13 August, 2022


Why Do ‘Vanniye-Attho’ & NCP Farmers Get CKDu While Their Cows Don’t?

By Chandre Dharmawardana

Dr. Chandre Dharmawardana

Dr. Amarasiri de Silva (AS), a retired anthropologist, has made a provocative contribution (Colombo Telegraph 15-11-2017 ) on chronic kidney disease of unknown origin (CKDu) that goes counter to main-stream scientific discourse (e.g., by Dr. Tilak Abesekera, Daily News, 9-3-2017), while strongly echoing the beliefs immensely popular with a section of the wider public. A young Swedish student named Wiveca Stegeborn (WS) who prepared a social-anthropology thesis on the Vanniye-Attho, i.e, “Veddahs”, is his main source of information. We are told that the Vanni-Attho contracted CKDu when they joined the Mahaweli settlements, adopted urban foods, and became farmers using “toxic agrochemicals”.

If AS and WS also imply that DDT and GMO seeds are being used, then we have some truly astounding claims in the article. AS pushes to extremes the seemingly credible public view of agrochemicals creating a toxic environment and causing chronic diseases. Accordingly,  (i) the use of agrochemicals since the 1970s has poisoned the soil, the water and the diet;  (ii) the NCP gets a `double whammy’ because the agrochemical runoff from the tea estates gets to the NCP via the Mahaweli irrigation system. The NCP farmers get chronic kidney disease (CKDu) in due course.

The present author held similar views prior to 2012. They had to be  drastically modified  during 2012 to 2014 when important field studies appeared. The first was the NSF-funded  WHO  study which medically bench-marked CKDu, and also showed that  toxins in the soil, water and the diet were well below the maximum allowed limits (MALS) for toxicity and hence safe. There was no arsenic or glyphosate, as claimed by the “Natha Deviyo” devotees linked to Dr. Jayasumana.

Dr. Sarath Amarasiri, a retired Director General of agriculture points out that when farmers tilled the land, vast flocks of egrets (“Kokku”) follow the ploughs to eat the exposed  earthworms and other bugs. If the soil had become toxic, it will not be teeming with organisms, and if they are toxic, the egrets should  also get sick. Clearly, the NCP soil and water are not “awash with toxins”.

The present writer used to ask, if the people in some NCP villages get sick, why not the cows? If it is a presence of cadmium in the rice, the cows get even more of it from the straw and the grass which also accumulate cadmium. Today many scientists think that they understand these puzzles, and why some Rajarata villagers get CKDu while their cows don’t, while other villagers and their cows also don’t get CKDu!   

Studies of the blood and urine of the patients showed that 97% of them had no significant traces of glyphosate, the most commonly used herbicide. A mild warning was raised in the WHO-NSF report about possibly elevated levels of cadmium in the diet, but this was also true of the  diet used in the rest of the country that does not have CKDu. The traces of cadmium found in the rice are  amply counteracted by the presence of other substances like zinc and selenium (just as is the case with cadmium-containing shell fish sold in Europe).

The lack of toxic agents in the soil and water was confirmed by independent research including a Japanese-Sri Lankan study led  by Dr Nanayakkara. A National Water Board (NWB) study by Dr. Pathmakumara Jayasinghe showed that the canals, rivers and reservoirs in the NCP had clean water, and that expensive Reverse-Osmosis (RO) machines are “cleaning” water which is already clean! The poor farmers, frightened by the threat of CKDU and toxins buy bottled RO water at Rs 2-3 per litre while Colombo gets water for pennies.

Dr AS has ignored the good work of the local medics and scientists. The NSF-WHO study, the Japanese study, the NWB study etc. , have been summarized  in popular articles by Dr. Waidyanatha, Dr. Tilak Abesekera and others. The young Swedish student prepared her thesis on the Vanniye-Aettho, but not on the chemistry of the local environment.

Social anthropologists like AS and WS should study the two adjacent villages named Badulupura and Saaragama, both in Girandurukotte, with common life styles, food, and kinship. And yet Badulupura has CKDu, while Saaragama is healthy. The Badulupura residents who use their private well water get CKDu, while neighbouring Saarapura , being closer to the agricultural land,  gets its water from irrigation canals or private wells connected  to the groundwater of the paddy fields. Research groups like CERTKID of the Kandy Hospital and the University find that  the consumption of water in isolated shallow household wells may be causing CKDu.

Peradeniya Chemists like Prof. Illeperuma, and Geologists like Professors Dissanayake, Chandrjith and others had noted that the endemic areas have hard water and a geology rich in fluoride. The present author and several colleagues argued (in a research paper) that Panabokke’s redox mechanism worked in the stagnant wells to progressively leach out fluorides and other mineral salts (known as Hofmeister-active salts) into the  well water.

Hard water has dissolved magnesium and calcium. If hard water containing fluorides were the cause of CKDu, one can immediately explain why the people in Badulupura got CKDu, and why those in Saaragama are healthy. We also understand why the cows don’t get CKDu. The cows do not drink water from wells, but drink surface water in canals and fields connected to the agricultural system.  AS and SW claim agricultural water to be contaminated, where as it is not.

A milestone  in Sri Lankan CKDu research was the work of Dr. Wasana, Dr. Bandarage et al. of the IFS, Kandy. They fed HARD water containing fluoride to laboratory rats, and established a dose dependent causal relationship between damaged kidneys in the rats, the fluoride, and hard water. If the water was free of fluoride, or if the water was soft, no kidney damage! Both hardness and fluoride were simultaneously necessary. The present write provided evidence that the magnesium in hard water joined itself to the fluoride forming a pair. Magenisum is not toxic; but it synergistically augments the toxicity of fluoride. Independent  experiments by Dr. Tammityagoda et al. (veterinary science) used water from endemic village wells and showed that mice fed on such water contracted CKDu, while mice given normal water remained healthy. These experiments, the geology of the endemic villages and the chemistry of the well water  led most scientists to conclude that CKDu in the NCP  is caused by consuming hard water  containing fluoride. Professor Gamini Rajapaksa’s Moneragala studies confirmed these conclusions. Provision of cheap clean water by harvesting rain water has been launched in many areas.

Scientists have shown that farmers are using agrochemicals in excess, especially with the free market in 1977 cutting out the agriculture department’s control on agrochemicals.  Such excessive use leads to algae blooms and environmental problems associated with phosphates, nitrates etc., in the water. The belief that the “heavy metal” toxins found in small amounts (parts per  million) in mineral fertilizers is

adding toxins to the soil is largely unsubstantiated. Simple calculations show that even with the highly contaminated (30 times more contaminated in Cd than what is allowed in Sri Lanka) Nauru phosphate used in New Zealand, even if used in Sri Lanka will take millenia to bring up the soil cadmium levels to levels exceeding the WHO soil-Cd levels (for details see sec. 7 of the present writer’s research paper in Environmental Geochemistry and Health ).

Sri Lanka’s department of agriculture (DOA)  has issued 25 booklets for the 25 districts, indicating where fertilizers are NOT needed, or how much is needed. The fertilizers and agrochemicals applied  should be designed for each soil. The DOA also indicates the locations inside districts where organic fertilizer is adequate, and when phosphates are not needed because the soil is already over-saturated due to previous excessive use of fertilizers. So the knowledge base is there, and the technical information needs to be broadcast and agrochemical sales have to be regulated for their optimal use. Unfortunately, agricultural policy is controlled from the Presidential secretariat by Ven. Ratana and others who have their own unscientific beliefs about how agriculture should be done in Sri Lanka. Their policies have made the effect of the prevailing drought even more serious, and the output from the agricultural sector (from tea to paddy to vegetables) across the board has dropped by 40%.

Agrochemicals are used thorough out the country, and especially in the hill plantations. But no CKDu and other diseases attributed to agrochemicals have been detected. We now understand why some villagers get CKDu while their cows stay healthy, or why other villagers escape the illness. Fluoride and hard water are not found together in the hill country, or in Jaffna where there is heavy agrochemical usage, and so there is no CKDu in those areas. The water in Jaffna is very hard (rich in calcium and magnesium), but there is no (significant amounts of)  fluoride to cause a synergistic action with fluoride or cadmium residues and cause nephrotoxicity.

Finally, let us look at the Swedish student’s views on the rural food culture, since they apply equally well to most of the country without CKDu.

(quote)… with time diabetes started to spread. It came with junk food, and with Cokes, Seven-Ups and Fantas … welfare coupons for sugar and white flour… The tea was no longer taken with honey or hackuru [Kithul jaggery], it was with refined sugar. …This is a common ailment among indigenous people introduced to a ‘western’ excessive food culture (end quote).

There is a tendency among the public to believe that “natural” foods, or “traditional” foods are safe while modern foods are “chemicals” and hence unsafe. In fact, everything is a chemical. If a food has been used traditionally, it has a very good chance of being safe when consumed by healthy people in moderate quantities. But there is never any guarantee that traditional preparations are safe according to modern criteria of heath risks until so proven.

Honey and jaggery are nearly as bad as refined sugar. Sugar is 50% fructose and 50% glucose, while honey (i.e., bee’s vomit) contains 40% fructose, 30% glucose while the remaining 30% is water, pollen and bio-matter from the bee. Honey has  some 31% more calories than sugar. The pollen can cause botulism especially in children younger than 12. Honey has similar effects as sugar on blood glucose levels, causing problem for diabetics, whether they are Vanniye-Attheo or not. The digestive tract absorbs fructose poorly, and the fructose end up in the liver, leading to metabolic problems including type-II diabetes. The American Diabetes Association regards  palm sugars (e.g, Jaggery) to be no better than pure sugar.

The embrace of “western food culture”, or the equally unhealthy “Kalu dodol, Kaevum, athiraha, kiri-paeni, ala dosi” or “baedum, ghee rice” etc by the Vanni-Aetto or anybody else reflects the lack of nutritional education in Sri Lanka. There were no courses on food science, environmental science etc., in any Sri Lankan university until the mid 1970s.  The present writer, as a Professor of Chemistry and as a  Vice Chancellor of the Vidyodaya (SJP) University  worked to introduce them to the university curriculum.   Course units in nutrition, health and environmental science  are badly needed even in our schools.

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Latest comments

  • 1

    Your rtcile is mostly sarcastic. Sri lankan research may not be that outstanding, but why the technologically well developed westerners are are so scared to pesticides and they implement integrated pest management programs. I read about the honey composition. It says, honey has about 4.0% oligosaccharides (that delays digestion) and the sugars are dehydrated because of that unavailable for fermentation. So, it should be the same in the gut, when compared with with refined sugar which is a disaccharide. those days, people were hard working. Now, heavy fertilizer use and pesticides should have undesirable effects on people. Read this about glyphosate, how EU is fighting for that, politicians vs environmental groups.; https://www.globalresearch.ca/glyphosate-the-battle-for-the-future-of-eu-pesticide-approvals-rages-on/5617248. there was an article today how pesticides inhibited politician by bees.

    • 1

      Dear Jimmy,
      If “politicians are inhibited by bees” as you claim, let’s get more of them. Oh, by the way, are these the same bees that are in your bonnet?

    • 0

      JimSofty has to understand that sugar which is disaccharide breaks down in the tummy into 50% fructose and 50% glucose, which is what the professor has said. Similarly, bees honey splits to 40% fructose an 30% glucose.
      There are EU politicians who also want to create an elitist world for the rich fed on organic food etc and there are large numbers of so called Greens in the political land scape. But the VAST majority of scientists dont agree with that. NOT ONE learned societry, academy of science, or regulatrory expert committee has supported the claim that glyphosate causes CKDu.
      The mainstream scinentific opinion ALL OVER THE WORLD is in keeping with what this professor has written.

  • 1

    Chandre ~ “Why Do ‘Vanniye-Attho’ & NCP Farmers Get CKDu While Their Cows Don’t?”
    Same reason why ‘Vanniye-Attho’ & NCP Farmers do not get ‘foot & mouth’ while their cows and bulls do

  • 1

    Dr. chandra dhramawardane: I am sure title is not by you. Why Rats and monkies are used for human simulated experiments and not cows or cattle ?. cows are fed Urea mixed with fodder. cows are not allowed to live longer. but humans. did any one check accumulation of heavy metals and toxins in milk ?
    DUMB OLD CODGER: Search and see. Don’t write like an idiot.

    • 0

      People have checked for heavy metal toxins in milk. Those are the easiest foods to check. It is more difficult to check the amounts of heavy metals in foods like rice. But this too has been done by UK group led by Prof mehrag, and also by the Pera University Prof. Chandrajith. But rice, vegetables, milk etc are consumed not only by the Rajarata people, but also by every body in the country. The problem is to explain why Just Those people get the illness. The distribution of fluoride and hardwater, and the fact that ONLY those who drink well water fit in with the fluoride theory but goes against the agrochrmical toxins theory.
      If agrochemicals are to blame, people who drink Mahaweli irrigation sater should get the illness.

    • 0

      Dumb Jim,
      Do you eat much fodder at the looney bin?

  • 0

    Pillai, JimSofty
    Kidney diseae is suffered by cows, or rabbits, or by mice and other mamals if they consume food, water containing Agrochemical resududs which bring in heavy metal toxins, nephrotoxic pesticides. So, what Pillai and JimSofty have missed is this basic fact. You compare apples with apples.

    Foot and mouth disease is a viral infection and a form of it can afect humans The human form is common amkng children and babies. But those are viral infections. You have to respect basic principles of disease aetiology or you come out with these howlers like comparing foot and mouth disease with kidney disease.

    If the title came from the editors, it is a masterstroke as it emphazises the eror in the claim that agrochemicals caused the CKDU. Cows should be more affected than farmers by toxic agrochdmicals.

  • 0

    Why are mice, rabbits, guinea pigs used in experiments and not cows?
    Actually, cows are sometimes used. But there are laboratory-bred mice and such
    Laboratory animal lines are optimally used for experiments. The author has mentioned lab experiments to test the fluoride hypothedid. It is easier to do experiments on mice. The effect of a drug for a whole life time is found with a mouse in a short time, while it takes many years with cows, and the experiments become expendivr

  • 0

    JimSofty says cows are fed UREA !
    You should get you basic facts right!

    • 0

      Looks like JimSofty was fed UREA right from birth. That is why all what he utters stinks.

  • 0

    I am glad to see that this writer has high lighted the great work done by Sli Lanksn scientists in solving the CkDu puzzel. Of course such research has been done in collaboration with international parterners like WHO, university of Tokyo etc. The author should have also mentioned the collaboration between uni. of North Carolina and SJP (Levine et al) University in 2016. They too confirm that agrochrmical toxins are NOT found in significant smounts in thewater and soil, roundly contradicting the claims of the snthropology prof Amarasiri and his student who are just parroting what the uninformed, frightened sector of the general public. Sweden has a lot of such people, but the Swedish govt is a big European user of agrochemicals. The swedish academy fully supports the correct use of agrochemicals.

  • 0

    some people have written some stupid comments. Probably, they are chandra dharmawardane’s students and mostly they are not familiar with any of these things they are talking instead, they have heard it.
    Another dishonest argument in this article is that Mahaweli water did not have any toxins. They should have measured at the outlets to see whether any fish are being killed. Otherwise, the toxins can be diluted. some stupid arguments. If those things were presented to a conference as the discussion of a research paper that would be good laughing material.
    That stupid cattle farmer who said, Cattle are not given Urea, just search the web and see. Ask real farmers and not the ones writing in the web and who knows farming only as a subject.
    for the dumb who commented about milk, you should have presented statistics related to milk analysis in Sri lanka with respect to this specific problem.
    Edward, you have mixed it, you say it.
    OLD CODGER: I know you that old dumb Tamil. You may struggling with amnesia. So, try to remember what you wrote.

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