Biofuels: a public health hazard?

Jatropha curcas

Jatropha curcas, image courtesy of Biofuels Information Exchange

It has come to my attention that Jatropha curcas (physic nut or purging nut) is being pushed in India as a biofuel crop (for oil) and that there is now an emerging public health problem there due to accidental poisoning of children.

An Indian member of the listserv HIFA2015 to which I belong, Pankaj Oudhia, reported increased hospitalisations of children across the nation during the Jatropha fruiting season in 2010. The seeds are tasty but it only takes 3 or 4 seeds and you end up in hospital.  Five children died. Cultivated in fields as the biofuel crop, he also reported it was deliberately planted in schools. 

Here at CABI, our scientists, projects and information specialists have much to offer on the topic of biofuels and in 2008 we launched the Biofuels Information Exchange. So I went straight there to see if they had discussed Jatropha in their Forum, which they had (see “Is jatropha really the 'miracle' biofuel crop that some profess it to be?” from Carole Ellison).

AS a biofuel crop its in its infancy and has many downsides, not least on food security & the fact that you can’t use the husks for feed.  One of the reasons it was even considered was that as a weed (originating in South America) it was thought likely to be easy & cheap to cultivate. Turns out to make it productive you do have to go heavy on the fertiliser (expensive) and it also can harbour a mosaic virus. Only in passing was it pointed out that the seeds were poisonous and then only with reference to its use for animal feed.

One of the issues raised in this HIFA2015 communication was the lack of knowledge in the local communities about the poisonous nature of the seeds, so that parents could not forewarn their children.  And obviously the authorities had no idea otherwise they’d not have planted them in schools!

Definitely a lack of communication between botanists, agriculturalists, governments and medics when it comes to people’s health.

Let’s not get complacent here in Europe. WE all need reminding which plants are poisonous or irritating in gardens and in the hedgerows. Then we should tell children not to eat or touch them. Just because a bird is eating a juicy red berry does not make it edible for humans or even your pet dog.

Knowing a traditional name helps even us….deadly nightshade is a dead give-away isn’t it?

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Xmas camels, tobacco and kids

Camel_7362C     Copyright: W.Norris

My daughter decided to make this camel for the annual school Xmas tree competition. To her, at age 11, camels are “cuddly” and linked to the Three Wise Men, part of the Christmas Story. To me, whilst overseeing her sewing efforts, I’d made the link to the 2 empty packets sitting on my desk waiting for me to write a global health blog.

       You can see them either side here…   Fags_7366 Fags_7367

They are cigarette packets but actually only one has ever contained tobacco…can you tell which? Of course you can: it's the one which says Smoking Kills. But that's a UK packet, you don't see that message dominating on packets sold elsewhere…And you have to be able to read.

And that’s the point.

 

 Candy (sweets) that mimic tobacco products

This is marketing at its best… the package shape and silver foil construction, the  same azure blue sky (it really is), the association of Camel or Sphinx with the romance of Egypt and the  yellow desert: these link the two packets to each other & therefore their contents. But the packet with the Sphinx contained chocolate sticks covered in rice paper, accurate copies of adult cigarettes, and was purchased by my daughter from her favourite sweet shop. She loved them; I objected.

And I had to explain why, because she didn’t know. She had not made the connection.

But I had. When I was a child, pink-tipped white candy sticks were my favourite and I knew that they were a kids' version of adult cigarettes.  Kids love to pretend to be adults. The reason I knew of course was that THEN many adults including my father smoked. I even used to buy him mini-cigars for Xmas, despite the fact that I loathed the smell (it made me feel sick). The white candy sticks are still on sale but they are poor imitations of cigarettes so the link to smoking is now so remote that I’ve not be too worried.

Sphinx candy sticks are a different matter. They operate on a much subtler level.

We are still trying to stop children and adolescents from taking up tobacco smoking, even though overall adult smoking is in decline and is reinforced by the ban on smoking in public places in many European countries (Although Belgium has just relaxed that!).

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