Baton Rouge Magnet High School student Anusha Zaman had a choice of attending two prestigious conferences in October.
She was selected to display her art piece at the 2015 International Get to Know International Unconference in Canada to discuss her work to save whales or present a paper about the betel nut at the Broadcom Masters Final Competition in San Francisco.
She opted for the San Francisco trip.
Her interest in the nut goes back to a visit she had to her homeland in Bangladesh several years ago when she discovered a disturbing practice among adults and children that involved the use of a particularly popular nut, she said.
The betel nut is a seed of the areca palm. Though it appears harmless, it is not.
When chewed as a mixture called betel quid, it creates euphoria and, over time, leads to addiction, according to the World Health Organization, which classifies the betel nut as a carcinogen.
Zaman’s research resulted in her placing second in the technology category of the Broadcom Masters Final Competition in San Francisco in early October. She was a top 30 finalist in the science and engineering fair competition and the sole representative for Louisiana.
“My attention was drawn to this subject when I went to my home country, Bangladesh, in 2011. I was surprised by the sheer number of people consuming this substance, as well as the number suffering from this disease (oral cancer) for which consuming (the nut) was the source,” she said.
For her presentation, research and experimental procedures, she won an iPad and $2,500 to attend a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) summer program.
Zaman’s topic is a headline grabber this year, too.
The betel nut is used by almost a 10th of the world’s population, according to a BBC news report. By combining betel leaf, areca nut and slaked lime, it becomes betel quid, which it is chewed for its stimulant and relaxation effects, according to the Centers for Disease Control. It also acts similarly as nicotine.
Zaman’s research focused on the betel quid and gutkha, which is tobacco, a popular substance mixed with the betel. While the betel nut is said to have positive effects such as freshening the mouth and assisting with digestion, research has proven that the negatives outweigh the positives, Zaman said.
According to the CDC, use of betel quid and tobacco are associated with tooth decay, oral deformities and oral cancer because of its cancer-causing agents. In addition, the chewing tobacco contains tiny shards of glass, which cut up the cheek cells for better absorption, Zaman said.
The practice of chewing betel is ancient. “The practice was began by young women of marriageable age who would chew it for the blood-red saliva it produces” and was found to be attractive by men, Zaman wrote in her research.
However, there is nothing attractive about its symptoms, which begin as red or white lesions that can lead to tumors, according to the CDC.
Consumed largely in Asia, Africa and parts of the world with Asian immigrants, its use in Taiwan has largely contributed to 5,400 men being diagnosed with oral cancer or precancerous lesions, according to a BBC report.
Zaman’s research also detailed the toxic effects of the nut on the body. “My project researched how the body attempts to remove such toxins through the expressions of genes which activate when the body comes into contact with toxins,” she wrote.
Zaman said the popularity of the nut is growing. “The usage of this uncontrolled substance is becoming much more popular overseas because of globalization and emigration,” she wrote. “While the numbers of consumers are increasing, education and awareness about the harmful effect of betel quid and associated substances, is not.”
While visiting Bangladesh, Zaman said she was shocked at the numbers of people consuming and suffering from the effects of the betel quid use.
“I wondered how so many could be oblivious to something that was literally under their noses,” she said.
Zaman said she is convinced that tradition and custom and lack of education are the driving force behind the nut’s success. She said children as young as 1 year old were allowed to chew the nut.
“I hope my studies will inspire others to study the betel quid in far more detail than the few studies up to date … And perhaps one day, this practice can be abolished.”