Gaza City – Um Mohammad Al Bardaweel has often wondered about the white colour in the hummus her son Mohammad buys from one of the best restaurants in Khan Younis. In the back of her mind is the usually yellow hummus she prepares at home that is rejected by her husband.
She decided to ask her son to find out what was being used by the vendors. The answer was: “this is our secret recipe which brings in the customers.”
The lady’s attempt to find out the answer was the starting point of this investigation.
This investigative reporter has discovered that despite being banned in most countries, hummus restaurants in Gaza, which are estimated in the hundreds according to the supplies inspector in the Palestinian police, are using a carcinogenic bleaching substance. This was the result reached through laboratory analyses and certificates from international nutrition centres and the Canadian agency in particular. Restaurant owners were relying on a decision passed in 2006 by the Palestinian Standards and Measurements Authority allowing the use of “limited quantities only” in sesame seed paste (tahini). The Ministry of Economy has called for an import ban of this substance in order to limit its proliferation and the implementation of punitive measures against those using it.
Taking into account population distribution we took hummus samples from two popular restaurants in Gaza. The first restaurant is situated in the middle of Nuseirat area, which has an estimated population of 251,000. The second is in one of the most populated refugee camps in Khan Younis, home to 69,737 residents, according to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). This decision was based on the fact that, in the Spring of 2012, the Ministry of Economy had carried out an analysis of samples taken from the other areas of the strip: Gaza city (680,000), Northern Gaza Strip (291,000) and Rafah (223,000).
We took the samples to the laboratories at the Consumer Protection Agency at the Ministry of Economy to discover the secret recipe that is being offered to the public.
The results came in two weeks later: The chemical analysis test for sample (A) showed the presence of titanium dioxide (TIO2) at the rate of 2318.17 PPM mg per kilo, whereas sample (B) showed the presence of titanium dioxide at the rate of 2952.79 PPM mg per kilo. Both samples contained insoluble white substances. We also received results from tests carried out on previous samples which proved the following: “the chemical analysis of the hummus samples showed the presence of titanium dioxide (TIO2) at the rate of 1131 PPM mg per kilo; the second sample showed the existence of the white substance at a rate of 1111 PPM mg per kilo. A third sample indicated the presence of 537.9 PPM mg per kilo of a substance in the hummus, estimating that the number of people who would be exposed to such a chemical in the popular dish would be in the thousands.
The reporting team carried out investigations with kitchen workers from 13 hummus restaurants, asking them about the white colour found in the food. Answers varied. Half of those questioned said it was due to the titanium found in the tahini sauce. Four employees constituting 25% of the restaurants surveyed admitted to the use of a bleaching agent without knowing the name of the substance, while the rest denied using anything.
Restaurant owners said that the titanium was only found in the tahini sauce and nothing else was added to the hummus during preparation.
We also paid visits to six herbalists selling titanium in the same areas. We asked them who was buying this substance and without hesitation they said, “hummus restaurant owners.” The substance was being sold in small containers labelled titanium dioxide at herbalists because the Palestinian Standards and Measurements Authority sanctioned its use in small amounts in tahini sauce. When asked how this substance made its way into the Gazan markets we were told it came through the tunnels between the Palestinian territories and Egypt.
Titanium dioxide is one of the strongest substances available in nature with a resilience level of 2.7, which is higher than the diamond resilience level of 2.4 — although it is less durable. This alloy can be created by combining titanium with oxygen. Titanium is a ‘white substance, odourless, inflammable and insoluble. In its purist form it is very shiny and white.’ It is added to medicine and food not only for commercial aesthetic reasons but also for durability and resilience. This gives the consumer the impression that it is of a higher quality than substances that do not include it; and the same is with food. It is a coloured substance used in medication and make-up as well as food because it adds resilience and brightness. It is also used in the bleaching of leather and in ceramics. Drug companies add it to vitamins because of the belief that is resistant to sunrays and is also used in thousands of cosmetics.
The Canadian Centre for Work Safety and Integrity included titanium dioxide in a list of 25 substances that could potentially cause cancer to humans. This was based on several studies which proved that test subjects, namely lab mice that inhaled this substance, developed tumours in their lungs. The list of substances on the Cosmetics Database.com website included it as one that could have a cancerous effect and damage the immune system and other bodily organs.
We showed these results to the botanist and professor at Cairo University Dr. Mohammad Al Wakeel, who confirmed that titanium dioxide dust did cause cancer and tumours in lab mice whose lungs are more delicate than humans. He also said “it is certain that humans who were exposed to this dust during manufacturing and for long periods could be adversely effected and that happens in western ceramics factories that export to third world countries where humans are of no value.”
After verifying that the bleaching agent being used was in fact titanium dioxide we went back to the two restaurants where the samples were taken from to monitor the process of adding the substance to the hummus. It was noted that no dust emanated during this process, which meant that none was being exhaled by the workers.
Meanwhile, assistant chemistry professor at Al Azhar University Dr. Hasan Tamous said that titanium dioxide was harmful if taken orally and digested. But he said it was not transmitted through the nasal cavities or if handled, thereby casting doubt on its harmfulness if inhaled. Other studies have also shown that titanium dioxide used in cosmetics provided no danger, saying the skin could not absorb it naturally. This was refuted, however, through the use of nanotechnology, where the danger was evident and so was the ability of the skin to absorb those particles into the bloodstream.
Dr. Al Wakeel also stressed that companies producing good natural supplements avoid the use of titanium dioxide in their products as “health authorities have emphasized the importance of not using this substance and making sure that consumers read product labels to check contents.” The Canadian Health Institute added that the International Agency for Cancer Research (IARC) classifies titanium dioxide as a carcinogenic material and is found in 70% of the total amount of dyes in the world.
The institute states on its website (http://www.ccoh.ca/headlines/text186.html) “that titanium dioxide is a bleaching agent used to dupe consumers by altering the colours of products such as paints, plastics, paper and ink as well as food and tooth paste. It is also used in cosmetics and facial products”.
According to the institute, a number of lab mice were injected with the substance and the results showed that it causes cancer to the respiratory system in mice, in addition to causing lung cancer (sedimentation of particles, removal of damaged lung, cell damage, cirrhosis and cancer).
Dr. Hasan Tamous confirmed that if any substance proves to be harmful to mice, it is not to be used on humans.
A report prepared by the Al Meezan Centre for Human Rights and issued in September 2012 stated that between the years of 1995 and 2010, the number of cancer patients in the Gaza Strip reached 10,780. The annual average rate of infection was 61 cases to every 1000 persons reaching 900 cases every year. Cancer is the second leading cause of death in Gaza at a rate of 11.8% of all deaths, whereas the average number of deaths caused by cancer was 36.5 to every 1000 persons.
Titanium Dioxide banned by law in most Arab countries
In Egypt, the Minister of Health and Housing issued law No. 114 on January 3rd, 1979 banning the use of any coloured substances including titanium dioxide as a colouring or bleaching agent for tahini sauce.
In Jordan, the Standards and Measurements Authority, in its session number 01/3002 held on November 21, 2003, agreed to implement law no. 56/2003 to ban the use of such substances including titanium dioxide in tahini sauce and other products.
In the UAE Emirate of Sharjah, the municipality issued law number 01/21/85/2002 on June 5, 2002, with a decree to all health inspectors to confiscate all tahini sauce products that use titanium dioxide.
The Saudi Arabian Standards and Measurements Authority sets the highest international level standards for all food products whether exported or manufactured in the kingdom. Quality specifications laboratories administered by the Ministry of Commerce routinely check samples to make sure they adhere to specific standards before allowing products on the market. The authority banned the addition of any bleaching agent including titanium dioxide to tahini sauce in 1973 in accordance with law no. 693/73.
The law bans the use of titanium
The director of the Consumer Protection Agency at the Ministry of Economy in Gaza, Mr. Ziad Abu Shaqra has confirmed that the Palestinian Standards and Measurements Authority has permitted the addition of limited amounts of titanium dioxide in sesame seed paste (tahini), in accordance with law no. 42 issued in 2006. The law stipulates that the amount of TIO2 should not exceed 150 mg, which means that only 150 millionths is what is permitted in tahini sauce and other similar products.
However, Mr. Abu Shaqra added, “restaurant owners have gotten into the habit of adding titanium dioxide in hummus, which is not permitted by law.” Despite this, the Consumer Protection Agency discovered one restaurant that was adding 3 mg per kilo of titanium dioxide at a rate of 3000 PPM in hummus offered to the public. Studies have shown that such amounts have a dangerous effect on humans.
Abu Shaqra also said that his ministry had called on the Standards and Measurements Authority asking for a complete ban of the substance.
He further explained that in cases where it is discovered that titanium dioxide has been used, the restaurant owner is issued a warning. Upon repeat offense the case is then reported to the district attorney by the legal consultant who also carries out further legal procedures.
Upon discovery that titanium dioxide has been used on several occasions, the ministry issues a decision to shut the restaurant for a set period of time. Several hummus vendors have been closed down temporarily and then reopened after making sure that the offensive substance was no longer being used and compliance to safety and cleaning regulations was being adhered to. Upon request of the number of closures and the dates this took place, the ministry was unable to provide such data.
We asked about the punitive steps that the ministry enforces against restaurants that use the bleaching agent, Abu Shaqra said that the Consumer Protection Agency had asked the Standards and Measurements Authority to amend law number 134 with regard to hummus: “ The law doesn’t include any article that permits or bans the use of additives and colouring whether natural or not, and despite this titanium dioxide has been added to the local product. CODEX international standards ban the addition of colourings and so does Egyptian standards law no. 941/2006. We would like a further study of the situation and the amendment of Palestinian standards to meet those of CODEX and other international ones, thereby assuring a better quality product.
To date no response has been received from the Palestinian Standards and Measurements Authority.
On the other hand, the director of laboratory services at the Authority in Gaza, Mr. Adli Baraka has said that titanium dioxide has been banned from food products since 2012.
He added that this decision was made in accordance with a law passed by the Standards and Measurements Authority in Ramallah and that the Gaza office worked in tandem with Ramallah on such issues.
Baraka also said that he doubted that the addition of titanium dioxide in food caused adverse effects on human health saying that the banning of the substance was due to commercial reasons, not health ones.
Meanwhile, the Consumer Protection Agency director has confirmed that the anti- titanium dioxide campaign launched by the Ministry of National Economy has been effective and has succeeded in putting an end to the use of the substance, with only a handful of vendors left still using it in their food. Such restaurants put themselves at risk of punitive measures.
Abu Shaqra reassured by saying that Gaza has 70 food inspectors currently overlooking the matter and verifying that titanium dioxide free hummus was being produced. Inspection teams work in rotation mornings and evening, whereas, during Ramadan a third inspection team is added during the night hours.
He claims that “the use of titanium dioxide in restaurants has been controlled and we have not seen any violations recently.”
This investigative report however, has proved otherwise; titanium dioxide is still being used on a large scale and this is hazardous to the health of citizens.
This report was completed with support from Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ) and coached by Dr. Abdullah Sa’afeen.