ghani, from the department of community health sciences at AKU, and Dr Ambreen Sahito, research coordinator for the study, who called on a higher quality of drinking water, said: “Water standards do need to be considered. The government needs to provide a safe drinking water supply for communities living along the riverbanks as groundwater is a well-known source of arsenic.
“Equally important are food standards. We suspect that chicken feed or vaccines given to poultry could be the source of arsenic in meat.” The doctors highlighted that the Pakistani regulatory authorities should follow in the footsteps of the US Federal Drug Authority and ban the use of arsenic-based poultry vaccines.
Despite this, the public have been encouraged to continue the consumption of chicken. “While more research is needed on this topic, it’s important to note that people shouldn’t stop eating chicken altogether as it is an important source of protein,” said Fatmi. “For the public, health risks from arsenic exposure are not only determined by the amount of toxins found in food, but also by the rate of consumption and the body mass (height and weight) of the consumer.”
In collaboration with Japan, epigenetic studies are now underway to look into how lead and arsenic exposure can affect genes and potentially lead to chronic diseases. This research would help provide a better understanding into the long-term impact that heavy metals have on public health.