Use of Lead-Containing Plastic Net Bags to Squeeze Coconut Milk Alarms Group

Net bags laced with lead (top) and net bags with no detectable levels of lead and other chemicals of concern (bottom)

The use of lead-containing
reusable plastic net bags in place of cheesecloth in the extraction of coconut cream
or milk, the all-time favorite “gata,” has alarmed a group working to minimize lead
exposure in children and other vulnerable groups.

The EcoWaste Coalition expressed concern over this prevalent practice in public
markets in Metro Manila after detecting lead in 13 out of 22 net bags commonly
used to get the milk out of grated coconut meat.

“Gata” is a must-have ingredient for Filipino delicacies such as Bicol Express
(pork cooked in coconut milk with
shrimp paste and chillies) and a variety of meats and vegetables simmered in
coconut milk, as well as other much-loved dessert cakes and soups.

“The lead on the net bags might get into the coconut milk with normal wear and
tear after repeated use and become an unintentional contaminant in the food we
eat,” said Thony Dizon, Coordinator of the EcoWaste Coalition’s Project

A contaminant is “any biological or chemical agent, foreign matter or other
substances not intentionally added to food that may compromise food safety or
suitability,” according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

22 samples of such net bags were procured by the group on August 25-28, 2013 at
the Guadalupe and Sacramento Markets in Makati City, 9 de Febrero and Marketplace-Kalentong
in Mandaluyong City, Sta. Ana and Quinta Markets in Manila City, and Mega-Q-Mart,
Commonwealth and Farmers’ Markets in Quezon City.

The group then analyzed the samples using a portable X-Ray Fluorescence (XRF)
spectrometer and detected  average lead
levels of 2,213 parts per million (ppm) on the yellow twine of 13 samples, with
one sample having 3,551 ppm of lead.

Trace amounts of arsenic (ave. 308 ppm) and chromium (ave. 1,021 ppm) were also
found on the 13 lead-positive samples, while 8 samples had mercury (ave. 38

The good news is 9 of the net bags, including used pink and purple garlic
packaging net bags, had no detectable levels of lead and other chemicals of

Instead of hand squeezing grated coconut pulp using cheesecloth, vendors now mostly
use a simple hand-operated squeezer to extract the milk out of the ground
coconut on the net bag, which is repeatedly pressed to get the milk and then sieved
to remove coconut bits.

“To prevent lead contaminant in food, the ingredients, materials and utensils
used by food preparers should be safe from lead,” Dizon said.

Lead, warned the EcoWaste Coalition, is universally known for its toxicity even at low doses and lead exposure has been blamed for numerous health problems such as neurological disorders, reproductive abnormalities, cardiovascular diseases and diminished intelligence, to name a few.

According to WHO, more than 80% of the daily intake of lead is derived from the ingestion of food, dirt and dust laced with lead.

Lead in the food chain comes mailinly from the direct deposit of airborne particulate mater in plants and from farm animals eating soil laden with lead as they munch on the plants.

Lead in food can also come from the use of lead-glazed ceramics, lead-soldered food and beverage cans and lead-containing packaging, as well as contact with lead-laced machinery used to process food items.