Doctors in UAE report increase in chronic illnesses due to pesticides

Doctors warned of a rise in chronic illnesses in the UAE associated with unhealthy eating habits and pesticide-laden fruits and vegetables.

Dr Yogash Shastri, Gastrologist at NMC Specialty Hospital in Abu Dhabi speaks about the importance of the quality of food as it can prevent chronic diseases such as cancer. Courtesy NMC Specialty Hospital
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Doctors have linked chronic illnesses such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer and osteoporosis to high levels of pesticides in imported food.

The Ministry of Climate Change and Environment in May banned the import of certain fruits and vegetables from five countries in the Middle East over concerns about high chemical levels.

While pesticide use is strictly controlled within the UAE, pesticides are heavily used in agriculture in other parts of the world.

"Medical practitioners believe that consuming certain kinds of food may contribute to causing cancer," said Dr Yogash Shastri, a gastrologist at NMC Specialty Hospital in Abu Dhabi.

 "I have seen at least one person diagnosed with different types of cancer on a weekly basis and there have been no specific causes related to their family medical history."

Dr Shastri told of a patient, 45, who was had colon cancer despite having no family history of the disease and leading a healthy vegetarian lifestyle.

Another patient, a 37-year-old Filipina, also had cancer diagnosed and had no history of the illness in her family.

"An unhealthy diet contributes to causing several chronic diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer and osteoporosis," he said.

Pesticides, particularly those containing chlorine, are harmful because the human body is unable to metabolise them.

"Many patients visit physicians complaining about abdominal pain," Dr Shastri said. "We do all the tests for them. Findings show no specific reasons. "This is why doctors assume that the types of food consumed may have a relation."

Doctors have recorded an increase in cases of inflammatory bowel disease, the chronic inflammation of all or parts of the digestive tract.

"The main cause of this disease is not known but we suspect that it is caused by hormones and pesticides," Dr Shastri said.

He said further studies were being conducted to determine which hormones, pesticides or agents cause the disease.

Pesticides build up to dangerous levels, being magnified throughout the food chain, and have been detected in products ranging from meat, poultry and fish, to vegetable oil, nuts, fruit and vegetables.

Farah Al Ameer said she stopped eating animal meat after she was sick for several months. She had been through several medical procedures to determine the cause of her ailment but kept receiving conflicting diagnoses.

"After I stopped eating certain food I now feel much better," said Ms Al Ameer, 21.

Arwa Othman said she was particularly careful about the food her three children ate. 

"I saw one of my sons eating fruits without washing it," Ms Othman said. "I told him this is not good for his health. A few weeks later, he suffered from a severe stomach pain."

She said doctors could not determine the cause of his pain but her son now washed fruit and vegetables before eating them and had not experienced stomach pain since.

Dr Jane Darakjian, a clinical dietician at Top Medical Clinic, recommended that people went further and peeled their fruit and vegetables.   

"Pesticides are among the main causes of health problems. Washing fruits and vegetables is not enough to get rid of pesticides. The best way is to peel the skin of some vegetables and fruits while others need to washed deeply."