The BBC has recently highlighted concerns surrounding Zam Zam water that it is contaminated with harmful elements. In an undercover investigation, they exposed the illegal selling of Zam Zam water in Islamic Bookshops and following analysis of the water being sold, they found high levels of nitrate and levels of arsenic three times above the maximum permitted level. Moreover, they asked an undercover pilgrim to retrieve some Zam Zam water from the source, and they found the composition of this water to be similar to that being sold in the UK.
Despite performing such a covert ‘sting’ operation, maybe one should try to give the BBC the benefit of doubt. Perhaps the sole purpose of conducting such an investigation is that the BBC genuinely cares about the health and wellbeing of the British Muslim Community, as opposed to using Islam yet again as the journalist’s trump card to boost television ratings.
The investigation performed by the Beeb actually has far wider implications than merely protecting the health of British Muslims. Their findings suggest that the monitoring of Zam Zam water is either non-existant or wholly inadequate and that the research which is being done on the properties of Zam Zam is not robust in its nature. In addition, as Zam Zam water is consumed by Muslims worldwide, the statement made by the president of the Association of Public Analysts that he “certainly would not recommend drinking it” goes totally against the belief of Muslims. Whilst Muslims may have differences on a number of issues, the belief in the miraculous nature of Zam Zam is something that unites Muslims around the world.
It is therefore paramount that if the Beeb is publicising such a high profile scientific argument that Zam Zam water is contaminated, the investigations should have been submitted for publication in a high impact journal in the relevant field. In doing so, their investigation would have gone through a robust peer review process, comparing their findings and methodology to existing literature in the field of investigation. The purpose of such a process is to ensure quality of scientific data, and eliminate all bias in scientific publications. Unfortunately the investigators have failed to follow this established protocol of entering into scientific debate on a matter. Based on this alone, one would have to conclude that the Beeb has been irresponsible in exposing the ‘contamination’ of Zam Zam on investigations which have not been peer-reviewed and thus potentially subject to bias.
The argument put forward by the BBC may be strengthened by the declaration from the Food Standards Agency that Zam Zam water being sold in the UK contains high levels of nitrate and arsenic. They further state that the risk posed to occasional drinking of the water by adults and older children would be very low. However, such declerations do not seem to have been made by other similar agencies throughout the world. In fact Michael Herndon of the Food and Drug Authority in the United States made a statement in 2005 that the FDA has “..not heard any health alerts regarding Zam Zam water in US markets” and “If we thought there was a problem, we would alert the borders before the product enters the country”.
Since then, the FDA has not made statements on its potential harmful effects. In addition, the World Health Organisation is yet to make a statement on the contamination of Zam Zam water. If the consumption of the water is a potential worldwide health concern, as depicted by the BBC, the fact that the WHO has totally neglected this implies that they have either demonstrated sheer incompetence, or that they do not feel there is sufficient evidence to make such claims.
Whilst the BBC can be criticised for publicising scientific information which has neither been peer reviewed nor been validated by consensus amongst similar bodies around the world, it is important for the Muslim community not to react to such claims emotionally. There may well be some truth in what the BBC has unearthed, and it is therefore important to examine their claims through the lens of science.
Arsenic is a heavy metal which exists in organic and inorganic forms. It occurs naturally in bedrock, where it dissolves readily into ground water through weathering or volcanic eruptions. It may also enter the water system through anthropogenic processes such as mining activities, the use of pesticides and the burning of fossil fuels with high arsenic content. In such instances, arsenic may be transported through long distances as particles in air or water. Long term arsenic exposure may lead to Arsenicosis, which is typified by skin problems, cancer (particularly urological cancers), and diseases of the blood vessels of the legs and feet.
Nitrate is the most frequently introduced pollutant into the groundwater system. Nitrate contamination usually occurs from diffuse sources such as intensive agriculture and unsewered sanitation in densely populated regions or point sources such as irrigation of land by sewage effluent. The adverse health effects of high nitrate levels are well known. It may be particularly dangerous to infants, by affecting the ability of blood to release oxygen to surrounding tissues (methaeglobinaemia). Nitrates are also associated with Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma and colorectal cancer.
The World Health Organisation has published standards for drinking water, stating that levels of arsenic should not exceed 10 µg/l and nitrate should not exceed 50mg/l. The maxmimum level for nitrate is based upon epidemiological studies in which methaeglobinaemia was not reported in infants in areas where drinking water contained less than 50mg of nitrate per litre. However, the WHO state that with regards to arsenic there remains ‘considerable uncertainty’ over the actual risks at low concentrations. They have also said that in many countries the guideline value may not be attainable, and if this is the case, then every effort must be made to keep concentrations as low as possible.
 Whilst it is quite clear that extremely high levels of arsenic in drinking water can be detrimental to health (as evident in endemic areas such as South America, Bangaldesh and Nepal), the effect of chronic low level exposure is not so clear. Therefore, the labelling of Zam Zam water as poisonous on account of its arsenic content (which would at most be 30µg/l if we are to take the BBCs investigation as evidence) is perhaps an over-confident statement when one considers that the body setting the standard itself is uncertain on the matter.
The Saudi Geological Survery has a department dedicated to research on Zam Zam water. It is however unfortunate that there has been very little contribution from this department to the scientific literature on the composition of Zam Zam water. Whilst the Saudi Geological Survey ought to be congratulated for their efforts in monitoring the water through the King Abdullah Zamzam Water Distribution Centre, it is a shame they cannot back their statements that the Holy Water is ‘not contaminated’ with valid scientific evidence
. In fact, there generally is a paucity of high quality scientific analysis of Zam Zam water. As such, there is no ‘official’ statement on the exact composition of the water, and perhaps this information needs to be publicised given its mass consumption. Of the very few studies available, the analysis by Naeem et al found levels of toxic elements including arsenic to be below the danger level of human consumption. However, the standard which they were testing against is unclear. A further study examined the level of nitrate in various parts of Saudi Arabia, and the found the average amount of nitrate in the wells of Mecca to be 41.8mg/l, with 21 out of 85 wells having nitrate levels above 45mg/l (which is 5mg/l less than the WHO limit). However, their studydoes not clarify whether they have included the Zam Zam well in their analysis. More recently, the Saudi Gazette reported that the King Fahad University for Petroleum and Mineral Resources perfomed tests on Zam Zam water using the latest technology and they concluded that the water is fit for human consumption. However, perhaps the Saudi Gazette may be just as guilty as the BBC in reporting on an investigation which doesn’t seem to have been peer reviewed and published.
Alongside the provision of such data, it would also be prudent to look at epidemiological data on the occurrence of arsenicosis and methaeglobinaemia in areas where Zam Zam is consumed in high volumes, namely Mecca and Medina. Whilst the occurrence of arsenicosis is well documented in Bangladesh and the Far East, there is no published epidemiological data on the occurrence of these conditions in the Arab peninsula and furthermore, there is no epidemiological study on the occurrence of methaeglobinaemia in the Arab peninsula, implying that there has either been gross underreporting of these conditions, or that they are extremely rare entities. Thus in the absence of such data from the areas where Zam Zam is consumed in large quantities, it is difficult to accept the hypothesis that Zam Zam water is poisonous.
The BBC should have acted in a more responsible manner. The investigation into Zam Zam water should have been peer-reviewed by independant experts in the field and then be published in a reputable scientific journal before being given media attention. This is the general pattern that is followed when a clinical trial unravels a novel medication, or if a particuar medicine is deemed to be unsafe for consumption, and the BBC should have followed a similar protocol when publicising these findings. Perhaps the absence of a powerful drug company waiting to pounce on any hint of defamation gave the BBC some courage in publicising their findings. By presenting the results of their sting operation in such a fashion, one can only conclude that there principle motive was not to protect the health of British Muslims, but to create ‘good TV’ by playing the Islam card. In addition, academic institutions in Muslim countries, particularly the Saudi Geological Survey, should be encouraged to publicise their research on Zam Zam through scientific journals so that there is clarity on an issue which affects Muslims globally. Following scientific debate through publications and discussion at scientific meetings, should it emerge that there is robust evidence to prove that Zam Zam is poisonous to drink; the custodians of the Well should take the responsibility to ensure that the water is safe for human consumption.
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 World Health Organisation. Guidlines For Drinking Water Quality 3rd edition, incorporating the first and second addenda. Vol IGeneva 2008, p307
Over the course of the last decade, there has been a remarkable surge in the prevalence of shisha smoking, particularly amongst the younger generation. This popularity has been fuelled in part by the appeal of inhaling flavoursome smoke alongside the emergence of numerous exotically decorated ‘shisha cafes’, where one can indulge in a myriad of tobacco flavours ranging from fruity apple to fizzy coca-cola. Perhaps the most significant factor in the rise of shisha smoking lies in the belief which many people hold, that it is a ‘healthier’ or ‘herbal’ alternative to cigarettes as it doesn’t have carcinogenic effects. In addition, many believe that shisha smoking doesn’t lead to addiction and as a result may be helpful to those who wish to give up smoking cigarettes.
Muslim scholars are unanimous in their position that smoking is something which is highly discouraged in Islam. Their principle reason for passing such a ruling is the well known adverse effects to one’s health which smoking causes. Food and drink (which includes smoking) may sub-classified into two categories; things which are good and bring benefit or things which are bad and bring harm.
“He allows them as lawful al-tayyibaat (i.e. all good and lawful things eg. deeds, beliefs, persons and foods), and prohibits them as unlawful al-khabaa’ith (i.e. all evil and unlawful things eg. deeds, beliefs, persons and foods)”
Based on this verse from the Quran, scholars have regarded the act of smoking to fall under the label of Khabaa’ith or evil things, as opposed to something virtuous. Further strength to their argument is added by the amount of money which a smoker wastes on buying something which brings about no benefit and the bad smell which a smoker frequently has causing harm to those around him.
Despite the agreement amongst Islamic scholars that smoking is something highly discouraged, shisha smoking continues to gain popularity amongst the Muslim youth. A few reasons for this may include a lack of awareness amongst some members of the youth on the shar’i (legal) evidences against smoking, or perhaps they are aware of the evidence but are indifferent towards it. Whilst this section of the Muslim youth continues to smoke shisha in ignorance, a second group are well aware of the evidence against smoking but contest it, citing their belief that shisha smoking cannot be grouped with other types of smoking as it isn’t associated with the adverse health issues, and furthermore, it smells nice. Moreover, if the shisha is bringing people together to share and benefit from each other’s company, then surely that can be described as money well spent?
The purpose of this article is to examine the scientific evidence on the issue of shisha smoking and to ascertain whether the beliefs of shisha smokers are indeed valid, or if their ‘beliefs’ should be relabelled ‘myths’.
A Global Issue
Shisha smoking continues to gain popularity throughout the Muslim world. A study which examined smoking habits in 16 countries in the Eastern Mediterranean region including the Gaza Strip reported that regular Shisha smoking ranges from 6% to 34% amongst 13-15 year olds. Azab and colleagues have also demonstrated a staggering 42.7% prevalence of regular Shisha smoking amongst a sample of 548 Jordanian university students. The perception of shisha smoking being less harmful than smoking cigarettes is highlighted by studies of medical students in the Middle East, which showed a prevalence of 20% amongst Lebanese students, 23.5% amongst Syrian students, and 28.6% amongst Turkish students.
The appeal of shisha smoking isn’t confined to eastern Muslim countries alone. A study conducted amongst more than 900 British university students found that 38% had smoked shisha.A much larger study in the US looked at shisha usage among a sample of 8745 students which demonstrated that almost 30% had smoked shisha. However, perhaps the strongest evidence demonstrating the growth of shisha smoking comes from the Global Youth Tobacco Survey, which looked at trends in tobacco usage among more than half a million youths aged between 13-15 worldwide during a ten year period. The results showed that whilst cigarette use seems to be either stabilised or declining, usage of other forms of tobacco, notably shisha smoking, are on the rise.5
Is it Really Harmful?
A recent systematic review looking at a number of studies trying to answer this question found that shisha smoking more than doubles the risk of developing lung cancer, respiratory illnesses such as Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), and for pregnant women, low birth weight babies. The review also suggests that a relationship between shisha smoking and other types of cancer cannot be excluded. A further systematic review concluded that shisha smoking had a similar effect on worsening lung function as cigarette smoking does which agrees with the aforementioned study that shisha smoking increases the risk of developing COPD.
There have also been a few studies which have compared the composition of shisha smoke with that of cigarette smoke. In fact, shisha smoke contains high levels of compounds such as carbon monoxide, polyaromatic hydrocarbons (which are associated with lung cancer) and nicotine.
During the average smoking session, a shisha smoker can inhale on average 119L of smoke, which contains 150 milligrams of carbon monoxide, 4 milligrams of nicotine and 602 milligrams of ‘tar’.This is an interesting finding, particularly as many shisha smokers relay the claim made on shisha tobacco packets that it contains ‘0% tar’. It has also been suggested that during a shisha smoking session, the smoker is subject to 3-9 times the level of carbon monoxide when compared to a single cigarette. Taking this information into account may help to explain the recent reports in scientific literature concerning smokers being taken to the Accident and Emergency department with acute carbon monoxide poisoning secondary to shisha smoking, something which has never been reported with cigarette usage.
Is Shisha Smoking Addictive?
Whilst the addictive effects of nicotine are well known, many believe that the amount of nicotine they are exposed to whilst smoking shisha is much less than that of a cigarette, and therefore the addictive effects of nicotine in shisha tobacco are not clearly obvious. A study by Neergard corrects this misconception by concluding that the nicotine exposure from one session of shisha smoking is equivalent to smoking 10 cigarettes a day. Furthermore, shisha smokers may begin to exhibit traits of dependence, such as drug-seeking behaviour, escalation of use with time and an inability to quit despite repeated attempts. In a random sample of 268 shisha smokers in Syria, 28% of respondents said they wished to stop smoking, and 59% said they had tried stopping but were unsuccessful in doing so.
The Syrian Centre for Tobacco Studies postulates that there are two facets to the addiction which shisha smoker’s exhibit. The first is associated with nicotine, whilst the second reflects the social dimension around shisha smoking, with the more dependant smokers showing solitary and home-based smoking patterns.
A further study conducted amongst 762 Danish youths has proved that shisha smokers are more likely to progress to regular cigarette smoking. This piece of evidence not only adds strength to the argument that shisha smoking can lead to addiction, but also dispels the myth that shisha smoking can be used as an aid to help quitting cigarette smoking. Based on the Islamic principle of staying away from things that lead to harm, even if one were to believe that shisha smoking is less harmful than cigarette smoking, the fact that it has been proven to lead to cigarette smoking adds strength to the scholarly position of shisha smoking being something in opposition to the core principles of Islam.
Fear of the Unknown
Perhaps the greatest danger with shisha smoking is the fact that there are many unknowns and variables in analysing its true effect on human health. The shisha market does not have the same type of regulation as other branches of the tobacco industry, and as a result, there is no standardisation in the content or packaging of shisha tobacco and other accessories. Perhaps this might explain why claims of ‘0% tar’ go unnoticed, especially when scientific evidence shows us otherwise. In addition, given the huge variety of shisha tobaccos and various grades of charcoal, it is very difficult to determine exactly what the shisha smoker is inhaling. Indeed, one study unearthed that one of the brands of charcoal frequently used by shisha smokers already contained high levels of polyaromatic hydrocarbons which are strongly associated with lung cancer.The synergistic effect of this along with the toxic chemicals from the tobacco (as shown above) could potentially have devastating effects on one’s health in the long term.
Contrary to popular belief there is plenty of evidence within scientific literature to suggest that shisha smoking maybe as equally harmful as cigarettes, and in some instances even more harmful. There is a strong association between shisha smoking and lung diseases such as COPD and lung cancer, with a possibility of other forms of cancer also being associated with this form of smoking. In addition, shisha smokers are exposed to high levels of toxic substances during a smoking session, many of which exceed the amount of toxins found in a single cigarette. The fact that shisha smoking has been known to cause acute carbon monoxide poisoning requiring hospital admission must be duly noted, particularly as this is not a phenomenon common with cigarette smoking.
The information presented in this brief review is of particular relevance to healthcare professionals who should educate their patients on the dangers of shisha smoking with scientific evidence. Furthermore, it would be prudent for the scholars of Islam, namely Islamic jurists, to take this evidence based information on board when considering religious rulings pertaining to shisha smoking.
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