Epidemic Dropsy – Pathology, Clinical Features, Prevention

  • Epidemic dropsy is a condition caused by consumption of mustard oil contaminated with argemone oil

How mustard oil gets contaminated:

  • Contamination may be accidental or deliberate
  • Argemone mexicana (Mexican prickly poppy) has seeds which resemble mustard seeds
  • They grow among the mustard crops as weed plants
  • They mature and produce seeds about the same time as mustard
  • During harvesting, the argemone seeds may get mixed with the mustard seeds
  • Also, unscrupulous dealers may mix argemone oil with mustard oil


  • Argemone oil contains a chemical – sanguinarine
  • Sanguinarine interferes with oxidation of pyruvic acid, resulting in its accumulation in blood

Clinical features:

  • Bilateral non inflammatory oedema of lower limbs
  • Diarrhoea
  • Dyspnoea
  • Glaucoma
  • Heart failure – may lead to death (5-50% mortality rate)

How to detect argemone oil?

  • Nitric acid test
    • Add nitric acid to a sample of oil to be tested
    • If argemone oil is present, it develops a brown to orange-red colour
    • This test can detect argemone oil at a concentration of 0.25%
  • Paper chromatography test:
    • Very sensitive – can detect argemone oil at a concentration of 0.0001%

Prevention of Epidemic Dropsy:

  • Accidental contamination may be prevented by de-weeding of argemone plants
  • Deliberate contamination should be dealt with using provisions of the ‘Prevention of Food Adulteration Act’

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