In October 2020 President Nandasena Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s Office forced the Sri Lanka Standards Institute (SLSI) to authorize the release of over 12,000 metric tonnes of agricultural fertilizer contaminated with toxic levels of heavy metals lead (Pb) and cadmium (Cd).
The imported consignments of Triple Super Phosphate (TSP) used for the cultivation of paddy had not conformed to Sri Lanka standards for safe levels of heavy metals found in fertilizer, based on a letter issued by SLSI Director General Dr. Siddika Senaratne on 8 October 2020.
On 8 October 2020 a meeting was convened at the Presidential Secretariat, chaired by Secretary to the President Dr P. B. Jayasundera and attended by SLIS officials including Director General Senaratne, the Agriculture ministry officials and the National Fertilizer Secretariat. The subject of the discussion was the shortage of TSP fertilizer for the upcoming Maha Paddy cultivation season.
The SLSI had suspended the release of the TSP consignment after its inspection and testing found that the content of Lead and Cadmium in the imported fertilizer were higher than the maximum levels for toxic elements based on Sri Lanka standards specifications.
“Lead (Pb) and Cadmium (Cd) contents of imported fertilizer consignments of TSP which were inspected, tested and expected to be released for the cultivation of rice in the Maha Season are rather higher than the maximum limits for potentially toxic elements specified in the Sri Lanka standards specifications 812 – 1st revision 2014,” the letter from SLSI Director General Senaratne noted.
The contaminated consignment was imported by Ceylon Fertilizer Company (Ltd) (Lakpohora) under the Ministry of Agriculture.
Previously imported consignments of TSP have also contained more than double the lead and cadmium parts per million (PPM) permitted by Sri Lanka standards.
However, following the meeting at the Presidential Secretariat, Senaratne authorized the release of the consignment into the market, on a strictly conditional basis, considering, her letter said, the food security of the country.
Chronic exposure to cadmium can cause kidney, liver, and bone damage in humans. Lead and cadmium accumulate in the body over time, increasing the total body burden of these heavy metals over decades. Ingesting even small amounts of these metals will add to existing body burdens and should be avoided. Heavy metals have been linked to the Chronic Kidney Disease of Unknown etiology (CKDu) epidemic particularly in the North Central Province of Sri Lanka where paddy cultivation is the main livelihood.
The SLIS Director General shot to notoriety after she said that if the SLSI was to reveal the details of companies that imported foods to Sri Lanka that contained the carcinogen aflatoxin, the companies would go bankrupt. The media interview went viral in the wake of the coconut oil import scandal.
SLSI testing found massive stocks of coconut oil imported for food consumption in Sri Lanka were contaminated with aflatoxin. The Government has encouraged citizens to use soy bean oil for cooking instead of coconut oil while the contaminated stocks circulate in the local market, especially sold in loose form in the ‘pola’ and small retailers.
Speaking in Parliament on Tuesday (6) main opposition MP Dr Harsha De Silva raised the issue of the contaminated fertilizer stocks. De Silva tabled the documents first released on social media in the House and demanded that the Government respond to the concerns raised. (By Chinthika De Silva)