Pregnant women eating up to 40 tonnes of dangerous soil in Kenya

By Gatonye Gathura

Pregnant women in Kenya may be eating up to 40 tonnes of soil per day some of it extremely dangerous to their health.

Data shows of the estimated 1.571 million women who give birth annually in Kenya, 65 per cent, (1.021 million) crave and eat soils during the pregnancy. Each is estimated to eat about 40 grams of soil in a day.

The soils are collected from house walls, but largely bought in open markets, from hawkers, super markets and recently from boda bodas.

Medical experts now want the government to stop the trade or at least ensure the soils used in the habit also called geophagy or pica are hygienic and safe.

The experts recommend supermarket be barred from using misleading advertising such as ‘Healthy Choice’ to market the alluringly packaged stones.

The stones and soils are eaten by all class of women; educated, rich, poor and from all parts of the county. They are being eaten at home, at the salon, at the health clinic, the gym, in the streets, in public transport and even the office.

In one study in Nakuru for example, women report consuming a grayish soft rock locally known as munyo. “Some women soak the stones in salty water and dry them in the sun or use the jiko to make them tastier,” explains Sharon Iron-Segev of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel.

The roasted and salted material, Segev explains is sometimes eaten for breakfast with water or black tea. “It is generally packed in plastic bags and carried by the women in their handbags, where it can be easily accessed and consumed at any time.”

Segev in a collaborative study with Egerton University has been working with pregnant women in Nakuru to encourage them to drop pica for healthier diets.

But scientists are not so worried about how or why the women are eating the stones but the possible negative health consequences.

“We have confirmed that some of this stones indeed contain high levels of lead and arsenic which are extremely dangerous to the health of the mother and child,” says Joshua D. Miller of Northwestern University, US.

Last month Miller and colleagues from Cornell University, University at Buffalo and University of North Carolina, all of US, published damming evidence confirming pregnant women in Kenya are eating extremely dangerous types of soils.

“Samples of soils and stones consumed by pregnant women and collected from Kakamega County were dangerously high in lead, arsenic, and iron,” says Miller.

From the finding the researchers want the consumption of earth from Kakamega County discouraged. The report is published in the American Journal of Human Biology.

The team had collected samples from Matete, Kuvasali, and Shiandiche markets and pica consuming women in Kakamega County which were sent for analysis to Cornell University, US.

The results show pregnant women in Kakamega to be consuming almost nine times more iron from the stones above the tolerable daily intake levels.

The results also showed the stones to be contaminated with dangerously high levels of lead and arsenic. “Estimated intakes of lead was at least four times higher than the tolerable levels.”

Concentrations of arsenic were 1.65 times higher than the benchmark dose for safe limit, says the report.

Lead, is associated with kidney and brain damage. In pregnant women lead exposure, the experts explain may cause miscarriage, stillbirth, and low birth weight.

“To the unborn and infants lead can be transported through the placenta and breast milk with devastating consequences,” says Miller.

Maternal exposure to arsenic, the team says has also been linked to still births, low birth weight, loss of foetus and poor developing children.

“While we may not generalize the Kakamega findings there is need to investigate the content of pica being consumed in other parts of the country,” says Miller.

A study published in 2016 by Alfred Odongo Owino of Egerton University found pica consumed by pregnant women in Nakuru County to contain dangerously high levels of lead and other heavy metals.

Odongo also found the samples to be highly contaminated with disease causing germs.

Similar findings have been reported from other parts of the country most of them calling for the stopping or regulation of the trade.

In an unpublished study last year, Alice Wairimu Mutura of Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology found high levels of consumption of geophygy by pregnant women attending the Thika Level Five Hospital in Kiambu.

Mutura had investigated 410 women and found up to a quarter to take pica. Of those on pica a significant number were found infected with intestinal worms.

Almost a half of those consuming soils were found to suffer the blood condition called anemia. Anemia occurs when the body does not have enough red blood cells and is unable to deliver enough oxygen to body cells.

Mutura is now calling on the Kenya Bureau of Standards to ensure that soil sold in markets, supermarkets or by the vendors are free from parasites and heavy metals.

“The bureau should also set rules and regulations on their sterilization and packaging.”

At the Kilifi District Hospital at the Coast, more than a half of 275 pregnant women attending maternal clinic reported eating soil regularly.

The study by the Kenya Medical Research Institute found most of the geophagous women to suffer from anemia.

The first Confidential Inquiry into Maternal Deaths in Kenya report published in March by the Ministry of Health showed 14.6 per cent of maternal deaths to be caused by anemia.

The medical experts say if women cannot stop taking pica, at least the products should be made safe.

Segev is however advising women to try some crunchy snacks such as several already in the market made from millet, amaranth, or even termites whenever the craving comes calling.

Some Facts

  1. 571 million women give birth annually
  2. 65 per cent estimated to take pica (soils, stones)
  3. Each woman is estimated to eat about 40 grams of soil in a day.
  4. Cumulatively this comes to about 40 tonnes per day
  5. Pica in Kenya found with dangerous levels of Iron, lead and arsenic
  6. Pica from Kakamega had lead content four times higher than the tolerable levels
  7. Heavy metals in pica can cause anaemia in women
  8. Anaemia responsible for 14.6 per cent of maternal deaths in Kenya
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