Eating calabash chalk may cause lead poisoning, kidney damage – Experts

Medical experts have cautioned Nigerians, especially pregnant women against eating calabash chalk, popularly known as Ndom in Efik/Ibibio; Eko in Bini/Edo languages and ‘Nzu’ in Igbo, stressing that it contains lead and other heavy metals that can be harmful to the body.

The experts also warned that the heavy metals in calabash chalk can cause a range of health problems for pregnant women that include anaemia, nervous and kidney damage, and gastric ulcer, among other debilitating medical conditions.

According to WebMD, calabash chalk is a type of clay used by pregnant women in Nigeria and other parts of Africa to manage morning sickness, nausea and vomiting, diarrhoea, and skincare.

However, a public health physician and a maternal health expert in separate interviews with PUNCH Healthwise, described the assumption as false, noting that there is no scientific evidence to support such acts.

According to them, calabash chalk is not a remedy for nausea and vomiting in pregnancy but rather, could lead to low levels of potassium and iron in the body as it contains excess lead.

A professor of Public Health at the University of Ilorin, Kwara State, Tanimola Akande stressed that persistent consumption of lead can damage the kidney and also affect the nervous system.

The former National Chairman, Association of Public Health Physicians of Nigeria, added that calabash chalk is from the soil and has heavy metals like lead and arsenic, which are dangerous to the body when taken in high doses.

He noted that large dose consumption of calabash chalk can also lower femur bone density by reducing its minerals.

He said, “Calabash chalk is a type of clay some people, particularly pregnant women eat as medicine. Calabash chalk contains heavy metals like arsenic and lead, which can be dangerous.

“If taken in large doses or over a long period, it can cause gastric ulcers, affect blood cells, and lead to anaemia.

“The effects earlier mentioned can be found among pregnant women who take calabash chalk over a long period of time, particularly when they are pregnant. It is also known to have an effect on the unborn baby and may lead to health problems in newborns and infants.

“People who take calabash chalk should desist from this practice in view of the potentially harmful health effects.”

Similarly, an Obstetrician and Gynaecologist, Dr. Akinsola Akinde stressed that the assumption that calabash chalk helps relieves symptoms of early morning sickness in pregnancy is doubtful.

The reproductive health expert, who is a former Chairman, Society of Gynaecology and Obstetrics of Nigeria, noted that lead found in calabash chalk has been discovered to be neurotoxic, especially to a developing baby.

The maternal health expert said calabash chalk can cause low potassium and iron, muscle weakness, nerve damage, inflamed stomach, poisoning, and low blood level.

While noting that calabash chalk has been found to be impure, Dr. Akinde added, “Consumption of calabash chalk in pregnancy should be discouraged as much as possible. Patients that have symptoms that are disturbing instead of self-medicating should consult qualified medical professionals who will give necessary and adequate treatment.

“The act of eating calabash chalk is prevalent in Nigeria amongst pregnant women from the Eastern part of the country. It is believed to help relieve symptoms of early morning sickness in pregnancy i.e. vomiting, nausea, loss of appetite, and excessive salivation. The extent to which it actually does this is doubtful.

“The chalk is said to be impure and may contain lead, manganese and other substances. Lead is known to be neurotoxic, particularly to the developing baby, and may cause ulcers in the woman herself.”

According to Mayo Clinic, an online health portal, lead poisoning occurs when it builds up in the body, often over months or years.

It noted that even small amounts of lead can cause serious health problems and that children younger than six years are especially vulnerable to lead poisoning, which can severely affect mental and physical development.

Mayo Clinic warns that at very high levels, lead poisoning can be fatal, adding that its greatest risk is to brain development, where irreversible damage can occur.

“Higher levels can damage the kidneys and nervous system in both children and adults and may cause seizures, unconsciousness and death,” it stated.

Meanwhile, a study titled, “Effects of calabash chalk consumption on kidney function of traders in southeast Nigeria” found that the long-term use of calabash chalk was associated with kidney damage.

In the study, the researchers recruited over 200 people who regularly consumed calabash chalk for medicinal purposes.

The researchers found that those who consumed calabash chalk regularly had higher levels of certain enzymes in their blood that are associated with kidney damage.

They concluded that calabash chalk can cause kidney damage and that people who use it regularly may be predisposed to kidney disease.

The research findings suggested that calabash chalk can be harmful to kidney health.

The study also found that people who consumed calabash chalk had higher levels of certain inflammatory markers in their blood.

Inflammation is an important indicator of overall health, and high levels of inflammation have been linked to various chronic diseases.

The researchers also found that people who consumed calabash chalk had lower levels of certain vitamins in their blood, meaning that this could suggest that the use of calabash chalk may contribute to nutrient deficiencies.

Also, a study published in the National Library of Medicine, indicated that calabash chalk caused histological changes to the stomach and the esophagus that may lead to other pathophysiological conditions.

For the study, 28 young Wistar rats, four weeks old, were divided into four groups of equal size. Group 1 animals served as controls and received 1 mL of distilled water. Groups 2, 3, and 4 received orally, 1 mL of a calabash chalk suspension containing 40 mg/mL for 14, 21, and 28 days, respectively.

Upon completion of the treatments, the animals in groups 2, 3, and 4 were sacrificed on days 15, 22, and 29, respectively, and the control group animals were sacrificed on day 29.

All animals were euthanized using chloroform anaesthesia. The oesophagus and the stomach of each animal were dissected and routinely processed for histological studies.

At the end of the study, the researchers discovered that calabash chalk may compromise the integrity of the gastro-oesophageal tract.

The research found that calabash chalk contains poisonous substances such as lead, arsenic, aluminium, and alpha lindane, which were discovered to cause ulcers when large amounts are consumed.

The researchers stated, “In addition to the poisonous substances whose adverse effects have so far been reported, the chalk is reported to be largely composed of kaolin, a substance known to coat the gastrointestinal tract.

“Kaolin adsorbs drugs and other substances including toxins, which, in addition to reducing their bioavailability, initiates diarrhoeal episodes, thus providing bulk to the stool.

“The histological changes in the oesophagus and the stomach observed in this study may also arise as a result of kaolin. The oesophagus is prone to injury, and the presence of these substances may increase the susceptibility to injury.

“This increased susceptibility to injury may lead to further physiological and histomorphological damage to the stomach and the oesophagus due to the increased vulnerability to other toxins that may be consumed.”

Another study titled; “GSC Biological and Pharmaceutical Science” published on GSC Biological and Pharmaceutical Science, suggested that calabash chalk could cause histological changes in the uterus.

The study demonstrated the negative effects calabash chalk has on the uterus of adult female Wistar rats, whose tissues are similar to that of humans.

The research found that calabash chalk may alter growth rate and cause histological changes to the uterus and could be detrimental to the reproductive system and health.

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