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Aflatoxins saga:bitter truth

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By Dr Indrajith P Hathurusingha
Lecturer
Department of Applied and Environmental Science CRTAFE, Geraldton Campus, Western Australia

As we know, the entire country is in chaos with food insecurity and associated problems. People often seem to claim that their income is insufficient to manage their day-to-day expenses. Therefore, malnutrition, food of poor quality, and starvation have been hot topics for the past few days in the media and have not yet been finished. News is emerging one after another, and people sometimes can be seen on the streets protesting the rising cost of living. Low income has resulted in the deprivation of balanced diets for the poor. The situation is getting worse daily, and access to affordable and healthy food for low-income earners appears far out of reach. On top of that, contaminated foodstuff with hazardous compounds in the market has been a great concern.

A recent development is the detection of aflatoxin exceeding the maximum allowable limit in Thriposha according to the head of the government’s public health inspectors’ (PHI) union. Thriposha is a nutrient supplement given to pregnant women, breastfeeding mothers and young children who need the most. The key ingredients of Thriposha include maze, soya and milk powder, and people can easily make delicious, nutritious, and simple meals. Even though we have not seen the laboratory test reports or satisfactory evidence to prove their allegation, it is a timely requirement to make the public aware of the health impacts of aflatoxins and how to prevent their ingestion. This is because aflatoxins have created a public health concern and are of great interest.

What is aflatoxin?

People are curious about the speculated news of aflatoxin, and the word ‘aflatoxin’ appears new to the public. It is scientific terminology for a secondary metabolite produced by a kind of fungi known as Aspergillus flavus and Aspergillus parasiticus. The fungus is a type of microorganism that can be seen only through a microscope and is commonly known as mould (puss in Sinhala). However, they are visible to the naked eye when forming colonies. The toxic compounds generated by the fungi are called mycotoxins, and aflatoxin is a kind of those. Therefore, it is not a chemical being added during food processing or storage.

Aflatoxins are biologically active compounds, and the human palate cannot detect them while eating or chewing the foodstuff. Nevertheless, both humans and animals can unintentionally consume contaminated food with aflatoxins. There are different types of aflatoxins, but the four main ones are known to be B1, B2, G1, and G2. However, four of which, B1 has been responsible for high incidence and toxicities.

How foodstuff contaminate with aflatoxins

It is interesting to know how aflatoxins get into the food items. The responsible fungi, Aspergillus spp is reported to be soil-borne and produce aflatoxins under extreme environmental conditions like drought and high humidity. They are well suited to colonising due to their ability to thrive in high temperatures. Besides, they can grow well on many substrates. A high level of aflatoxins in the environment is often linked to insects and the wind. Importantly, Insects can act as carriers of fungal spores from an infected plant to a healthy plant and transfer the spores through minor notches or wounds caused by insects.

Maize is one of the raw materials used to produce Thriposha and is also a staple agricultural crop that is consumed worldwide. More importantly, it is an essential commodity in the world in terms of production and revenue. Notwithstanding, in most regions of the world, maize is infected with aflatoxins, especially in tropical and subtropical areas. The occurrence of aflatoxin contamination is reported to be sporadic and highly reliant on environmental conditions. Even though more news is speculated that maize is suspected to be contaminated with aflatoxins these days, we must not forget that other crops like rice, peanuts, cotton, almond, cashew, soya, spices, and coffee may be contaminated with aflatoxins.

Health risk and implications

Aflatoxin contamination has gained wider attention in food safety concerns. The International Agency for Research in Cancer (IARC) has reported that aflatoxins can cause cancer in both humans and animals and are classified into the Group 1 category of chemical hazards due to their potent nature. According to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the maximum allowable limit for total aflatoxin in food items is 20 ppb (parts per billion) and the levels may vary on the type of food items. For instance, it is 5 ppb for milk. However, aflatoxins are different in their toxicity depending on their chemical composition and molecular structure.

The route of exposure to aflatoxins in humans is mainly via the consumption of infected seeds, meat, poultry, and dairy products. The liver is one of the most important defensive organs in our body as it breakdowns down or destroys harmful substances into less hazardous compounds to reduce the potential risk. Aflatoxins are powerful toxins and can cause acute liver damage by forming free radicals during metabolisation. If human continues to consume contaminated food with aflatoxin, can result in hepatic cancer. Moreover, chronic exposure to very low levels of aflatoxin is cause for concern. Epidemiological studies have also revealed that areas with elevated aflatoxins levels in the world relate to a high occurrence of hepatic cancer.

Apart from being a cancer causative agent, aflatoxins can make various implications in humans depending on their health conditions, age factors, duration of infection, and level of contamination in their bodies. Toxicity due to aflatoxins do not appear quickly but has a cumulative effect over time. Sometimes, it might take around 10 to 20 years to show the symptoms and cannot be easily removed from the body or get rid of them. Notably, there is no identified therapeutic drug to decrease the implications and therefore poses a big threat to human health. In addition, it has been responsible for affecting the human immune system, bone abnormalities and sexual efficiency. Particularly, when the human immune is suppressed, they are highly vulnerable to infect with various diseases. There are several reported cases to confirm that the carcinogenesis of these compounds is through genetic poisoning. The more alarming news is for pregnant women as studies carried out with mice have shown that aflatoxins can affect their embryos during pregnancy. This is evident that aflatoxin can transfer from the mother to the embryo across the placenta causing many problems for newborn babies. However, all these experiments have been conducted with animals and clinical trials with humans are not possible due to ethical issues and impracticality.

Concerns for livestock

Aflatoxins are carcinogenic to animals and their effects vary with species, dosage, period of exposure, and diet or nutritional status. The reported toxicity due to aflatoxin goes back to the 1950s and 1960s in England when Turkey’s mortality increased. When ingested in large doses, these toxins can be lethal or sublethal and can cause chronic toxicities. The toxicity of aflatoxins has been comprehensively identified in cattle farming in which decreased feed intake, dramatic declines in milk production, weight loss, feed refusal, infertility, impaired organ functions and liver damage were the reported clinical symptoms. Therefore, it is important to assess the quality of the feed before feeding the animals. Moreover, studies carried out using various animals like birds, chicken have reported different abnormalities in their bodies due to the consumption of contaminated feed with aflatoxins.

Economic losses

Aflatoxins are one of the major economic concerns in the agriculture and food processing industry all around the globe. They impair the nutrient quality of crops resulting in substantial financial losses for growers and manufacturers, mainly reducing the demand in the local and international markets, the risk of losing their market shares, and rejecting the consignments. If the crop or harvest was found to have contaminated with aflatoxins, the only option is to destroy them to control the further spreading. Since aflatoxins are produced in grains, fruits, and seeds, it is very stable and cannot be eradicated. An infection due to Aspergillus spp could occur pre-harvest, harvest and post-harvest stages and thrive under suitable environmental conditions.

What consumers can do

Aflatoxins are heat-resistant compounds and cannot be destroyed in normal cooking conditions. Therefore, the best practice is to select aflatoxins contamination-free edible items. Consumers can visually check the products for quality when purchasing. For instance, you may have seen black-coloured powdery particles or black patches in chillies or maize and these could be possible warning signs for aflatoxins contamination. In addition, consumers can dispose of any damaged, discoloured, shrivelled or infected grains that can be found in the purchased products before consuming them. Before purchasing, it is always advisable to look for fresh foods and check the labels for expiry dates or any damage in the sealed bags or containers. It is not recommended to buy foodstuffs which are about to expire even though they are for lower prices for quick sale. If you intend to keep the dry foodstuff or ingredients for a longer time once opened, keep them in air-tight bags or containers to avoid the growth of fungus.

Considering the carcinogenic nature, early detection of aflatoxin-producing fungi is essential for ensuring food safety. It is worthwhile to add dietary antioxidants such as vitamin E, selenium, and carotenoids to your diet as it helps destroy the generated free radicals in our body including the ones that form during the aflatoxin metabolism in the liver. Food spoilage due to bacteria can be easily noticed with a bad odour. On the contrary, fungi infestation may or may not be visible due to their characteristic nature and therefore more precautions are needed. The greater awareness could help you reduce the chances of possible aflatoxin ingestion.

The roles of farmers

Our farmers can take several measures to protect their crops from aflatoxin contamination. Good agricultural management practices include all the steps taken from plantation to harvest and post-harvest. Pre-harvest strategies aim to protect the crop from fungal infection or reduce the fungal pathogen’s ability to grow or synthesise aflatoxins. These include but are not limited to soil testing for potential pathogens, field conditioning, proper irrigation, crop rotation, the safe disposal of the infected plant, treatment with antifungal chemicals, maintenance of proper planting or growing conditions, use of resistant or adapted crop varieties, and maintenance of functional harvesting equipment. Applying good agricultural practices such as controlling disease carriers; bugs, insects, mites, beetles, and grasshoppers could help immensely control fungi infestation. Introducing genetically modified crops as a solution is suggested but with varying degrees of success. In contrast, even the best management methods cannot eradicate aflatoxin contamination.

Our farmers must carry out the harvesting when the grains are at full maturity stage and have low moisture content. Moisture is one of the characteristics related to the weight of dry matter. Hence, drying the material as dictated by the moisture content of the harvested grain followed by appropriate storage conditions can minimize post-harvest losses due to fungal infestation. It is worth noting that the moisture content requirement varies from one fungus to another, however bringing the moisture content below 13% together with lowering humidity levels in the warehouses can suppress the growth of Aspergillus spp. The fungi grow at varying temperate but the optimal for aflatoxins production is from 25 to 35°C. Therefore, creating unsuitable environmental conditions at the warehouses can minimise the thriving of the fungi and subsequently reduce the production of aflatoxins. Though it is not recommended and economically feasible, some countries use chemical treatments such as fumigation with ammonia and ozone which have proved effective.

Proper management of transport services can prevent seed damage during transportation. Because the damaged grains are highly susceptible to the growth of toxigenic fungi. Even though it is a tedious exercise and laborious process, segregating infected seeds from non-infected ones can be done before storing or packaging them. Scientists are working to develop techniques and technologies to control and manage aflatoxins in preharvest and postharvest stages. However, applying chemical or conventional agricultural methods only cannot prevent the fungi infestation and therefore integrated mechanisms are required to introduce to be able to regulate aflatoxin contamination of foodstuff and feed effectively and economically.

Evidence for aflatoxins contamination

In the scientific world, decisions are made based on conclusive evidence or information. Therefore, to prove the aflatoxin contamination, laboratory test reports must be produced. It is worth noting that these testing are highly expensive as it involves sophisticated advanced instruments to generate results. Several methods or protocols are available to use but the High-Performance Liquid Chromatography is the analytical method widely used for detecting aflatoxins in different food samples. More importantly, the operator must be versatile in the advanced technology and the science behind it to generate accurate and reliable results.

Challengers for PHIs and legal proceedings

There have been a few cases of food toxicity in the recent past and melamine contamination in milk powder, and heavy metals toxicity in rice are two of those. To our understanding, these claims have not yet been proven with satisfactory evidence to date and they appeared to have become merely news. However, irrespective of what has happened in the past, it is important to see how the PHIs are going to prove their claims on aflatoxin contamination in ‘Thriposha’. Nevertheless, they have not yet published the relevant test reports or released them to the media.

The accuracy of the results and the reliability of the laboratory in which they obtained the test reports may be in question in the legal proceedings or possible investigations. They must get test reports or certificates of analysis from an accredited laboratory and the laboratory needs to have that parameter accredited by a nationally or internationally reputed organization. Accreditation is a kind of recognition that a laboratory can have, and the Sri Lanka Accreditation Board for Conformity Assessment (SLAB) is the authorized institute in Sri Lanka. Apart from that PHIs should not depend on the results received from one laboratory but having the same samples analyzed from different laboratories, including one from overseas help them to justify their claims. PHIs must always keep reference samples with them as the defended parties may want to send those to an independent laboratory for their verification. Moreover, they must ensure that the received laboratory reports should contain the traceability of the samples as this is one of the important aspects that can be used to discharge the allegations. However, the chances of taking place legal proceedings or similar investigations are less likely to happen given the records of similar circumstances.

PHIs stand for public health and their roles must be commended and supported instead of criticised for what they have found. Consumers should be well informed of the health consequences of aflatoxin ingestion and more awareness programs must be arranged to educate ordinary people, even at village levels. PHIs must be given continuous training to upgrade their technical know-how and more collaboration between the government and the union must be established for better outcomes. Irrespective of whether the foodstuff is imported or locally produced, they all need to be scrutinized for quality before releasing to the market for the best interest of public health.



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Opinion

The ‘Smiling Chancellor’- educationist par excellence

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The most reverend Dr Oswald Gomis, Emeritus Archbishop of Colombo and the former Chancellor of the University of Colombo, was called to his heavenly home on 03.02.23

It is with sincere gratitude that I pay this tribute to him for his invaluable service to the field of education in general to the University of Colombo and to me as an academic

It was Father Bonjean, a Catholic priest, who has been acclaimed as the greatest contributor to Catholic education at that time through his submissions to the State advocating a system of state-aided schools to be run by each religious denomination for its children. He pointed out, not only Catholics but also the adherents of other religions in the island (Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims) should be fairly treated. The Denominational or Assisted Schools System, which it was hoped would benefit all religions, thus came into being and lasted nearly a century until the takeover of schools by the state in 1960. Fr. Bonjean came to be known as ‘the Father of the Denominational School System’

Father Bojean was considered ‘the Father of the Denominational School System’, and most Rev. Dr. Oswald Gomis can be considered the modern father of Assisted schools. Being a product of St Bendict’s college, he wanted to provide similar education through equality and religious harmony for the students. At an interview he said that when he was appointed Archbishop of Colombo, he had a special objective – that is to provide a good education for the people. To achieve this, he wanted to expand the catholic education. Hence, he made a valiant effort within the existing legal framework to establish branch schools of the popular catholic private schools. St. Peter’s College, Gampaha and Udugampola Branches, St. Joseph’s College, Enderamulla and Kadolkele branches and many more such branch schools. Further, a branch of St. Nicholas’ International College in Negambo and St. Thomas Catholic International College in Seeduwa were also established. School of Hope, Paiyagala and– Don Bosco Technical Institute – Nochchiyagama were also founded under his patronage.

Most Rev. Dr. Oswald Gomis as a historian and author has also contributed to education. For example, he has disproved that, i.e. Catholicism was introduced for the first time in our country by the Portuguese, in his book, “Some Christian Contributions in Sri Lanka”

The Archbishop, has pointed out that one Jordanus Catalha de Severac, a Dominican Friar, was appointed to Colombo as a bishop by Pope John XX11 on 5th April 1330 according to a document in the Vatican Archives, and he (Jordanus) has written a book called “Mirabila Descripta”(also in Vatican Archives) giving vivid description about various countries including ancient Sri Lanka and about two kings during his stay here. He also forwarded evidence according to Vatican sources that another missionary, a Papal Legate by the name of Giovani de Marignolli who was sent to East by the same Pope stayed in Colombo for eighteen months around the years 1348/1349 and taught catechism in a church dedicated to St. George and also erected a huge stone Cross here, before his departure to Europe. The Archbishop also quotes that Prof. Paranavithana, in his book , “Story of Sigiriya” has proved that Christianity was in ancient Sri Lanka with irrefutable evidence based on details found in the rock inscriptions in various parts of our country. A stone Cross in Anuradhapura he claims bears testimony to this.

Bishop Oswald Gomis’s Contribution to the University of Colombo and to me personally is invaluable. In 1994 in response to an application I sent to the University of Colombo for a Post of Probationary lecturer in Humanities Education I was called for an interview. At the interview I was amazed to find his lordship most Rev. Oswald Gomis the Archbishop of Colombo on the interview panel. I thought that my nervousness was making me see a vision! However, later I learnt that he was indeed there as a member of the University Council as an educationist. Years later as the Dean of the Faculty of Education when I met him at a convocation, I mentioned this incident to him. With his usual endearing smile, he said “I am glad we made the correct decision at that time”. In 2019 at the Post Graduate Convocation when he as the Chancellor handed me the Vice Chancellor’s award for excellence in research in the Faculty of Education in the year 2018, beaming with pride he told the Vice Chancellor “I selected her to the University”. Such was his memory!

Bishop Gomis has been on the Council of the University of Colombo from 1977-2001. Later, he was appointed the Chancellor in 2001 and continued to serve the university in this capacity till 2021. Every year I hear the graduands after the convocation commenting on the “smiling Chancellor’ who wished each and every one of them. In spite of the arduous task of sitting through three days of four sessions , and handing over the scrolls , he made it a point to make their big day memorable by that personal touch. He continued to discharge his role as Chancellor to perfection by attending all the University functions he was invited irrespective of whether it was X’mas carols or Pirith. He took pride in the achievements of both the students and staff of the University of Colombo. I have heard him saying to the students, referring to raging such unfortunate incidents do not happen in our university. Bishop Gomis held his position with dignity and pride. In turn the students and staff respected and liked him.

When Bishop Gomis was appointed the Archbishop of Colombo the Bishop’s Conference in a statement said, he brings to Colombo valuable expertise as a scholar, educationist, historian, author and above all, a revered pastor”. He has indeed used his expertise to the maximum and in his retirement continued to impart this knowledge through his writings. People of Bishop Gomis’s calibre is very rare today.

We will miss you dear father, but you will live through your good deeds.

May host of angels lead you to your eternal rest!

Marie Perera
Professor Emeritus
University of Colombo

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Opinion

Senerath Rajakaruna

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Senerath or Sene, as he was affectionately called, passed away on January 7 plunging his near and dear and a host of his friends and associates into a pool of tears and agony. According to his wife in whose arms he breathed his last, death was instantaneous.

True, he had a few health issues which however did not warrant the kind of quick “exit” he encountered. Senerath, my son-in-law was a doughty fighter who braved his affiliations with great fortitude. The doctors who treated him were baffled by the composure he evinced when confronted with the complications he was doomed to go through. Admirable, isn’t it?

An alumnus of D.S. Senanayake College, he cultivated a strong link with the school and was an active member of the Old Boy’s Association of the school. After a brief career as a Demi Chef in a prestigious hotel in the Middle East, he showed his powers in Real Estate in later years. He was over the moon and basking in the success of his trade.

Sene was an entertainer par excellence. He ran an open house for his plethora of friends and associates. The gregarious animal he was, prompted him to hold musical evenings where singing and dancing went on till the wee hours of the morning. He sang with lilting and melodious resonance. “Baila’ was his forte good lord Bacchus was an indispensable invitee to his parties where he had free rein.

This popular personality was a compulsive humorist who left his audience roaring with uncontrollable laughter. His infectious smile is missed by many. His philanthropy extended far and wide especially to the poor and helpless people in and around where he lived. The received monetary assistance, dry rations and produce from his cultivations.

He had traveled widely and was planning to visit his son who is employed in New Zealand but it was not to be. His daughter had left to the United Kingdom just three days before her father’s passing. He was a loving husband to his wife Lalana and a fond father to Lakitha and Lasandhi. As his father-in-law I join them to invoke blessings of the Noble Triple Gem to help Sene to tread the path to Nibbana.

Bandula Abeyewardene

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Opinion

What has happened to the Sri Lanka Police?

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The sorry depths the Sri Lanka Police has plunged into today is a disgrace to our country. Gone are the halcyon days when every policeman on the road or in the police station was looked up to with respect. Until recent times we had fewer police stations in the country and they were manned by very capable officers, be they Inspectors or Sub Inspectors. They knew their job, any offenses committed were quickly detected and the culprits apprehended without delay.

Very rarely did we hear of police officers resorting to graft, maybe except in rare cases where some officer would send a police constable to get his beef, fish, or other requirement from the market free of charge. Another important factor in yesteryear was that no officer boot licked politicians to get their promotions. There was no Police Commission, but the promotions were given to the deserving at the correct time. No junior officer was promoted over his seniors.

At that time, there was only one SP for each Province and four police Ranges, each headed by a DIG (Deputy Inspector General). Now DIGs are a dime a dozen and yet the work done cannot be compared to what was done by a few earlier. OICs of police stations are appointed today according to the whims and fancies of politicians. Any officer who fails to carry out illegal orders of the politicians is sure to be transferred to a difficult station. This change in the system is all for the worse of both the police force as well as the people.

It results in the police turning a blind eye to the illegal activities going on in their areas. These include distilling kasippu, brothels operating without hindrance and drug trafficking as most of these illegal activities are carried out by supporters of the area politicians. The politicians and the police function hand in glove as both parties are duly rewarded for their support of each other.

In recent times we have heard of the worst type of illegal actions indulged in by some police officers. Many ganja plants were detected in an SSP’s residence at a time the police were examining the bags of schoolchildren to check for narcotics being smuggled into schools. The sleuths should have searched the residences of the senior police officers first! Earlier there were three police officers in the Narcotics Bureau caught stealing drugs kept as court productions and sending stocks back into the drug market! Then there was the case of the policeman in charge of court productions who had removed the batteries from two vehicles and sold them. There were other policemen involved in treasure hunting and giving protection to persons felling valuable trees, sand mining illegally and even sexual abuse of underage children.

Now there are squabbles between gazetted officers and subordinates over matters which could be settled amicably. An instance of this nature was reported in the media between the SSP and the OIC of the Kebitigollawa police station. Earlier an SSP had filed a fundamental rights against a Senior DIG alleging he had been threatened by the latter. Such happenings were unheard of, of all places in the Police Department, in the good old days.

The police could not prevent the Easter Sunday suicide bombing which took the lives of over 250 innocents. The police have not been able to apprehend the mastermind behind this heinous crime to date. This on top of the murders of Lasantha Wickramatunge and Wasim Thajudeen. Most recently, the police have not been able to trace those who have threatened the Elections Commissioners even over half a month of the incident.

It is very rarely that we find senior police officers defying illegal orders given either by senior officers or political leaders. It was heartening indeed to hear of an SSP defying orders given to do something against his conscience. He admitted this at a meeting with the minster in charge and left the meeting saying he would not obey illegal orders. This happened long after a DIG stood up and corrected the lady President when she had said something wrong about the police. At neither meeting was the defiant stand by their colleagues endorsed by seniors present. A sad commentary on the way senior police officers behave.

It is only in Sri Lanka that about half the police force is deployed to protect the political establishment: president, prime minister, cabinet and state ministers and MPs. Add former presidents, their spouses and former speakers to this number. Whenever these lawmakers travel by road, there is a police entourage that accompany them. How big this is depends on the standing of the lawmaker escorted. In addition to the waste of manpower there is a huge drain on fuel at a time when ordinary people must make do with a modest weekly ration. The repercussions of this is there are insufficient policemen to check on errant and reckless drivers and prevent avoidable accidents. So also crime prevention by night patrolling of roads as was done earlier. With no terrorist threats today, why can’t each minister be guarded by a single personal security officer as in the past?

Hopefully, the next IGP will be one who had not stooped low to get the position but won it on his own merits. He would then be able to act impartially without carrying out illegal orders of political leaders and also will not give illegal orders to his subordinates. This would help the Sri Lanka police to return to its earlier glory and command the deserved respect of the public.

HM NISSANKA WARAKAULLE

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