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Fish Adulterant: Formalin

Fish Adulterant: Formalin

Health and fitness experts recommend fish in our diet as a source of healthy protein and fats necessary for the body. Fish is one of the main sources of protein in our diet. It also acts as an important source of PUFA (polyunsaturated fatty acid) and micronutrients like iron, zinc, and calcium. Due to these factors, there is a high demand for fish. This high demand for fish has contributed to the flourishing of economies and fisheries in several developing countries. However, this high consumer demand for fish has also led to an increased adulteration of fish. In this article, we will discuss the effects of a common fish adulterant—formalin or formaldehyde solution.

What is Formalin?

Formalin is a solution of 37% formaldehyde in water. It is mainly used as an antiseptic, disinfectant, and for the preservation of biological specimens in laboratories. It is also used in adhesives, plastics, cosmetics, and pressed wood products like nail hardener and polish.

Why do traders use fish adulterants?

Here are a few reasons why formalin is used as a fish adulterant:

  1. Fish is a highly perishable commodity. There is always a risk of spoilage and deterioration of quality in the process of transporting and storing fish. Therefore, traders use formalin to extend the storage life of the fish and make it look fresh for a long time. This keeps the fish in a marketable condition.
  2. Traders are often forced to formalin their fish due to a lack of proper storage facilities. Due to this, they are forced to use adulterants like formalin to increase the shelf-life of fish and keep them in a marketable condition to prevent the loss of goods.
  3. The lack of proper insulation during the transport of fish is another reason why traders opt for formalin.
  4. Formalin is also widely available in the market. Therefore, traders have easy access to this adulterant

How does formalin affect our health?

Formalin is highly toxic in nature and can enter the human body either through absorption or inhalation. Formalin breaks down readily when exposed to sunlight and makes its way into the respiratory tract through inhalation. It can also be absorbed very quickly into the gastrointestinal tract when ingested. Listed below are the few harmful effects of formalin on the human body:

  1. Prolonged exposure to formalin may cause severe irritation in the respiratory tract and the skin. It may also cause a burning sensation in the eyes.
  2. While formalin kills bacteria and viruses, it also kills human cells. Therefore, while it can act as a good preservative post mortem, it is toxic to the living cells.
  3. When ingested, formalin can cause stomach lesions, allergies, asthma, abdominal pain, and vomiting.
  4. Sustained exposure to formalin has been shown to be carcinogenic. Nasopharyngeal, gastrointestinal, and blood cancers have been seen with formalin exposure.
  5. Studies have also shown that formalin significantly affects the kidneys and liver and, in some cases, can even lead to coma.

How can we protect ourselves from the harmful effects of formalin?

The high demand for fish has led to the abundant use of formalin in fish. But the abundant use of formalin in food not only affects the fish traders, who are constantly exposed to formalin, but also the consumers. Therefore, it is extremely important to become cautious about the quality of fish in our diet. Since staying away from all kinds of seafood is not a viable option, other methods have to be incorporated for a safer consumption of fish. Listed below are a few of them:

  1. Using the Rapid Detection Kit devised by the Central Institute of Fisheries Technology is a reliable method of detecting the presence of formalin and other toxic chemicals present in the fish. The kit consists of a reagent solution and paper strips. Rub the fish with the paper and then put a drop of the solution on the paper. If the colour changes to blue, the fish is adulterated; if it does not change colour, the fish is unadulterated.
  2. Immersing the fish in saltwater or freshwater for a long time can help in the removal of formalin in fish since formalin is water-soluble.
  3. Cooking the fish thoroughly at a very high temperature can also help in removing the formaldehyde.

Apart from consumers, traders should also take measures to prevent the use of formalin in fish. Traders should generally refrain from the use of formalin. Instead, traders should invest in proper storage facilities with good insulation and temperature regulation. They should also ensure the safe transportation of fish using proper containers and ice-packing. They should also engage in the practice of screening the fish for formalin at the time of procuring goods.


High demand for fish has led to an increased amount of adulteration of fish, and this in turn has created numerous health issues for people. Strict laws regarding food safety and the ethics of fish production and supply should be implemented to protect consumers and traders from health risks related to excess exposure to formalin. In addition to that, we also have to be aware of the food in our diet. Both consumers and traders need to be aware of fish adulteration and take the necessary measures for a healthier and more ethical life.

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