Even though palm oil is used primarily for cooking, the belief is steep in culture that it is also an antidote to poisons and it was used in ancient times.
Folks who believe in the potency of palm oil hold that its method of action can be broadly divided into two. It can induce vomiting so a child can be rid of the poison and secondly, it helps to neutralise the poison ingested.
Inducing vomiting means giving something or doing anything to make the person, who has just ingested a poisonous substance vomit so that the person will vomit the poison before it is absorbed into the system.
Intriguingly, one indigenous Agricultural Science workbook for Nigerian Primary Schools sighted in January 2022 prominently made this recommendation — although no specific mention was made of which poison the palm oil would neutralise.
In 2018, Nigeria counted 22.4 million children enrolled in public elementary schools and 5.5 million in private schools. Consequently, millions have been exposed to this information.
Many people term palm oil as “ero” in the Yorùbá language roughly translated to mean ‘poison neutraliser’.
But is this the case? Is this information correct?
From time immemorial, parents and the elders force-feed children with palm oil as an antidote for ‘everything poison’ that has been ingested. Did it work for them?
Doctors who specialise in pediatric emergency say it has caused more deaths than the lives it has saved.
Dr Ayobola Adebowale, a Senior Registrar, Department of Paediatrics, University of Ilorin Teaching Hospital, Kwara State, Northcentral Nigeria, said on a weekly basis, at least one or two cases of such incidents of admission of children in the Intensive Care units (ICUs) of the hospital are recorded, often leading to deaths among the children.
Dr. Gbemisola Boyede, a Consultant Pediatrician, recounted how a two-year-old boy unknowingly drank laundry bleach kept in a plastic bottle. The mother, who had received the “palm oil is an antidote” advice, gave the child a lot of it. The child aspirated the oil, the fumes of the palm oil entered his lungs and he could no longer breathe well. He eventually died in the hospital.
It was discovered that the child did not die from drinking the bleach, but from the excess palm oil given.
To put it another way, the child died from the ignorance of sincere people.
‘A Harmful Practice’
Professor Adeboye Muhammed, a Consultant Pediatrician and Professor of Pediatrics explained to Newsbreak that palm oil is not the main issue, “but forcing them to vomit after being given the red oil”.
“By the time they try to vomit, and the palm oil gets aspirated, that is, it finds its way into the lungs, then it causes a big respiratory problem. That is the issue with giving palm oil to someone who has ingested kerosene or any other poison,” he said.
“A lot of times when children who have ingested kerosene or other harmful substances are brought to the Children Emergency Unit, it is the palm oil given to induce vomiting that causes the harmful substances to get into the lungs and cause severe breathing problems.
“Children who accidentally drink poisons should immediately be brought to children emergency without delay. The emergency room is open 24/7.
“Palm oil drinking for poisons is a harmful practice.”
For a medical doctor, Nicolas Tayo Atte, it’s just all shades of bad. He explained that while palm oil is good for food and a rich source of fats and oils, it is extremely dangerous as an antidote in children. In his words: “It is good for the stomach, bad for the lungs”.
He said: “Not all things that can be used as food are good for the lungs. What they forget is inducing vomiting does not work for all poisons.
“In fact, inducing vomiting may worsen the problem and the child can die from that.
“What’s worse is, while trying to feed the child a lot of palm oil, or while the child is trying to vomit the palm oil and poison, it can pass into the lungs, and trust me, palm oil is very bad for the lungs, so bad a child can die within hours to days. I always say this, ‘good for the stomach, bad for lungs’.
“Palm oil seals off spaces meant for respiration in the lungs. Apart from causing a direct injury to the lungs and inflammation with progression to some form of severe pneumonia, the child needs oxygen to survive and whatnot. It’s just all shades of bad.”
Using Palm Oil As Poison Antidote Can Be A Fast Way To Death For Young Persons
Yet another pediatrician, Dr. Labaeka Adeyemi Adeyinka, said that the notion that palm oil is an antidote to poison is a misconception, warning people to desist from the practice.
According to him, when inducing vomit using palm oil to rid the body of the poison, some of the vomit may get inhaled through the airway into the lungs, causing a major problem.
“When it gets into the airway, the child starts to cough repeatedly. The child could have difficulty breathing; a very high respiratory rate; develop fever and could die. We see a lot of them at the Intensive Care Unit in the hospital because they had what is called respiratory failure,” he said.
Dr Beno Onunkwor, a lecturer at the Federal University of Agriculture, Abeokuta (FUNNAB), told Newsbreak that the reason many Africans see palm oil as a poison antidote is attributable to its richness in antioxidants, one of which is vitamin E.
This vitamin is critical for keeping the immune system healthy and for helping cells communicate. He, however, said it is not a total cure – even for adults.
When It ‘Works’
Dr. Boyede said palm oil as an agent to induce vomiting can be done for “certain types of poisons, and only if the poisoning has not been ingested for more than one hour”.
Furthermore, she explained: “There are certain poisons whose effects actually become worse by inducing vomiting, so vomiting should never be induced in such instances.
“Using palm oil to induce vomiting has its own health risk, as its inhalation into the lungs can lead to a complication of pneumonia, where the child actually develops breathing problems.
“This is due to the inhalation of the oil fumes into the lungs.”
Vomiting Should Never Be Induced
Dr. Boyede added that inducing vomiting should not be done in cases of swallowing hydrocarbons such as kerosene, petroleum, and the like.
“This will cause serious breathing problems,” she said.
What You Should Do
Paediatricians recommend that the best thing to do is to go to any hospital’s children’s emergency room immediately, for evaluation by the doctors.
“In all cases of poisoning, get the bottle of the poison, if you can, and go to the hospital immediately,” Atte advised.
“So next time you see a child that has ingested poison, call for help and get the child to the nearest hospital. The child will be offered an antidote there and given supportive care.”
Similarly, Dr Adebowale counseled people to head straight to the hospital.
“If your child ingests poison, check the name of the poison and estimate the quantity, rush the child to a hospital and give them the information about the poison taken.
“In a lot of cases, the poison will have an antidote, which will be administered. Some supportive care will be given to keep the baby alive,” she said.
The long-held claim that palm oil is used to neutralise poisons in man is misleading. In fact, the use of palm oil as an antidote to poisoning could be fatal in some instances.
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