22 May 2013

EcoWaste Coalition Urges DA to Ban Rice Sacks with Lead-Containing Markings

The sacks used as primary packaging for rice, the nation’ s staple food, should be totally safe from lead, a toxic chemical.

As the country moves towards rice self-sufficiency as exemplified by the export of some 35 metric tons of aromatic, long-grain and organic black rice to the United Arab Emirates, it is important that our rice and its packaging are safe from contaminants such as lead.

The EcoWaste Coalition, a toxics watchdog, made this assertion after detecting lead up to 2,605 parts per million (ppm) in the painted markings of 59 out of 125 rice sacks that it obtained from rice dealers in 10 cities last month.

As part of its advocacy against hazardous chemicals in products and wastes, the group bought 125 empty rice sacks for P5 to P10 each, representing 100 brands, from various market vendors in the cities of Caloocan, Makati, Mandaluyong, Manila, Marikina, Muntinlupa, Pasay, Pasig, San Juan and Quezon.

Through a portable X-Ray Fluorescence (XRF) analyzer,  the group found lead in the range of 124 ppm to 2,605 ppm in 59 of the 125 samples (47%), exceeding the US limit of 90 ppm for lead in paint and surface coatings.

The other 66 samples (53%) had low or non-detectable levels of lead, indicating that rice sacks can be designed and labelled without using leaded dyes, inks or paints.

The group promptly alerted Department of Agriculture Secretary Proceso Alcala, as well as Food and Drugs Administration Director Kenneth Hartigan-Go, about its findings and urged the authorities to prohibit the use of lead in rice packaging materials, and to require rice millers to only use unleaded sacks and to observe standard labelling requirements, which should include “no lead dye, ink or paint ”on the label.

In response, the DA through Undersecretary and Chief of Staff  Emerson Palad transmitted the EcoWaste findings to Asst. Sec. Dante de Lima of the National Rice Program, Asst. Sec. Edilberto de Luna of the National Corn Program, Orlando Calayag of the National Food Authority, Eufemio Rasco of PhilRice and Leo Cañeda of the Bureau of Agricultural and Fisheries Product Standards for their “information, guidance and appropriate action.”  

Usec. Palad told the DA officials that “the discovery of lead in food packaging materials causes alarm because of its health hazards, particularly for rice consumers.”

“We should emphasize that lead was detected not only in the outer portions of the sacks, but in the inner sections as well. We should further stress that, in most cases, we also detected traces of arsenic, chromium and mercury in sacks that tested positive for lead,” wrote Aileen Lucero, Acting National Coordinator of the EcoWaste Coalition in their common letter to DA and the FDA.

"Our study is limited to determining the presence of lead in rice sacks, and excludes any analysis of lead in rice grains. As such, our study does not establish any association between the leaded sacks and the grains contained in those sacks,” she clarified.

In their letter, the EcoWaste Coalition elaborated why the government should immediately act on its findings:

1. The lead-painted designs may expose handlers (the pahinante) to lead, posing occupational health risk to the workers and their families as well (i.e., when the worker brings lead dust home with him).

2. The lead-painted markings will come off as the rice-filled sacks are moved from one place to another, potentially spreading leaded paint chips in different areas.

3. Leaded sacks will, in time, be disposed of, contributing to the lead-containing discards in the waste stream that are often dumped in municipal waste dumpsites and landfills.

4. Used rice sacks have a variety of uses, and the use of lead-laced sacks may contribute to some degree of lead exposure.

Rice sacks perform many other uses such as their use as eco-bags, as containers for recyclables and other discards, as storage for disaster relief goods and even as materials for fun games, the EcoWaste Coalition said.

According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, lead exposure affects multiple organ systems and the systems most affected, , include the cardiovascular, developmental, gastrointestinal , hematological, musculoskeletal, neurological, ocular , renal and reproductive systems.

The EcoWaste Coalition is a national network of more than 150 public interest groups pursuing sustainable and just solutions to waste, climate change and chemical issues towards the envisioned Zero Waste 2020 goal.
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