Delhi has been breathing cancer, it may be eating it too.
For the Capital, already battling toxic air, bread is the latest health scare. A study unveiled by the Centre for Science and Environment on Monday found 84% of 38 popular brands of bread laced with chemicals known to cause cancer.
Potassium bromate and potassium iodate were found in samples of breads, including pav, buns, and ready-to-eat burger and pizza, lifted from across the city.
Potassium bromate is a category 2B carcinogen — that can cause cancer. Potassium iodate is known to trigger thyroid disorder.
Indian manufacturers use the two chemicals for treating flour while making bread, the study said. India’s food safety regulator, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), does not ban these two chemicals.
An additive that helps hold bread dough together, potassium bromate is known to cause cancer in thyroid, kidney and abdominal lining. The UK, Canada and Sri Lanka are among the countries where the chemical is banned.
“The study, conducted by CSE’s Pollution Monitoring Laboratory (PML), says Indian bread manufacturers use potassium bromate and potassium iodate for treating flour while making bread,” a statement released by the CSE said.
“The use of these chemicals in the bread-making sector has been banned in many countries because they are listed as hazardous for public health: one is a category 2B carcinogen (possibly carcinogenic to humans) and the other could trigger thyroid disorders. India does not ban their use,” it said.
The study was conducted between May 2015 and April this year.
The concentration of potassium bromate/iodate was the highest in white bread, buns and pav. It ranged from 22.52 parts per million (ppm) to 11.52 ppm. For brown bread, this range is between 8.16 and 1.15 ppm.
In India, there are no set standards for the presence of the two agents in final products. The limit is 50 ppm in flour, not the final product.
“We re-confirmed the presence of potassium bromate/iodate in a few samples through an external third-party laboratory,” said Chandra Bhushan, deputy director general, CSE, and head of the centre’s lab.
The food companies named in the study denied using the chemicals. Spokespersons for Britannia, Jubilant FoodWorks, McDonald’s India, KFC and Subway said in separate statements that their products were fully compliant with safety regulations.
McDonald’s India said the CSE’s claims are “completely baseless”, while KFC insisted their food is “absolutely safe for consumption”. A Jubilant FoodWorks spokesperson said, “The flour used by us is not treated with potassium bromate or potassium iodate.”
Pointing to “some confusion” in the study, a spokesperson for Subway said: “There is no such item as ‘Subway Subz Burger’ on the Subway menu today; nor was it ever there in the past.”
Doctors, however, said the quantity of chemicals in the breads was high. “Though these chemicals are not directly cancer-causing but may lead to cancer after reacting inside the body. The amount they are saying has been detected is alarmingly high and needs further testing in a government lab,” said Dr PK Julka, former head, radiation oncology, All India Institute of Medical Sciences. “Since zero presence is not possible, we go by something called the ALARA principle — as low as reasonably achievable.”
The CSE has recommended that FSSAI ban the use of potassium bromate in bread immediately. The Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) should also amend relevant available standards, it said. The industry, it said, could easily shift to additives such as ascorbic acid and glucose oxidase.
FSSAI said it was in the process of overhauling its standards. “We are in the process of revisiting our old standards, which is a humongous task and may take some time. Our new standards do talk of potassium bromate but it may take some time before the standards are revised and made operational,” a senior FSSAI official said on condition of anonymity.