The wife of one of my friends, professor of chemistry died of cancer. At her funeral, which took place a few months ago, some of us, among other subjects, discussed about the high rate of cancer and chronic kidney disease (CKD) prevailing in Rajarata. Many scientists, who were there as mourners, attributed CKD to contamination of soil and water with heavy metals such as cadmium (Cd), lead (Pb) and nickel (Ni). However, one of my friends in the forum insisted that it was due to contamination of arsenic (As). As a layman in the presence of those eminent scientists, I asked them if that was the case, why they have so far failed to prove it ‘scientifically’ instead of having difference of opinion, such as fluoride content in Rajarata soil, presence of some algae in Rajarata tanks and so on.
To my query, a friend of mine in the forum came up with rather an ‘unscientific explanation’. According to him, some Devas - Diety (not almighty!) had guided certain interested parties who could converse with them to formulate a chemical elementary analysis and as a result, those who had been so guided were able to trace arsenic in living beings in CKD affected areas. Although my friend, a person with some academic credentials, his notion was scoffed at by many of his counterparts in the informal forum. However, being a student of scientific methodology, I had no alternative than to agree with my friend as I held the view that there was no specific method to gather knowledge on nature.
Weedicides and pesticides
It has to be remembered that sharing a common notion, venerable Athuraliye Rathana Thera, Professor Nalin de Silva, Professor Priyani Paranagama, Dr Channa Jayasuman, Mrs. Priyantha Senanayaka and a few others were bold enough to challenge all those who were disinclined to agree with them on the subject of CKD in Rajarata. They categorically and more scientifically were able to attribute CKD to excessive contamination of arsenic in Rajarata soil due to chemical fertilizer and agrochemicals used as weedicides and pesticides.
Regrettably, instead of appreciating the commitments and commending the findings of those patriotic, honest, dedicated humane professionals and academics, they were discarded, alienated and vilified by some vested interests. Many mercantile companies dealing with agrochemicals initiated publishing full paged advertisements, threating legal action against those eminent people. Some others made use of unscrupulous professionals to counter the arguments of those genuine men and women. Certain testing laboratories accredited to government, shamefully had issued faked test reports denying traces of arsenic in samples of agro chemicals, referred to them for testing purposes.
Also, there were instances of container loads of arsenic contaminated agrochemicals, detained in our harbor warehouses, being released by orders of Finance Ministry higher officials of our country. Some gullible politicians also went to the extent of declaring that issues related to arsenic contamination were calculated moves to destabilize the government. Further, it was castigated as being a conspiracy backed by some multinational companies to discourage consumption of rice and to promote sales of USA wheat flour!
Final report on CKD
After a two year thorough study (2010-2012), the World Health Organization (WHO) has now released its final report on CKD and its major causes. Six high profiled investigators and about thirty scientists had been involved in this 100 million rupee project, which will undoubtedly go down in our history as subject of national importance. Let us go through their findings.
• The overall prevalence of CKD in Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Badulla districts in people aged 15-70 years is 15 percent. (This indicates the gravity of the problem.)
• There is evidence of long-term exposure of people in these areas to low levels of cadmium and arsenic.
• The heavy metal content of the soil indicates that exposure is through the food chain; water is not the source of exposure to heavy metals. (Our foods are being contaminated and the relevant figures indicate that even in other areas (non CKD) arsenic level is high, leading to other diseases like cancer, diabetics or heart ailments.)
• The contamination of soil appears to be mainly from fertilizer and also from agrochemicals. (This revelation exposes all those who tried to conceal the truth about chemical fertilizer and agro chemicals.)
The WHO, in addition to its findings has made some recommendations to arrest the situation, such as educating people on appropriate use of fertilizer and agrochemicals, introducing compulsory provision of safety clothing, gloves and masks at the point of sale of agrochemicals, controlling the sale of agrochemicals which are known to be nephrotoxic and as a long-term solution, promoting the use of alternative fertilizer, etc.
Some fifty years ago (1962), Rachael Carson authored the book -Silent Spring - to educate the USA citizens about agrochemicals (DDT specially) and chemical-based agriculture. This publication earned the wrath of the mafia in the agrochemical business and as a result, she was subjected to isolation, humiliation and attacks. However, in the end, this book became sort of a new bible for millions of nature lovers, world over. The 2012 WHO report will definitely be a watershed in the history of agriculture in our country and to make it more fruitful every endeavor must be taken to implement its recommendation with any delay.