Medical experts have cautioned Nigerians, especially pregnant women, against ingesting calabash chalk, popularly known as “ndom” in Efik/Ibibio; “eko” in Bini/Edo languages and “nzu” in Igbo. They stress that it contains lead and other heavy metals that can be harmful to the body. They also warned that the heavy metals in the chalk can cause a range of health problems for pregnant women, which include anemia, nervous and kidney damage and gastric ulcers, among other debilitating medical conditions.
According to WebMD, pregnant women in Nigeria and other parts of Africa use this type of clay to manage morning sickness, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and skincare. Contrary to popular assumptions, a public health physician and a maternal health expert have described them as false. They noted that there is no scientific evidence to support such acts. Instead, they said that calabash chalk is not a remedy for nausea and vomiting in pregnancy but would rather lead to low levels of potassium and iron in the body as it contains excess lead.
Long-term geophagia can cause dangerous sicknesses.
Likewise, a professor of public health at the University of Ilorin in Kwara State, Tanimola Akande, stressed that persistent consumption of lead can damage the kidney and also affect the nervous system. This is known as geophagia. Geophagia is the practice of eating the earth, including soil and chalk. This ancient practice can be associated with religious beliefs, medication or as part of a regular diet. Little wonder that the former national chairman of the Association of Public Health Physicians of Nigeria stressed 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 especially for pregnant women.
He noted that large dose consumption of this material can lower femur bone density by reducing its minerals. In his words, some people, especially pregnant women, eat it as medicine and risk dangerous consequences as it contains heavy metals like arsenic and lead. “If taken in large doses or over a long period, it can cause gastric ulcers, affect blood cells, and lead to anemia,” he said. As well, the material also has an effect on the unborn baby and may lead to health problems in newborns and infants.
More effects of ingesting the chalk into the body.
Similarly, an obstetrician and gynecologist, Dr. Akinsola Akinde, who is a former chairman of the Society of Gynaecology and Obstetrics of Nigeria, stressed that the assumption that calabash chalk helps relieve symptoms of early morning sickness in pregnancy is doubtful. She said that lead found in calabash chalk has been discovered to be neurotoxic, especially to a developing baby. It can cause low potassium and iron, muscle weakness, nerve damage, inflamed stomach, poisoning, and low blood level. She said that its consumption in pregnancy should be discouraged as much as possible.
Mayo Clinic, an online health portal, also states that lead poisoning occurs when it builds up in the body, often over months or years. Even small amounts of lead can cause serious health problems and children younger than six years are especially vulnerable to lead poisoning, which can severely affect mental and physical development. At very high levels, it can be fatal, causing irreversible damage to the brain and impeding development. “Higher levels can damage the kidneys and nervous system in both children and adults and may cause seizures, unconsciousness and death,” it stated.
Risk of inflammatory markers and kidney disease.
Meanwhile, a study titled, “Effects of calabash chalk consumption on kidney function of traders in southeast Nigeria” found that the long-term use of the chalk was associated with kidney damage. In the over 200 people studied, those who consume it regularly had higher levels of certain enzymes in their blood that are associated with kidney damage. The study also found that these people 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.