I went to Delhi ’s most visited mall Select City , since we have a weekly stall for puppy/kitten adoption. The owner took me on a tour of the mall and pointed out a star attraction- a fish pedicure.

I have rarely seen anything more disgusting. People put their feet into a tub of small live fish who chew off the dead flesh of the heels and underneath the toes.  Man’s ability to be cruel and ridiculous seems to have no limits.

When I came home I looked up this bizarre practice on the Net and found that it started in 2006  in Japan but is now being done in many countries  with all sorts of people making a quick buck from beauty parlours to ‘street traders’ at markets with storage boxes full of fish. In 2008 it started in the United States and in 2010 in U.K.

The fish being used is the Garra rufa or the toothless Reddish Logsucker. Garra rufa is native to the river basins of the Northern and Central Middle East, mainly in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. Since it has been “discovered” for this gruesome trade, it has become so overfished that Turkey has banned it for export – and so it is an illegal smuggler’s fish.

The fish is touted as a tool to treat patients suffering from various skin disorders including psoriasis and eczema. The spas say that the fish will consume the dead and diseased areas of the skin, leaving the healthy skin to grow. This is not true. Filtration systems of tanks that have been analyzed have shown blood and healthy skin as well.

But before I get to the medical aspect, let me tell you about the cruelty aspect.

Fish need a stable environment, with the correct water quality and temperature range. In the ocean or river the fish can swim to a clean environment. But confined to a tub, they are exposed to smelly, grimy feet, nail polish, creams and lotions which leach into the water. Similarly, chemicals used to disinfect tanks and to clean patients' feet beforehand are potentially extremely toxic to the fish.

Garra rufa eat dead skin but only small amounts. But this is not their food. They eat like other fish do : they forage for algae – particularly green algae, small water fleas, woodlice, shrimps, rotifers - microscopic invertebrates with a wheel-shaped crown of projecting threads, and protozoa , insect larvae, freshwater worms and  tardigrades -tiny water animals with a short body and four pairs of stubby legs. The skin-feeding behaviour manifests only under conditions where the food supply is scarce and unpredictable. The fish must be starved to eat skin, which is extreme cruelty. Here they are eating dead human skin all day long. It is not uncommon to see a number of dead fish floating in each tank, with the primary cause of death being ammonia and nitrate poisoning or overfeeding.

Garra rufa fish belong to river basins, they do not belong in barren tanks inside artificially lit salons or in buckets in malls. People set up fish pedicure businesses with little or no experience in caring for the large quantities of fish that are required to run the business. In a few months all the little creatures are dead.  

If cruelty to these river basin fish does not interest you, what about severe risks to your health? Many countries and 14 states of the USA and Canada have banned the practice as unsanitary and dangerous. It is neither a medical nor a cosmetic procedure. Fish pedicures are just revenue enhancers for struggling salons and unscrupulous entrepreneurs.

In the UK, the Health Protection Agency issued a statement in October 2011 warning that fish foot spas could potentially spread blood borne viruses such as Hepatitis and HIV if infected clients bleed into the spa water and if someone with a cut or abrasion were to use a tank containing traces of blood from an infected person with cuts? Inspection teams found fish tank water contained a number of harmful micro-organisms and that infections could be transmitted from fish to person (during the nibbling process) and person to person via the bacteria which multiply in water. The report said: Infections could spread through open sores or blisters. People with weak immune systems or underlying medical conditions like diabetes. Bacteria that cause salmonellosis and legionnaires’ disease could come through broken skin. Staphylococcus aureus might infect people’s skin if they have eczema or psoriasis. A bacterium called Mycobacterium marinum, which is associated with fish tanks and non-chlorinated swimming pools, could cause boils if transferred into broken skin. Fungi are known to survive on inanimate surfaces for prolonged periods and could be passed on by infected clients walking around barefoot.

The report recommended that people who should not have a fish pedicure as they may increase the risk of infection or pose an infection risk to other clients are:

-have had their legs waxed or shaved in the previous 24 hours as they may have tiny cuts.

-have any open cuts, wounds, abrasions or broken skin on the feet or lower legs

-have athlete’s foot or warts, psoriasis, eczema or dermatitis ,diabetes, hepatitis B, hepatitis C or HIV, have bleeding disorders or take anticoagulant medication (for example, heparin or warfarin)  

While salons say they use ultraviolet lights and filters to keep the tanks clean but how do you sanitize epidermis eating fish? Even if the fish are changed for each person, no one has a limitless supply and no fish are killed after each nibbling session. Due to the cost of the fish, salon owners are likely to use the same fish multiple times with different customers, which increases the risk of spreading infection. Do fish spas provide their clients with medical information on potential risks? Are client’s feet examined both before and after treatment to make sure they are free from cuts and infections? Staff should log that these checks have been performed. Are feet thoroughly washed and rinsed before a pedicure to minimise the number of micro-organisms transferred into the tank. If bleeding occurs is the tank drained and cleaned thoroughly. Indian officials have been very negligent:

Since the fish are Turkish how did they get into India? Do the owners have any customs certification or CITES permission since this fish is protected in its home country and export is banned. Imagine someone keeping a Sumatran tiger in their shop. The first question would be how it came into the country. The same principle applies to fish.

A fish is a live animal. It has to be kept in a licensed aquarium or a meat/fish shop and is subject to rules. It certainly cannot be kept in a beauty parlour or mall shop that has not been licensed to sell or use fish.

Since Garra rufa are expensive, some salons are using another type of fish, the Chinese Chinchin, which is often mislabelled as Garra rufa and used in fish pedicures. This grows teeth and can draw blood, increasing the risk of infection

Environmentally Garra rufa is a threat to native plant and animal life if released into the wild. Many misguided salon owners simply pour live fish into drains or ponds after they have "used" them.

Maneka Gandhi

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