The claim that Sri Lankan soils and its agricultural produce are full of toxins, and that it is a “killing field” is an attractive slogan for those foreign agents who compete with Sri Lanka’s agricultural products. It is also a useful cry for those who want to destroy the rural landscape and replace it by an urban Megalopolis. Tea, rice and most leafy vegetables and grains accumulate toxins from the soil during the plant’s period of growth, and the toxin accumulation in the rice grains or tea leaves, can be as much as a hundred times larger than in the soil. The straw and leaves can also have high toxin levels and using such matter for composting also becomes problematic, if we indeed have “killing fields” full of toxins. Fortunately, we don’t have such “killing fields”.
Some of our own writers have unwittingly embraced the popular view of a toxin-filled “killing field”, without comparing the toxicity data for Sri Lanka with data for other countries like UK, Belgium, Malta, New Zealand, or India etc, before making a strong pronouncement condemning Sri Lanka. In 2013 Dr. Asoka Bandarage wrote a blog to Huffington Post reflecting the extreme views popular with the public, also articulated by Venerable Ratana and after 2015 by the Presidential Secretariat. They launched the “Toxin-free Nation” slogan and wrought havoc with the agricultural sector of the country. More recently, Dr. Amarasiri de Silva, an anthropologist now based in the USA also wrote similar articles, but here invoking the “authority” of a young Swedish student studying the Veddas (“Vanniye Aeththo”), to claim that Sri Lanka is awash with toxins. Drs. Ashly de Vos and Prassana Cooray have expressed similar, but more measured sentiments in the Island newspaper. Nothing is more far from reality.
The X-ray Radiograph given in Dr. Bandarage’s 2013 blog has little to do with Kidney disease and seems to be an investigatory pyelogram. Perhaps it was not Dr. Bandarage, but Huff Post who placed a file photo without any thought, but designed to emphasize the alleged “killing fields” aspect. Here is the link to Dr. Bandagae’s 2013 article.
Cadmium is probably the most dangerous heavy-metal toxin that may be present in the soil, water, diet, tobacco etc. Below are some figures from advanced countries for the amount of cadmium found in the soil, and for Sri Lankan soils.
(Data from FAO soil bulletin 65, the Wolfson British Geochemical map, and other sources.)
- location Cd in mg/Kg of soil
- Shipham, (in Somerset) UK 9 -360 mg/kg
- UK average about 1
- Belgium av. 3.5
- Malta av. 2.5
- Sri Lanka av. less than 0.05 mg/kg
These countries have acquired a lot of pollution from 200 years of industry, mining, use of coal, and since the 20th century, use of gasoline (petrol) and diesel. The pollution has NOT come from agrochemicals. When scientists point out these facts, they are accused of defending the agrochemical companies and scientists are labeled “paid agents of agri-business”. Some academic scientists may be consultants to agrochemical companies who may ask them to solve problems that the company scientists do not want to engage in. Then the scientist is paid for the job he/she does. For instance, Monsanto or Bayer may consult a scientist’s views to reduce and evaluate the toxicity of a new product line. However, such companies have their own well equipped in-house research units far excelling university installations. If a “contract” is given to an academic institution, then it is usually to study some rather fundamental aspect with no short-term or market implications. These contracts do not in most cases vitiate what that scientist may write in the peer-reviewed literature. Furthermore, full disclosure of “conflict of interest” is the norm, unlike with NGO’s who are answerable to none.
Let us look at the data instead of hurling accusations. The use of agrochemicals and disease ANTI-CORRELATE with each other as seen from the following comparison.
- Country Use of Agrochemicals per annum
- El Savador (has CKDu) 71 kg/hectare
- Sri Lanka 250 kg/hectare (mostly in the Tea estates)
- NCP in Sri Lanka (CKDu) 50-100 kg/hectare per year
- New Zealand (no CKDu) 1200 kg/hectare
- Qatar (no CKDu) 11,000 kg/hectare
Significant progress has occurred in understanding the cause of CKDu, even in the face of the constant vilification that scientists and doctors have had to face from the public, led by environmental advocacy groups espousing ideology-based explanations of the disease unsupported by any research. The book “Wakugadu Hatana”, written by Dr. Jayasumana, and carrying a forward by Dr. Gunadasa Amarasekera is an example of how such advocacy groups unfairly accuse leading researchers of being in the “pocket of agrochemical companies”, with no evidence to support such claims.
Scientists who apply for research grants without implicating agrochemicals allegedly get no grant money in the prevailing ethos of Sri Lanka. Nevertheless, a tentative mainstream scientific consensus has emerged from the multi-disciplinary studies undertaken by CERTKID, a joint effort including Peradeniya University, the Kandy Hospital and other scientists.
Dr. Tilak Abesekera, a leading Nephrologist of the Kandy Hospital and Peradeniya University presented the current scientific view on chronic kidney disease in the Daily News in early 2017. That was written prior to an important study on CKDu published in the renowned journal Nature by Dr. Wasana et al. Nevertheless Dr. Abesekera’s article gives the right picture.
The mainstream view of the cause of CKDu in Sri Lanka is that those who regularly consume water from wells contaminated with fluoride (and having hard water) contract CKDu. This was proved by feeding such water to laboratory mice. A more general perspective on the matter, taken in the context of the Kangaroo Court held in the Hague by the so-called “citizen-led” trial, the banning of glyphosate etc., may be read in Dr. Jayasumana and Ven. Ratana formed the “Sri Lankan delegation” at this Gilbertian Nanki-Poo trial, to implicate glyphosate for CKDu even though 97% of the CKDu patients have no significant glyphosate found in their biopsies.
CKDu can be prevented by providing clean drinking water to the affected villages. Even in the affected villages, those who drink water from tanks, agricultural canals etc., do NOT contract the disease. The affected people live away from the irrigation water and use their own wells in the higher ground. Dr. Manthrithileke et al of the International Water Board showed (using tracer isotopes) that these suspicious wells were isolated from the agricultural water table. The endangered parts of the villages are not too far from the irrigation canals water can be piped in from the canals. Many of these house holds now collect rainwater from their roofs using large tanks that store the monsoon water. This program was began by many concerned individuals including the late Mr. Ranjith Mulleriyawa who lived among the people and focused on the water problem of the affected parts of the villages. Unfortunately, instead of such simple solutions, the Government and some influential officials pushed the purchasing of expensive “Reverse-Osmosis” (RO) plants from the USA etc.. They sell bottled water to poor farmers at as much as Rs 2-3 a bottle! Such plants may have been an understandable initial knee-jerk solution in the face of public fear mongering (“killing fields”), but it is no longer justified today. Furthermore, RO plants are a constant drain on foreign exchange as the necessary filters and electronic parts etc., have to be imported, and the machines themselves will have to be replaced in about 5 or 6 years.