15 July 2004, The Telegraph


ATTENTION PLEASE: Parlours often use spurious products that lead to skin eruptions; the book cover (above)

When you step into a neighbourhood beauty parlour, do you ever think how safe the creams and lotions being applied to your face, or body, really are? After all, nine out of 10 unbranded cosmetics that you get on the market have toxic chemicals in them. And many parlours are believed to use these as they get them on the cheap. This is just one of the many pressing consumer issues that a new book on consumer safety touches on.

Is It Really Safe?, written by Soumi Home Roy and published by the Consumer Unity & Trust Society (CUTS) is actually an updated compilation of articles penned by Roy — an activist with CUTS — over the years. The well-researched pieces — on subjects ranging from product safety to food safety — not only highlight the problems, but also suggest solutions, often in terms of government intervention.

Few women would know that the bindis they sport on their foreheads have “para tertiary butyl phenol”, a toxic resin. Or that the hair dyes have “paraphenyline diamine”, a chemical harmful to your skin. Nor do they have any idea of the chemicals used in their eyeliners and eye shadows. No wonder several women who had undergone “beauty treatments” at some beauty parlours in Allahabad broke out in rashes in May 2001. An inquiry found out that the parlours had used spurious or fake products which had flooded the city’s market. Most of the products used were so-called herbal or ayurvedic. But they had no manufacturing or expiry dates or batch and code numbers.

When it comes to cosmetics, the consumer does have a choice. You can steer clear of a beauty salon if you are in doubt about the quality and safety of products it uses. But when it comes to essential food products like edible oils, one really has no choice. The 1987 Behala oil tragedy might have faded from public memory, but the problem still remains. In the infamous incident, 18 people had died and nearly 1,600 people had fallen ill after eating food cooked in rapeseed oil, adulterated with tricresyl phosphate, a deadly chemical. The local ration shop owner, convicted for adulteration, was sentenced to life imprisonment. But as it turned out, the sentence was hardly a deterrent. In August 2003, adulterated oil took the life of three people and 1,700 more fell ill. This time, it was not in Bengal, but in Maharashtra’s Malegaon.

To stop adulteration, the Centre issued the Edible Oils Packaging (Regulation) Order in September 1998 under the Essential Commodities Act of 1955. The order says the quality of edible oils should conform to the standard stipulated by the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act. They must be sold only in sealed packets with labels, declaring the name and address of the manufacturer. The packets should also carry the manufacturing dates and shelf life of the oils.

But the order remains on paper, Roy says in the book. With most states failing to implement it, adulteration of cooking oils goes on unabated. Of 104 mustard oil samples tested last year by the Industrial Toxicology Research Centre in Lucknow, as many as 56 were found adulterated.

There is now a new bugbear — pesticide. From vegetables to milk, food products are now often found laced with pesticide or insecticide. (Remember the Pepsi-Coca Cola controversy involving pesticide?). In a 1986 study on food contaminants in the country, Roy says the Indian Council of Medical Research found that 51 per cent of the food items were contaminated with pesticide residues, some exceeding the “maximum tolerance limit.”

In a foreword to the book, well-known consumer activist Pushpa Girimaji acknowledges that pesticide levels in food is fast becoming a major health concern in the country. “Until recently, adulteration of food was considered to be a major problem. But in the last decade or so, food scientists are recognising contamination of food with pesticide residues, heavy metals and mycotoxins as an equally health problem facing consumers,” she says.

It’s not just the food or products’ safety that the book is devoted to. It also delves deep into safety issues relating to transport and services. In an essay entitled “Does your building follow fire safety norms?,” the author highlights the national building code, formulated by the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS). Most builders flout this code with impunity without bothering to take a no-objection certificate from the fire brigade. But there is little the fire services department can do since it has no power to initiate action against the errant builders in most states. It is only in Delhi that the fire department is empowered to initiate action against violators and declare a building unfit to live in. Roy says it’s for the city development authorities to check the high-rises for fire-fighting measures and report the inadequacies to the fire department, a responsibility the development authorities hardly fulfil.

In the preface, Pradeep S. Mehta , secretary general of CUTS, says it’s the duty of the producers and manufacturers to ensure that the consumers, who pay for the products, get safe goods and service. “Safety is a consumer right. Although the right to safety is protected by the Constitution, the Consumer Protection Act and various other laws enacted by Parliament and state legislatures, the current Indian scenario depicts a very poor enforcement. The need of the hour is to effectively enforce this right,” Mehta says.

Is it too much to expect?