Al-Watan – Her daughter’s wedding date approached, but the trousseau was not yet complete. Umm Hussein took her daughter to the bridal market, like she had done with her three other daughters. In al-Moski popular market in the middle of Cairo, she wandered around contemplating the china, melamine, and tableware, looking for something nice and cheap. She finally settled on the melamine because it was the cheapest. However Umm Hussein did not know that there lies a scam behind each cheap melamine set.
Hamed Moussa, President of the Plastic Producers and Exporters Association, begins by describing the danger posed by counterfeit melamine products. Three years ago, several Arab and foreign countries had pulled samples from their markets and analysed them, discovering they contained substances that could cause serious risk to human health. They confiscated all toxic melamine products and destroyed them, then banned their import. However, according to Moussa, “these dangerous products fill Egyptian markets without control and with a limited role for regulatory bodies.”
This phrase was the beginning of a thread that took us into the local markets looking for such dangerous products. We decided to test some of them in the laboratories of the National Research Council used by the Ministry of Industry and Trade, under the supervision of Dr. Khaled Naji, head of the packaging department in the Institute of Nutrition in the Agricultural Research Centre. Four samples were chosen from popular Egyptian manufacturers and one from China. The results of the tests concluded that they all contained the carcinogen, Urea Formaldehyde (UF).
From a scientific point of view, Dr. Naji confirms that manufacturers are manipulating the products used in manufacturing melamine. Instead of using Melamine Formaldehyde, a safe compound approved for manufacturing tableware such as cups and plates, they replace it with UF, which looks very similar to the original, but is prohibited in the manufacture of tableware due to being a carcinogen.
Al-Watan Analyses Four Popular Local and Imported Brands and Finds Them All Carcinogenic
Dr. Mahmoud Amr, former head of the environmental medicine and occupational diseases at Qasr al-Ayni [Hospital] maintains that Urea Formaldehyde causes cancer and affects the workers who handle it directly in the factories, in addition to the consumers.
“One of the chemical properties of the material is that it begins to break down when subjected to hot foods or acidic and alkali substances,” he explains. “When it passes through the body, it changes the cells and causes liver or kidney cancer, depending on the period and intensity of use of the tableware.”
Dr. Amr stresses the threat this substance poses to children: “Its effects appear quickly on children. They could be suffering from intestinal complications due to eating from counterfeit melamine products, but the doctors might not be able to diagnose the causes of the illness.”
The occupational health experts words led us to further investigation of the risks posed by the use of UF globally. Numerous papers are available online, published by US governmental sources and international publishing houses. For example, a study by US researchers published by Elsevier, a world leading scientific information provider, links between evidence of UF in the body and leukaemia. It mentions that the material became widespread in the mid-1970s and was used as an adhesive in US household products and some chemical industries. But when it leaked into the air, it resulted in pungent odours, which led several people to file complaints with the local authorities.
This grabbed the attention of researchers in the US and they began to investigate it affect on public health risks. Studies commissioned by the World Health Organisation (WHO) later showed that UF, if breathed regularly, can cause cancer in the respiratory system and probably leukaemia. Consequently, its use in consumer products like tableware became prohibited.
The report also indicates that since July 2004, the WHO’s International Agency for Cancer Research (IARC) classified UF as a Group 1 carcinogen, following evidence of its toxicity in studies and tests on workers in one of the factories. Locally, the standards for tableware set by the Egyptian Organisation for Standardisation and Quality (EOS) clearly state the following: “The use of Urea Formaldehyde is forbidden due to its sensitivity to heat, acids, and alkalis.”
However “in reality, there are many violations in local manufacturing [of tableware],” according to Chemist Mohamed Abu Harja, head of the Chemical Industries Chamber in the Industrial Federation. He indicates that most factories registered in the Ministry of Industry use UF because it is cheaper than actual melamine by half the price.
“Large factories began using UF to compete with unlicensed factories and imported products,” he adds. “The standard in the Egyptian market is the cost, and not the quality.”
“There are four thousand factories manufacturing and using chemical products. How could they be monitored?” he wonders.
The official figures released by the Chemical Industries Chamber indicate that only 15 factories manufacture tableware. However, visits to several areas of the Dakahlia governorate – especially the city of Mansoura and the surrounding villages, in addition to other locations in Kafr el-Sheikh and other districts – revealed the existence of hundreds of unlicensed factories manufacturing in secret. They were established in basements of buildings and workers were brought in to work in them. We were able to access one of the illegal factories and document the use of banned Urea Formaldehyde, in audio and video.
Hamed Moussa, head of the plastics associations, verifies the disorganised spread of the factories, warning of around one and a half million tons of plastic and medical byproducts and waste produced every year in Egypt. Some of it reaches the Beer al-Sollom factories and are recycled in various industries including melamine.
“The are certain dyes used in the manufacture of melamine, to give various shapes for the utensils, which react with food and cause serious illnesses,” Moussa warns.
However the most serious discovery of this investigation is that this substance is the most widespread, whether in licensed or unlicensed tableware factories producing different products out of melamine. This conclusion was reached after several interviews with workers and artisans and was confirmed by the tests. An additional piece of evidence of its widespread use, is the ease by which it can be bought, legally, since it is allowed in the manufacture of other products – the only exception being tableware.
Mahmoud Amr: The “Paste” Used for Plates Causes Liver and Kidney Cancer for Artisans and Consumers
Outside the gates of a famous factory that provides the great majority of licensed and unlicensed melamine large trucks are entering a huge storage depot to pick up their loads of UF.
The operation does not take more than 30 minutes and does not require evidence of a licensed factory or even personal identification papers. However, facilitating the sale of UF without control is an ethical violation, since, according to an anonymous source, the factory administration knows that there are workshops using this substance in the production of eating utensils and tableware. But they turn a blind eye to the operation, due to the lucrative profits they can make from it.
Despite this, Medhat Ibrahim, who is a CEO at one of the major UF manufacturers, believes that “factories sell materials according to demand and it is not in our mandate to determine who uses it in melamine products.” According to Ibrahim, the company’s responsibility for the use of the material stops at the disclaimer they put on the packaging, which says its “use is forbidden in manufacturing tableware,” based on the decision of the minister of industry.
The major company director refused to disclose additional information, so we had to search for the mentioned decision by the minister. It was a exhausting task, but we finally found the decision issued by former Minister of Industry Dr. Mostafa al-Rifai in 1999 (No. 197), which clearly stated that the use of UF was prohibited in all factories. It also banned the production of melamine tableware and UF products in the same factory and required that all producers and importers include a statement on packages that they contain a substance which should not be used in manufacturing melamine tableware.
However, manufacturers still reject this decision and do not believe the banned material is harmful. According to S.I., a melamine factory owner, the use of UF is not unhealthy due to the “glaze” used to finish tableware surfaces, which keep the toxic material from reaching the food.
Dr. Naji, from the Agricultural Research Centre, disagrees, maintaining that the protective layer washes off due to cleaning materials and friction.
Where Are the Inspectors?
The facts indicate that these factories are working unmonitored.
Chemist Hossam el-Din Hijazi, an advisor in the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency (EEAA), stresses that all factories manufacturing tableware are inspected regularly. In case of any violation, they are dealt with according to the law, forced to pay fines, or closed down in coordination with local executive authorities.
On the other hand, chemist Abu Harja maintains that none of the tableware products imported into Egypt are tested for UF. The General Organisation for Export and Import Control (GOEIC) does not act except on the basis of formal complaints about a prohibited product.
In a letter to the editor, GOEIC denied being negligent in testing all melamine tableware, according to the standard set for each type, and shipments are not allowed to enter the market unless they pass the tests. If they fail it, the materials are re-exported or destroyed.
Several times, we attempted to contact the public relations coordinator in the Ministry of Trade and Industry, in charge of the Industry Inspection Department, which is responsible for monitoring licensed factories functioning in Egypt. We wanted to present the results of the investigation, but he did not not return our calls.
Verifying the absence of the inspection agencies was not too difficult. A visit to several markets indicated that the local brands, which tested positive, filled the market. Many of the sellers do not know about the dangers of UF or how to detect it. They sell to their customers based on the popularity of the brand.
Dr. Khaled Naji maintains that inspection services in Egypt are “soft.” They do not apply the laws, nor is their supervision of the market efficient enough to stop imported goods.
He adds that if there were proper inspection agencies, we would not see cancerous melamine products on the markets.
But the question now is when will this hazardous industry affecting Egyptian consumers be eliminated?
This investigation was conducted with the support of Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ) and under the supervision of fellow journalist Imad Omar.