Thursday, July 8, 2010

Castor oil and its origins

Castor oil plant (Ricinus communis)

Castor oil is produced from the seeds of the castor oil plant known in Maltese as siġra tar-riċnu.  This tree is a native of east Africa but is now cultivated for its seeds and as a garden plant in most warm parts of the world. In Malta it is an introduced species that grows profusely in some valleys.

 It is very common at Għajn Riħana and Chadwick Lakes as well as around the Valletta fortifications and other urban areas. It has taken over some areas at the cost of local species and where it grows it leaves little space for less aggressive species.

The oil is used extensively in the manufacture of soaps, lubricants, hydraulic and brake fluids, paints, pharmaceuticals and perfumes. It is mixed with sulphuric acid to produce Turkey Red Oil which is the only oil that completely disperses in water thus making it useful for the manufacture of bath oils. It was the first synthetic detergent after ordinary soap.

The seeds contain a dangerous chemical known as ricin while the rest of the plant contains other poisons which can cause allergic reactions and permanent nerve damage. Agricultural workers in India, Brazil and China often suffer harmful side effects because of these chemicals.

 Chemists are thus trying to find alternative chemicals to be used instead of castor oil while plant geneticists are trying to develop varieties which do not contain ricin.

Castor oil is also used in food additives, flavourings and in packaging. It is sometimes used as a laxative in the treatment of constipation and a derivative is used as a treatment for skin disorders. Other products derived from castor oil are used in skin conditioners, shampoo, lipstick and lip balm.

Castor oil has been and is still used in traditional medicine to treat skin problems, burns, skin cuts and abrasions.

It is also used as a rub for abdominal pains, headaches, muscle pains, inflammatory conditions, lesions and sinusitis. It has been used to induce childbirth but this use has been discontinued as its use causes a lot of stress to the mother and baby and leaves the woman dehydrated as a result of vomiting and diarrhea.

In south Egypt, women use a large spoonful dosage of castor oil to prevent pregnancy for one year. In is said that in Fascist Italy paramilitary groups used to force-feed castor oil to political dissidents. This was followed by a beating with a night stick. Sometimes the victims died while those who survived had to suffer the humiliation of the laxative effects of the castor oil.

This article appeared in The Times of 30.06.10

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