A hazard?

focussing excessively on neem-based products might be harmful to health. Kripa Awasthy from Jharkhand-based kkm College and Parimal Khan from Bihar-based Patna Women's College claim that leaf extracts of neem (Azadirachta indica) damage the genetic material of mice sperms. During their experiments, the researchers extracted the key ingredient of mature neem leaves. For a week, the ingredient was fed to mice in various concentrations (0.5/1/2 grammes per kilogramme of the body weight of the mice per day). Thereafter, testicular tissues of mice were scanned for possible damages. Changes in the structure and the quantity of sperms were also studied.

It was found that all three concentrations caused genetic damage. Mice fed two grammes of the ingredient had 25.4 per cent of their genetic material damaged, whereas the percentage for the control group was just 5.4. The extract also increased the abnormalities in the formation of the sperm heads from 4.03 per cent to 8.27 per cent. It decreased the number of sperms by half as compared to the control group. The researchers assert that neem could be a long-term genetic hazard and needs to be investigated further.

But some scientists do not agree with the findings. According to G P Talwar, former director of the New Delhi-based National Institute of Immunology, (who is currently carrying out clinical trials on a herbal contraceptive containing neem), the concentration of the extract is very high. Normally, a person who weighs 50 kilogrammes consumes just two grammes of neem leaves. Awasthi and Khan gave as high as 0.7 grammes of leaves per day to a mouse that weighed 25 grammes. "The study is not in tandem with the actual consumption patterns of neem,' says Talwar. Moreover, most neem products are applied on the skin, asserts G S Lavekar, director of the New Delhi-based Central Council for Research in Ayurveda and Siddha.

Warning bells about neem have also been sounded elsewhere. The Australian government has recently classified neem-based pesticides as poison. A study of the University of Glasgow, the uk, shows that the presence of azadirachtin