The majority of cases diagnosed as ‘suspected food poisoning’ are indeed chemical poisoning, say food control officials at Dubai Municipality.
Significant evidence was found when a team of food control and pest control experts cooperated in investigating the death of the nine-year-old Awad Khan in April this year.
Awad, his brother and their parents were admitted to hospital suffering from nausea, dizziness, diarrhea and vomiting. Initially the symptoms were interpreted as food poisoning by the hospital, which later discharged the surviving members of the family.
However, the team located chemical pesticides in the neighboring flat which could have led to the boy’s death. “There were indicators of fumigation (tapes on the door used to seal the room) in the neighbouring apartment,” tells Bobby Krishna, Senior Food Studies and Surveys Officer of the Food Control Department, Dubai Municipality, who participated in the investigation.
One month later the team received another notification of staff of a jeweler at Naif Road submitted to hospital with similar symptoms. As the team spurred to the location, it found a large number of aluminium phosphide cans, a poisonous chemical of which exposure to one such can is enough to lead to death.
This time the team was on time to inform the hospital of the possible cause of sickness, and the staff was successfully treated for chemical poisoning.
“These cases only confirmed what we had been suspecting over the past years,” says Bobby.
“It is very unlikely that people die from food poisoning within six hours.”
According to Bobby misdiagnosis is a chronic disease in hospitals throughout the country, leading to the impression that cases of food poisoning are on the rise, while this is in fact not the case.
“Often it is said that the case looks like food poisoning, without proper diagnosis. Food poisoning occurs, but it is rarely fatal and the number of cases has been fairly consistent over the years.
“What we should focus on is chemical poisoning. This is a very worrying phenomenon.”
Dubai Municipality has increased its efforts to detect the cause behind fatal cases of sudden nausea, dizziness, diarrhea and vomiting after suspicions rose that these symptoms were misinterpreted.
For the last three years it has been working with Dubai Health Authority, which directly notifies a team of experts when people with similar symptoms are admitted to hospital. The team that is made up of both food control experts and pest control experts then immediately rushes to the location, to identify all possible elements that could have led to the sudden illness.
“At this time we are still working to include all hospitals and health clinics of the emirate in the system, so we can cover all cases,” tells Bobby.
But the efforts have proven successful so far. As the harm of chemical toxins has been pointed out the focus has shifted towards awareness about the use of these chemicals, explains Bobby.
“There is a lot of panic out there about the risks of food poisoning, and we are now afraid to eat frozen food. There is really no harm in eating frozen food! There is also no harm in eating ice-cream, is there?” Bobby says.
However, families are reluctant to buy chemical pesticides from unlicensed dealers and expose their apartment and neighboring apartments to these toxins over the weekend, while they are on their out.
“Why do you think most cases of poisoning happen over the weekend? It is a very clear pattern; people fumigate their apartment and then spend their time outside. When they return the day after, the symptoms appear,” says Bobby.
This is not to say that food poisoning does not occur at all. “We have detected food poisoning cases in Dubai over the years,” he tells.
“There was a case where people had eaten chocolate mousse prepared with raw egg served on a dining cruise. After some time people started falling ill independently from each other, while all of them had eaten from that dish. This is a clear case of food poisoning.”
But food poisoning rarely leads to death, especially not in six hours, assures Bobby.
“So far no fatal cases of confirmed food poisoning have been reported in Dubai.”