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News Features  


 

Furore over arsenic shakes agri sector
By Arthur Wamanan and Dinidu de Alwis

For decades, researchers have attempted to find the cause for the kidney diseases faced by a large number of people in the North Central province, in what was called the Rajarata Chronic Kidney Disease (RCKD). Several hypotheses were given, and some remained while others were scientifically debunked.
Then a team of scientists headed by Prof. Padmini Paranagama, Head of the Chemistry Department at Kelaniya University, ventured out to find the causes of RCKD late last year. The team was advised by Prof. Nalin de Silva, Dean of the Faculty of Science, Kelaniya University.
Their findings, which were announced over the process of the last fortnight, managed to shake Sri Lanka’s agriculture sector to the core, questioned the processes that are in place to regulate the import and distribution of agricultural chemical, and caused panic in some areas of the country as fears slowly swept through the island.
The community has now been divided: On one side the scientists who conducted the research say that large amounts of Arsenic were found from the samples they collected. “We collected blood, tissue and hair samples from cadavers, we took samples of drinking water, trees and other vegetation in the area,” says Paranagama. She remains confident of the methodology they adopted – which is supposed to be a new method of detecting Arsenic – and the findings they have.
Paranagama says as part of attempting to find the source of Arsenic, they tested pesticides which were most common in the area. “We tested around fifty commonly available agricultural chemicals, and over half of them were found to contain Arsenic in the range of 1000-3000 parts-per-billion (ppb) of Arsenic”.

Biggest shocker
The biggest shocker for the general public was the claim that Paranagama’s team made, saying that rice samples tested also contained Arsenic. When contacted by The Nation, Paranagama refused to disclose the exact amounts found, but said that up to 100ppb was found in some of the rice samples tested.
“We found Arsenic not only in rice grown in the area, but in vegetables, cucumbers, corn, and even the Kohomba (Margosa) trees in the area have it. It’s everywhere,” said Dr. Channa Jayasumana who was part of the research team.
Rice Research and Development Institute (RRDI), a state body that functions as the overarching authority on rice, says that rice in the market is completely safe to consume.
According to the RRDI, there is no set maximum permissible level of Arsenic that has been set for rice in Sri Lanka, but the figure that China regulates is 150ppb. RRDI says they tested 60 samples of rice, and have obtained the results of 20 of them.

“None of the 20 samples that we got results for returned positive for Arsenic, and the test has a minimum detectable level of 50ppb,” a spokesperson for the RRDI said.
Registrar of Pesticides – the state’s governing body – was quick to explore into the matter and refute it. They obtained a list of 28 pesticides from the scientists at Kelaniya, and tested them for the presence of arsenic. The RoP says that the testing process is completely thorough and in line with international standards of testing, and that the testing process is clearly laid out in regulations.
“Pesticides, at the point of sale, in a single container was divided into three equal samples and sealed in front of the shop owner. One of the sealed samples was given back to the shop owner with written instruction to keep it safely. Other two samples were brought to the RoP office and one of the samples is kept locked up and the other was sent for analysis,” the Rop said in a statement.

According to the RoP, regulations stipulate that the testing has to be conducted by an ‘Authorised Analyst,’ and the institution they referred the samples to was the Industrial Technology Institute (ITI) – a body that has been in the research industry for a long period and is the trusted source for the average population for drinking water testing.
The results showed that out of the 28 samples that were submitted, three in fact did contain Arsenic, but not to the levels that the initial team of scientists allege. Serial numbers ROP2, ROP9 and ROP23 contained 334, 166 and 370ppb respectively.
Ministry of Agriculture, under which the RoP operates, says it took steps to remove the three products from the market.

“The Arsenic upheaval in the country led me to temporarily hold importation, distribution and sale of the Arsenic positive products. Before ordering the restrictions, the RoP office had taken stock of the products in hand of these companies and ordered them to inform their agents around the country not to sell the products. The RoP office also had directly informed the agents of companies and had taken steps to monitor retail sale shops islandwide through authorised officers appointed by the Director General of Agriculture, according to the provisions of the Act. This monitoring is possible as all shops which sell pesticides are registered in the RoP office,” the Registrar said in the statement.
Although they refused to provide The Nation with the trade names of the three pesticides to verify their claims, they say they are completely confident that the entire stock of the pesticides that contain Arsenic have been withdrawn to the last bottle.
The Customs Department is conducting its own investigations into the presence of Arsenic in pesticides. A highly placed official at the Customs told The Nation that the department was still in the process of conducting investigations on the issue, but refused to comment on the progress of the investigations or the findings so far as they were not complete.

The source however said that the importation of pesticides were carried out based on the approval of the Registrar of Pesticides (RoP), and added that the Customs was not aware of the standards to be followed when it came to pesticides and added that the RoP was responsible for looking into the technical aspects of the matter. The source added that the Customs would then act based on the approval of the RoP.
“The whole process is handled and controlled by the Registrar of Pesticides. The approval is given by the RoP. The RoP in turn hands over the details of the pesticides that have been cleared,” he said.
“There are countries where their soil has Arsenic. But it is not the case with Sri Lanka. The soil is not contaminated with arsenic. If there is Arsenic, then it has to have come from the pesticides or other chemicals,” the source added.

In responding whether the Arsenic found in the pesticides has directly impacted the health of the population of the country, the Registrar said “It is not possible for me to decide whether the levels of Arsenic detected are harmful for the human health and environment. To take such decisions there is a Pesticide Technical and Advisory Committee (PeTAC) appointed according to the Act”.
“This committee, chaired by the Director General of Agriculture, consists of 15 members of which 10 members are ex-officio including the secretary to the Ministry of Health, Directors of Tea, Rubber, Coconut Research Institutions, the Government Analyst and representatives from Sri Lanka Standards Institute and Labour Commissioner. Other five members are appointed by the Minister of Agriculture include respected professionals with experience in research and use of pesticides who do not have any commercial interest related to pesticide industry,” he said.

The Registrar says once the complete analytical report of all concerned pesticides is received from ITI, the results will be submitted to the PeTAC for the recommendation on action needed to be taken on Arsenic contaminated pesticides. If the committee decides that the levels of Arsenic found could harm human health or the environment the pesticides will be banned. Otherwise the restrictions will be removed.
Both testers however, fully back their claims.

From the side of the ITI, they say that they have been in the industry for decades, that their equipment are of the highest standard, and they partake in world-wide exercises to ensure that the services they provide are of the highest quality. “Unless staffers have years of experience behind them, and unless we’re completely sure of the quality of the work they do, we don’t let them handle a test on their own,” a spokesperson for ITI said.
For Nalin de Silva, backing his “new” methodology and his team of scientists comes with ease. “If anyone doubts the quality of our research, they are more than welcome to come to our laboratories and observe our tests,” he says adding “we expect to be granted the same privileges.

Speaking to The Nation, Minister of Agriculture Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena said that Sri Lanka is the country with the lowest use of pesticide and weedicides in Asia, adding, “The lesser chemicals you use for agriculture purposes, the better. I reiterate however, that the rice in Sri Lanka is completely suitable for consumption and that people have nothing to worry about.”
He also urged the agriculture sector to minimise the usage of chemicals in production, and said that government hopes to implement measures to further reduce the amount of pesticides and weedicides used in the agriculture industry.