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Vol. 5 No. 4 - October 1999

'Dropsy'- An Epidemic Disease!

By: M.R. Suseela

'Dropsy' is a disease, which means swelling of the body. This epidemic disease created a havoc in Delhi and some parts of North India in 1998 during the months of August and September. Main symptoms of 'Dropsy' are: (i) swelling of the whole body especially legs (ii) gastrointestinal symptoms like vomitting, diarrhoea, loss of appetite (iii) tingling sensation in the skin (iv) tenderness in the calf muscles (v) increased intra-occular (inside the eye) pressure which is known as glaucoma.

The poison that causes these symptoms comes from a plant, Argemone mexicana which belongs to family Papaveraceae. Vernacular name of this plant is 'Satyanashi'. Argemone plant originally belongs to America. In India, it occurs as a local weed in cold seasons. It grows wild all over the country in wastelands, along roadsides and river sides. The name Argemone comes from the greek word argema, meaning a cataract in the eye. The juice of this plant was once very popular in the treatment of cataract but in fact it is dangerous to the eye. The name mexicana refers to its native place. Mexico.

The seeds are blackish brown, round and netted and resemble mustard seeds (Brassica nigra), although the seeds of Argemoneto have spiny edges, the mustard seeds are smooth surfaced. Mustard seeds are heavier and they drown in saline water while those of Argemone will keep floating. Seeds of Argemone yield 22-36% of pale yellow, nauseous, bitter, non-edible oil which is known as Katkar oil or Argemone oil. The oil is rich in two alkaloids, Sanguinarine and Dihydrosanguinarine. These two alkaloids are mainly responsible for the poisonous symptoms. If the Katkar oil is heated to 240C for 15 min it loses its toxic properties.

Katkar oil is cheaper than mustard oil and it is used to adulterate mustard oil. It is claimed that mustard and Argemone plants grow together, and ripen at the same time, since their mixing becomes unavoidable. But this is not true. Argemone grows in the fallow fields and mustard in the cultivated fields. The canopy of the mustard-plant does not let anything grow under it. An important fact is that mustard ripens in March and Argemone in May. So, there is no question of mixing up of seed, until and unless it is intentional.

Disease caused by Katkar oil is "Epidemic Dropsy". As the name indicates the disease occurs in epidemic form. The reason is that when adulterated oil comes in the market, several people consume it and fall ill at the same time. 'Dropsy' symptom of Argemone oil is marked swelling over the legs. The cause of the swelling is, the increased porosity of the blood vessels, which is caused by the alkaloid Sanguinarine. Because of the increased porosity, water from the blood vessels comes to lie in the tissues. This is mainly responsible for the swelling. Sometimes so-much water oozes out of the blood that it accumulates in the cavities around the heart and lungs. Liver enlargement takes place. Due to the dilution of blood vessels bluish mottling develop on the skin. Another characteristic symptom is the development of small, fleshy, dark red warty growths in the mucous membrane of cheeks, gums, tongue and nose. Due to the high intra-occular tension retinal haemorrhages also occur. Higher concentration of adulteration is fatal. Katkar oil is poisonous to animals too, but they do not show classical symptoms of epidemic dropsy.

Dr. M.R. Suseela is a Scientist in Algal Taxonomy at National Botanical Research Institute, Lucknow, India.

This article has been reproduced from the archives of EnviroNews - Newsletter of ISEB India.

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