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Possible health threats from red vermillion

Possible health threats from red vermillion

In Hinduism, red vermillion is a sign of valor, energy, and prosperity and is commonly used in worshiping gods, festivals, marriage ceremonies. The red vermillion mainly contains highly toxic Mercury sulfide (HgS) and sometimes Lead tetraoxide, which can cause carcinogenesis, leukoderma and multiple organ failures. Even though HgS is non-poisonous and can be stored and transported without any problems, it can release pure mercury in presence of heat and oxygen. In addition, after ingestion, the HgS is converted to toxic methylmercury by the intestinal microbiota such as bacteria and algae, which accumulates in the body leading to toxic levels. To provide red color to vermillion, red lead (Pb3O4) used in the powder has toxic effects on nervous, hematological, renal, and reproductive systems, which results in anemia, encephalopathy, kidney impairments and other nervous symptoms. 

A majority of Hindu people offer flowers and worship statues of gods and goddesses with red vermillion to appease deities. It is a common ritual in almost all Hindu temples of Nepal. However, the health, safety and potential toxicity of this commonly used vermillion to temple pigeons has not been explored yet. Despite having done little research on the toxicity of vermilion, its effect on temple pigeons has not been studied yet. 

A few reports  of temple pigeons falling ill and dying have been reported in some temples of Nepal such as Maisthan temple, Ilam, Barahakshetra Temple, Sunsari and Bhimeshwar  temple, Dolakha. Some local people and priests of temples have observed some pigeons falling ill and dying after consuming red vermillion mixed rice grains (Akshata) that is sprayed while worshiping gods and goddesses. 

Thus, it is important to explore the potential causes of death and identify an underlying specific cause. The practice of spraying mixed rice grains and red vermillion is common in the temples of Nepal, which increases the risk of metal toxicity such as mercury and lead. This spraying of mixed vermillion and rice grains on the temple contaminates the soil, drinking water, and surrounding air. This contamination may lead to health problems in temple pigeons from eating contaminated foodstuffs and contaminated drinking water. Furthermore, mercury and lead may accumulate on feathers and other vital body organs such as kidney, liver, spleen, brain and bone tissues. Apart from these temple pigeons, people who visit the temples are also at high risk of heavy metal poisoning due to the inhalation of dust particles contaminated with heavy metals. 

Thus, it is high time to explore what percentage of pigeons that consume Akshata died of either mercury or lead poisoning or if it is just a correlation between Akshata feeding and pigeon mortality. It has been observed that a low level of mercury and lead does not cause instant deaths; however, continuous accumulation of these compounds in the body leads to serious health issues associated with damage to the brain, liver, lungs, kidneys and ultimately death. 

This concern of ill health and mortality of pigeons and public health consequences of such heavy metals is a grave concern. 

The current practices of using red vermillion while worshiping gods and goddesses need reconsideration and we need changes in cultural practices to promote animal and human health. This change in cultural practices needs an innovative transformative approach involving the question of why to change, how to change, and change to other less toxic alternatives to red vermillion.The government of Nepal has an opportunity to change its cultural attitude. For this, awareness programs may be developed targeting religious groups and religious leaders, who can effectively impart that knowledge and awareness to the general public. 

The author is a veterinary officer at the Department of Livestock Services