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Opinion

Absurd standardss on Cadmium and Lead in fertilizers

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An opposition member of parliament, Dr Harsha De Silva raised the issue of “contaminated” fertilizer stocks in the House. News reports and social media state that fertilizers “Laced with Unsafe Levels” of Lead and Cadmium have been released in Sri Lanka. Exposure to even small amounts of these heavy metals over time, mainly through the food chain, or by smoking, causes kidney, liver, bone and neurological damage in humans, leading to a variety of chronic diseases.

According to the news reports “The SLSI had suspended the release of the TSP consignment after it found that Lead and Cadmium in the imported fertilizer were higher than the maximum levels for toxic elements based on Sri Lanka standards specifications……However, following a meeting at the Presidential Secretariat, Director Senaratne authorized the release of the consignment into the market, on a strictly conditional basis, considering the food security of the country”.

Anyone reading the news would be justifiably alarmed, as both cadmium and lead are toxic substances that should not get into the food chain, even in small concentrations. However, we point out here that the fault is not in the imported fertilizer, but in the ridiculous standards stipulated by those who wrote Sri Lanka’s standards for heavy metal residues in fertilizers. This is a topic that I have addressed in newspaper articles as well as in technical studies [e.g., Dharma-wardana, Environmental Geochemistry and Health volume 40, pages 2739–2759 (2018) ].

This report must be taken in the backdrop of news about toxins in coconut oil, as well as the attempt of a TV-media host to make the SL Standards Institute (SLSI) Director Dr. Senaratne to reveal names of companies alleged to have imported contaminated coconut oil. She quite correctly stood her ground and declined to reveal names and make public accusations.

The Director of a scientific laboratory is not mandated to act as a public prosecutor. However, her answer showed that scientists are not media savvy and may give totally inappropriate answers that media outlets seek to create media hype. The fact that media hosts should try to destroy due process, and create “instant exposés” in an inappropriate manner, show the extent of the decline in public standards of justice and fair play in the country.

However, let us use this opportunity to educate ourselves regarding toxic substances in general, and heavy metals in fertilizers, in particular. Due to lack of space, here we examine only the case of cadmium, whose Sri Lankan standards are stated in SLS-812-standard-1988, amended and re-approved in 2008. This says that a kilo of TPS fertilizer cannot contain more than 5 mg of cadmium (or 10.9 mg per kg of P2O5). This is an absurd specification, which is impossibly LOW, such that there are very few mineral sources that conform to such a specification.

Let us look at this in comparison with the standards required by other countries for cadmium in fertilizer.

Each country, and sometimes each state or province of a country, sets its standards based on the naturally existing cadmium levels in its soil. Most parts of the UK have very high cadmium levels in its soil, and so inputs of Cd via fertilizers make little difference. Some parts of Western Europe (e.g, Brittany, in France, or parts of Holland) have low natural levels, while Belgium is as contaminated as the UK. So the European Union, as a whole, hopes to gradually tighten its standards and move to 20 mg/kg by 2040. But Sri Lanka has already, in 1988 itself, set its Cd limit at the impossibly low value of 5 mg/kg !

Was this very low limit set already in 1988 so as to disallow every imported batch of fertilizer, so that it can be allowed only when the right pockets are filled? Did the ring of racketeers with greased palms get broken, or did it not change with the change of government, and was this the reason why this matter had to go right up to the top for the “approval” of a perfectly safe and fine fertilizer? The fertilizer has been “condemned” as being “laced with cadmium” and other heavy metals using deliberately contrived specifications ?

How clean the food you eat depends fundamentally on the cleanliness and ecology of the soil to start with. It is only secondarily dependent on the purity of fertilizers in regard to trace metals, or the presence of traces of pesticides; even though a very different hype has been developed in the media for the consumption of a public frightened for its health and ready to even believe people like Dr. Mercola (see:

http://www.dailynews.lk/2018/11/07/features/167704/toxic-cocktail-myth-and-truth) or even “Dr”. Dhammika Bandara inspired by Kaali Amma.

All soils have a certain amount of naturally occurring toxins, as well as toxins from human activity, e.g, earth works, mining, farming, burning of fossil fuels or forests that cause acid rain and noxious fumes, and poor disposal of garbage. Even organic farming, often believed to be clean and “natural”, produces toxins similar to those in mineral fertilizers, as composting plant matter leads to the cyclic accumulation of heavy metals like cadmium and lead found naturally in the soil, and re-concentrated in plant matter used for composting.

Mineral fertilizers like triphosphate (TPS) are mined from the ground, usually from desert locations (e.g., in Morocco, Nauri Islands in New Zealand). These mineral deposits are becoming increasingly scarce and phosphates are a threatened commodity. Mineral fertilizers applied to the soil also contribute some cadmium (and other trace metals) to the soil.

Let us take an “extremely polluted sample” of fertilizer by Sri Lanka’s specification, e.g. Nauru phosphate which has some 90 mg/kg of cadmium, i.e., 15 times more than that specified by the current absurd SL standard. We have shown (e.g., https://doi.org/10.1007/s10653-018-0140-x)

that it will still take many centuries to modify the cadmium levels in, say, Sri Lankan soil significantly by such fertilizer additions. Hence even such a so-called “bad” fertilizer, but used in Australia and New Zealand, would be perfectly safe for use in Sri Lanka too.

Sri Lanka has a deposit of phosphate minerals at Eppawala. While it is quite high in its arsenic contamination, it has very low cadmium contamination. Some people have urged the government to exploit the Eppawala deposits. I have opposed this as the conversion of the rock phosphate to usable TPS etc., is a highly polluting process that is best done far away from human habitations – i.e., unsuitable for Sri Lanka. In any case, a local production will also cost three to ten times more than what is available in the international market. Given the increasing scarcity of phosphate, the local deposit should be regarded as a national treasure that must be conserved for future use, until cleaner nano-technological methods for mineral exploitation become available.

Hence, I urge the government to change the cadmium and other heavy metal specifications used in Sri Lanka to conform to modern scientific knowledge, and align its standards with values used internationally. Having looked at the level of cadmium in Sri Lankan soils, I believe that an appropriate standard for Sri Lanka is to set its upper level for cadmium to be about 100-150 mg per kg of Phosphate, instead the current absurdly low value.

 

CHANDRE

DHARMAWARDANA

Canada

The author is currently affiliated with the National Research Council of Canada, Ottawa, and the University of Montreal. He was a past VC and Professor of Chemistry at Vidyodaya/SJP university.



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Opinion

Minister Gamini Lokuge’s damage to people’s health

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Two consecutive editorials, published in The Island on the 7 and 8 May, lambasted the despicable intervention of the Minister of Transport, Gamini Lokuge, for being instrumental in lifting the lockdown, in Piliyandala, against the advice of the health authorities.

A team of health officials, led by the MOH Piliyandala, backed by PHIs, and the DGHS, based on the recommendations of his officers, decided to lock down the Piliyandala town, as it had taken a turn for the worse, due to the rapid spread of the epidemic.

Minister Lokuge is reported to have admitted, at an interview with Hiru News, that he influenced the lifting of the lockdown in Piliyandala, and The Island, of May 10, highlighted the circumstances that led him to influence the lifting of the lockdown. The Minister accepted that he influenced the lifting of the lockdown for the sake of the daily wage earners, a claim which has to be taken with a pinch of salt.

Close on the heels of the Minister’s arrogant countermand, a cluster of 138 patients was detected from the Piliyandala market.

A vendor collapsed in the market itself and his post-mortem proved that he was afflicted with the coronavirus.

The female MOH, who deserves to be praised for the adroit manner in which she has been performing duties in Piliyandala, said over the television that the cluster could have been averted, if the lockdown had not been lifted.

Hence, the Minister’s overzealous attempt to look after the livelihood of the daily wage earner, is certainly humbug, which cannot be condoned under any circumstances.

Readers would remember that the High Courts of Madras and Calcutta lambasted the Election Commission of India for their failure to ensure the recommended protocol meant for Covid-19, and openly said the ECI should be put on murder charges.

Could we reasonably expect that the authorities institute murder charges against the Minister, in the resplendent island, so that legislators, with bloated egos, could be reined in this hour of calamity.

Undoubtedly, idiotic action on the part of the Minister has endangered the precious lives of the people living in the Piliyandala area.

The childish manner in which the Minister responded to the questions, as reported by The Island correspondent, raises a number of issues. The foremost issue is whether he, as a senior Minister of the government, is capable of running an important Ministry, as he has messed up a vital epidemic issue, involving his own constituents.

Secondly, he has caused much embarrassment to the Commander of the Army and Head of the Presidential Task Force who has undertaking an arduous operation.

His argument that if the lifting of the lockdown was wrong then it should have been imposed again, is ridiculous.

All in all, what I could say is that the Minister’s high-handed intervention has left a bad taste in many a mouth, and it has caused an irrparable damage to the government at a time when its popularity is plummeting at a rapid pace.

 

RANASINGHE

Septuagenarian, Piliyandala

 

 

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Opinion

Glyphosate Reality:

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Non-science used as science

I have read with interest the article on “Science, Non-science and Nonsense” written by Dr. Sarath Gamini De Silva in “The Island” of 11.3.2021. In this article “Dr. Sarath Gamini”, as he is popularly known in the medical circles, refers to me (without mentioning my name) and my research and a lecture given by me to the Sri Lanka Medical Association. This is my response to him, particularly, on the issue of glyphosate pesticide.

I take strong issue with Dr. Sarath Gamini’s erroneous characterisation of my research, related to glyphosates, and the categorization of the government decisions and policies related to the glyphosate pesticide. For clarity, let me reproduce the paragraph on glyphosate in toto from Dr. Sarath Gamini’s article, highlighting the area where he refers to me and my research:

“The campaign conducted blaming the weed killer glyphosate as a cause of the epidemic of chronic kidney disease of unknown origin in the farming areas, mainly in the North Central province, was one burning issue then. There was no scientific evidence to prove this, despite the efforts of some professors in the medical field to find some. However, the importation of the chemical was banned mostly due to political expediency. One is not aware of any other country in the world doing so. When a visiting Sri Lankan expatriate doctor claiming to be a researcher in the field was asked, he could name only a small country, still contemplating doing so. He was lost for words to answer probing questions on the matter. His research has since been discredited in the USA. How the ban adversely affected the productivity in the agricultural sector in Sri Lanka has never been assessed or discussed.”

I am an American Board-Certified Occupational Medicine physician, and I have worked as a tenured full professor for over 34 years in the California State University, Long Beach, which is one of the largest and most respected university systems in the United States. Second, I have published more than a dozen peer reviewed scientific articles, and have given over 50 public lectures in relation to the toxic effects of glyphosate pesticide. Except for an unsigned petition sent by some disgruntled supporters of pesticides (the contents of which were found to be completely false) my research has never been discredited in the United States, or anywhere else. In fact, I won several awards for my research, including the Research Accomplishment of the Year award from my university, the prestigious “International Award” from the Occupational Health and Safety Section of the American Public Health Association, and the Scientific Freedom and Responsibility (SFR) Award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (an award that I shared with Prof. Channa Jayasumana). By the same token. As far as I know, Dr. Sarath Gamini does not have a single publication related to the toxicity of glyphosate pesticide. I raise this issue because one of the conditions that Dr. Sarath Gamini has stipulated, throughout his article, is that one has to be knowledgeable and competent in order to be able to make comments on any issue, within medicine or any other scientific field. Does that apply to Dr. Sarath Gamini, on the issue of Glyphosate as well?

Now, to get on to the content, throughout the paragraph on glyphosate, Dr. Sarath Gamini makes an assertion that the ban on glyphosate pesticide was made without any scientific evidence and “mostly due to political expediency” and he says, “One is not aware of any other country in the world doing so (the ban)”. These statements clearly demonstrate Dr. Sarath Gamin’s ignorance on the subject. Let me state the following facts for his knowledge, as well as that of the general public.

Hundreds of scientific research studies have linked glyphosate not only to Chronic Kidney Disease but also to many other health conditions, including autism, birth defects, inflammatory bowel syndrome and liver diseases. The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer reviewed the scientific evidence in a 2015 report and classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans.” Glyphosate – brand name Roundup – is primarily associated with Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma (NHL), a cancer in the immune system. Following this determination, in October 2015, the first Roundup (Glyphosate) product liability lawsuit was filed against Monsanto in San Francisco District courts. In August 2018, a jury awarded $289 million in damages to the plaintiff – Dewayne Johnson – who is a former school groundskeeper for a California county school system when he developed NHL after spraying glyphosate regularly for several years. This amount was later reduced, during the appeals process. During this trial, evidence released by lawyers for the plaintiff tells an alarming story of ghostwriting, scientific manipulation, collusion with the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and previously undisclosed information about how the human body absorbs glyphosate. These documents provide a deeper understanding of the serious public health consequences of glyphosate, and the false advertising related to Monsanto’s conduct in marketing glyphosate.

In a second case, the jury awarded a staggering $2 billion in damages to a couple – Alva and Alberta Pilliod. In court proceedings, the Pilliods testified to using Roundup regularly, starting in 1982. The couple used the consumer version of the weedkiller, whose label lacked any warnings about covering skin or wearing protective masks. Following these successes in courts, more than 18000 cases have been filed by people who developed cancer after regularly spraying glyphosate. According to some legal reports, Bayer – the German company that bought Monsanto in 2016 – has formally submitted a $8 billion for a global settlement. In March 2020, Monsanto also agreed to pay $39.5 million as a settlement for falsely advertising Roundup is “safe” for people and pets. The settlement, which was filed in federal court in Kansas City, Missouri, resolves allegations brought by several plaintiffs who claimed Monsanto failed to warn consumers about the health risks of glyphosate.

Following the lawsuits and the expert epidemiological evidence that was presented in courts, more than 20 countries have now banned, or restricted, the use of glyphosate. Although Monsanto’s new owner, Bayer, is fighting hard to limit these restrictions, the list is growing day by day. Some of these countries include Belgium, Denmark, France, Thailand, Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Bahrain, and Mexico. There are many cities and institutions in the U.S., including, New York, Key West, Los Angeles, the Universities of California and Miami who have now regulations to restrict the use of Glyphosate-based pesticides. (For a complete list of these restrictions please see Where is Glyphosate Banned? | Baum Hedlund Aristei & Goldman (baumhedlundlaw.com)

In his article, Dr. Sarath Gamini describes the revocation of the ban on glyphosate for the use in tea and coconut cultivation as a “fortunate” one. In my mind, this was one of the most “unfortunate” Cabinet decisions for several reasons: First, this policy decision was taken without much scientific advice. There was an Expert Committee that was appointed to provide advice on this matter. I was invited as an expert to testify. However, two weeks before the hearings were scheduled, the Cabinet paper was approved hastily. The main argument put forward was that there was not enough of a labour force for the removal of weeds, manually. However, many weeds have now developed resistance to glyphosate, so that one has to use manual labour to complete the process of weed removal. Second, there is no tracking and post-marketing monitoring process available in Sri Lanka to ensure that this toxic pesticide does not end up in the hands of fruit and vegetable growers and in our food. Third, the regulatory costs of protective equipment, biomonitoring and the certification of the tea and coconut products to ensure that their glyphosate levels are within acceptable limits is costly – a cost that outweighs the benefits. By now it should be clear to the reader that I have a completely opposing view on glyphosate to that of Dr. Sarath Gamini De Silva.

Furthermore, in this article Dr. Sarath Gamini describes how, over the past few years, we have seen many untruths, hypocrisy and myths being propagated by professionals misleading the ignorant public and creating social unrest and even violence. As examples, the author describes, among others, several recent incidents, including the alleged sterilization of women without consent in Kurunegala, the propagation of a questionable local medicine that was touted as a cure for Covid-19, and the issue of compulsory cremation of deaths due to Covid. I will not comment on any of these issues for two reasons: First, I was not present in the country when most of these incidents took place; Second, I have not studied the social and political dynamics, surrounding these incidents, and the policies.

Therefore, in conclusion, I would like to say this to Dr. Sarath Gamini De Silva: Now that you have talked about glyphosate, please “walk the walk” and demonstrate that you have the expertise on the subject and that you know what the “established knowledge” is. Dr. Sarath Gemini’s view of the established knowledge on glyphosate is completely antithetical to that of mine. Therefore, I would like to invite Dr. Sarath Gamini De Silva to a public debate about the toxicity of glyphosate and the appropriateness of using the pesticide in Sri Lanka agriculture.

Dr. SARATH GUNATILAKE

Professor, California State University, Long Beach, California

Diplomate, American Board of Occupational Medicine

Email – sarath.gunatilake@csulb.edu )

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Opinion

Mindset of Arts Graduates

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Hasini Lecamwasam’s article Why are Arts Graduates Unemployable (The Island of 11 May) is an excellent analysis of the topic.

For decades, our universities have turned out Arts Graduates, very well knowing that with most of the basic subjects offered by them, they become unemployable; but what have the authorities done to rectify this waste of government funds which could have been diverted to other educational areas?

In one way, it boils down to falling values, the objective of just obtaining a degree and being a “Upadhi Dharee” being the main purpose. I have come across this myself and have hands on exposure to this.

About a decade ago, the then Government approached some of the large business organisations (Just before a general election) and made an appeal for them to employ at least two graduates, under a special scheme, at a salary of Rs 6,000/= per month. The company I work for, also agreed to consider this, and informed the Ministry concerned accordingly. The Ministry had short listed 12 graduates for us and they were called for interviews. The company wanted me to interview them to see whether we could select two.

All the applicants were Arts Graduates, and seven were over the age of 35 years. Although all our company work is done in English, I made it a point to interview them in Sinhala, just to make them comfortable. All 12 applicants had some avenue of income and some of them were married. There was one who was looking after their own paddy lands (Govithan), another looking after their plots of tea and rubber, selling green leaf and latex, there were two who ran their family grocery shops and businesses, and one other female who had started a small shop (Kade) initially selling eight loaves of bread a day along with other items, and soon ending up selling over 40 loaves of bread and turning the business into a village grocery shop. The others also were engaged in some vocation.

I had one common question for them, that is; why do they want to give up what they were doing at their villages without improving them, and to come to Colombo and get boarded and work for a salary of Rs 6,000.00 per month? You will be surprised that they all had one common answer, ie “Mama Upaadhi Dhaariyek Ne” (Cos I am a degree holder.) My attempt to tell them that the salary would hardly be sufficient to pay for their boarding and food, and that it would be very much more sensible for them to improve what they were already doing, was like pouring water on a duck’s back. This was their mindset.

SARIPUTHRA

Colombo 05

Chief Financial Officer of a

Leading Group of Companies

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