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Arsenophobia: The root cause of food crisis in Sri Lanka

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By Emeritus Professor Upali Samarajeewa

International expert on food safety

smrjee@gmail.com

In the list of words most feared by many Sri Lankans, Arsenic stands among the top10. Historically, arsenic was a rat poison. This potential of arsenic was illegally employed later to get rid of unwanted friends and even spouses by some of the humans. However, arsenic had positive use and reputation as a health care agent. It is reported that Hippocrates used arsenic sulfide in the form of natural crystalline minerals, namely realgar and orpiment, to treat ulcers. Later, the arsenic containing minerals were used in making creams to remove unwanted hair in the human body. Since then, arsenides and arsenic salts in the form of creams for external application have been in use for centuries, in treatment of ulcers and syphilis. In the 1700s solutions of arsenic trioxide in potassium bicarbonate has been prescribed to treat asthma, chorea, psoriasis, anemia, and leukemia among several other health ailments. Some drugs containing arsenic have been prescribed to be inhaled as vapour, injected, or administered intravenously in the 19th century. Though the International Agency for Cancer Research classified arsenic in its pure form, and certain arsenic compound as a human carcinogens, Food and Drugs Administration of the USA approved the use of injectable arsenic trioxide for human treatment for relapsed acute promyelocytic leukemia. It may be considered an exceptional condition, but arsenic compounds do not deserve a total taboo without understanding their effects on the human body under each situation, beneficial or harmful. Arsenic trioxide was withdrawn from human treatment in 1950. There is evidence today on the effects of long- term exposure of humans to inorganic arsenic through food, water, or air leading to increased risk on bladder, lung, and skin cancers.

WHO records

The World Health Organization records on incidence of cancer in Sri Lanka for 2020 shows 7% lung cancer, 2.1% bladder cancer and 0.4% skin cancer, out of the total annual cancer cases. Almost all incidences of lung cancer are among males predominantly associated with smoking. The same percentage distribution of all cancers was visible in records over the previous 20 years, with fluctuations only in incidence of lung cancer. Arsenophobia was created in Sri Lanka in relation to the chronic kidney disease of unknown origin, identified as CKDU. The global literature on kidney diseases do not consider arsenic as a crucial factor in chronic kidney diseases similar to CKDU. Sri Lanka is not the only country having chronic kidney disease of this nature. There are parallels in “Chronic interstitial nephritis in agricultural communities” (CINAC) in El Salvador and Nicaragua. CINAC is also described as Mesoamerican nephropathy (MeN) in several other central and south American countries, mostly along the Pacific coastline. Scientific studies in the USA on the above chronic kidney diseases have identified relationship with a few pesticides. Some of the pesticides were banned in Sri Lanka decades back, and one still in use though to a limited extent. The studies in the USA have not been able to recognise links between arsenic or other heavy metals with the chronic kidney diseases described above.

Arsenic was used as an ingredient in weedicides and wood preservatives in the past. Registration of companies producing pesticides containing inorganic arsenic were cancelled in 1988 in the developed world. Sri Lanka does not permit the use of pesticides containing inorganic arsenic. If there is violation of this condition, there is a way to handle it rather than banning everything. The registrar of pesticides operates an accredited testing laboratory for arsenic and other heavy metals in pesticides. If law makers possess doubts on arsenic entering our food system through pesticides, what is needed simply is to provide more facilities and activate the office of the registrar of pesticides to bring in necessary controls. That is the scientific mechanism used in the developed countries to maintain food safety in the production chains. Pesticides came into existence because it had a role in agriculture. Replacing pesticides needs to identify a scientifically equivalent substitute. The World has not been successful in it. What is needed is to implement checks and controls at the appropriate levels and locations.

Cause of CKDU

If arsenic is the cause of CKDU, it should enter the humans through our main staple rice and drinking water. In Bangladesh and West Bengal, heavy and unacceptable concentrations of arsenic were reported in rice and water leading to major investigations by the United Nation bodies responsible for food and health. In the two locations the symptoms due to arsenic were quite different from the symptoms of CKDU reported in Sri Lanka. The writer, having examined 50 peer reviewed research publications and scientific reviews of acceptable quality by Sri Lankan and foreign scientists, found the arsenic concentrations in rice and water in Sri Lanka are far below the globally implemented tolerance limits of 0.2 milligrams per kilogram for rice, and 10 micrograms per litre for water. The average concentrations of arsenic in Sri Lankan rice are less than 25% of the tolerance limits for rice. The concentrations of arsenic in drinking water are less than 15% of the tolerance limit. The perused studies cover a period from 2005 to 2021. The scientific evidence has clearly proved that the arsenic concentrations in our foods pose no risk to health to Sri Lankans.

There are occasional reports on rejection of imported and locally produced canned fish due to presence of total arsenic. Total arsenic consists of inorganic arsenic and organic arsenic. Organic arsenic is present mainly in prawns and other crustaceans. Some fish carry lower concentrations of organic arsenic than crustaceans. Foods containing almost non-toxic organic arsenic carries no health risk unlike highly toxic inorganic arsenic in foods. Organic arsenic moves unabsorbed through our digestive system, getting excreted fast. Arsenic may be present in the environment and food in different inorganic forms and almost non-toxic organic forms. Main organic arsenic compound in fish is arsenobetaine. Arsenobetaine is of no toxicological concern. The issue of arsenic in fish need to be understood from a deep scientific angle before implementing controls.

Regulations

The regulations implemented by our standards and food regulatory authorities apply 0.2 milligrams per kilogram as the limit for total arsenic concentration in all foods. Regulations unfortunately takes no recognition on the toxicity difference between the organic and inorganic forms of arsenic. Arsenic appears in different forms food. Of them the inorganic forms are the culprit with high toxicity. The organic forms are of negligible toxicity. Our authorities need to distinguish between inorganic arsenic (which is 50-90% of total arsenic in rice) and organic arsenic which is approximately 95% of the total arsenic in fish. This raises an important question as to whether application of the general limit of 0.2 milligrams per kilogram of total arsenic to canned fish, which contains less than around 5% of the toxic inorganic arsenic. Interpretation of regulations needs much more scientific thinking than blind interpretations. Research scientists understand that there is no world free of arsenic and other toxic compounds. Arguing for zero arsenic or any other harmful ingredients in food and water is an indication of ignorance on basic principles of risk based regulatory approach. The tolerance limits are fixed for each and every harmful agent is to ensure food security meeting only required level of food safety.

Food safety

In arriving at decisions on food safety, the authorities consider the possible outcome of their decisions on food security of the country. First, there should be food for people to eat and live. Then comes the levels of risks associated with presence of harmful constituents. A good example is presented in the research by the USA scientists on problems linked to arsenic in rice. The mean arsenic concentrations expressed in milligrams per kilogram of rice in USA was 0.193 for white rice and 0.205 for brown rice against the regulatory limit of 0.200. The USA arsenic concentrations are at least 5 times higher than the values reported for rice in Sri Lanka. Applying the values to daily exposure of Americans consuming rice in 2-3 meals a day, it was postulated that they could reach high-risk level leading to bladder and lung cancer of the more vulnerable populations, especially the elderly and pregnant mothers. It was shown, using models, that reducing the tolerance level from current 0.200 to 0.100, would result in reduction of rice availability in the American market by a factor up to 90%, creating a food security risk. The study also postulated a reduction of regulatory limit from current 0.200 to 0.075 would bring down the food safety risk due to arsenic in rice from 11% to 79%. The regulations are maintained therefore, at 0.200 to ensure rice availability. The arsenic concentrations in Sri Lankan rice (approximately 0.04 milligrams per kilogram), is still far below the hypothetical USA limit of 0.075 limit, worked as a theoretical possibility. With all the scientific evidence, USA did not reduce the limit to 0.100. The scientific evidence clearly suggests that the ‘arsenophobia’ created in the minds of Sri Lankans is a hoax. It is continued even today by vociferous persons with scientific ignorance.

Arsenic enters food chain from soil or irrigation water. The earth crust is not free of arsenic. The crust contains 1.8 milligrams of arsenic per kilogram of soil on the average. It could take the range from 1-40. Arsenic concentrations above five milligrams per kilogram of soil make soils unsuitable for cultivation. The arsenic content in agricultural soils in Sri Lanka average around one milligram per kilogram, implying no food safety threat through local rice. The arsenic toxicity in rice occurred in West Bengal and Bangladesh due to high arsenic concentrations rising to the order of 15 milligrams per kilogram in their soils. Their irrigation water contained 10-fold higher arsenic than the permitted limit, leading to serious health problems. Sri Lankan situation is not at all comparable with the situation in West Bengal and Bangladesh. Unfortunately, we import rice from time to time from Bangladesh and other countries having arsenic contaminations.

If the food chain in a country gets contaminated with arsenic or any other toxic entities, they get detected in the exports at the foreign border check points, resulting in rejections and notifications. Information on global trade does not show instances of Sri Lanka tea or any other food getting rejected due to arsenic, or other heavy metals, or unpermitted pesticide residues.

It speaks on the Sri Lankan agricultural system was managed. Unfortunately, there are pseudo-scientists with no understanding on agriculture and food production, all out to create doubts in the minds of public.

This brings in the question as to where Sri Lanka went wrong in its science. It started with a vociferous student reading for a postgraduate degree in a university in Sri Lanka, working totally outside the specialty of his first degree in 2011. In desperation, he went to a soothsayer in a ‘Devalaya’ reputed to utter to the gullible people, under trans state of the mind. She was given some soil from Rajarata. She yelled “asan asan” perhaps asking him to listen. The student came back and started testing for arsenic using equipment of inadequate sophistication, applying unrefined test methods, ultimately “innovating” non-existent arsenic in rice. Tabloid media were fast to capture information. The ‘innovation’ was further supported by a media-oriented professor, who excelled in many fields other than his trained expertise.

The Island

carried an article around May 2011 under the title “Arsenic in Rice: Playing God”. The article highlighted the seriousness of statements arrived at without following basic principles of analytical chemistry and risk assessments, misleading the public. The materials released to the press have not gone through scientific scrutiny and was obviously questionable. The ‘arsenophobia’ next entered the august house with appearance of a reddish colour in “Kohila” curry in the meals served to members of the Parliament. The reddish colour is a common biological phenomenon on foods exposed to oxygen from air under certain preparation practices. It was October 2012 and The Island carried a note titled “Arsenic and cyanide everywhere”. The news on innovation of so-called arsenic in rice was next carried to the ears of the first citizen of the country at that time. He with his usual smile and tact said, “I eat rice three meals a day.” The message was clear to the student. Later the first citizen warned the media professor on the dangers Sri Lanka would face in our export trade, with this kind of utterances through the media. At that time there was already a shipment containing rice from Sri Lanka which was detained at a port in Turkey pending testing for arsenic. However, the stock did not get rejected as no arsenic was detected. The arsenophobia did not get marketed with the next first citizen either. Later the innovator of arsenic story reached the august house with a promise to provide “Better Health for Rajarata.” Arsenic is forgotten at least in the public eyes.

The baton was taken up by another relay team consisting of a priest, medical professional and an academic (sanga-weda-guru) expecting blessings from the highest level in the country. Unfortunately, the struggle ended up with farmers and labourers (govi-kamkaru) facing the problem. Indications are that the country would have to bear the outcome of arsenophobia for many months, if not years to come with inadequate food at exorbitant prices. No country in the world has stopped use of synthetic fertilizer in food production. European Union countries maintain extremely high levels of food safety in the world. They have decided to reach 25% organic food production by 2030 very cautiously. Canada produce food only during the warm six months of the year. They export 68% of the produce. In the Canadian Agriculture policy food production for export is a high priority. They apply scientifically controlled methods in use of agrochemicals. It is said that Canada was the major supplier of red dhal to Sri Lanka in certain years.

Leaders need to listen to scientific facts generated through careful experimenting and scholarly thinking. Mature scientists do not rush foolishly to take risks; politicians only see short term benefits. The prosperity of a country lies in well discussed decisions arrived through scientific knowledge, and not based on ad hoc findings of half-baked pseudoscientists. The l strength of India lies on the initiative to apply science in its policies immediately after independence by the Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. The writer had the opportunity on two occasions to participate the Annual Indian Science Congress. On both occasions, the Prime Minister of India and four Cabinet Ministers participated at the congress and spent two days listening to the scientists. Unfortunately, interactions in Sri Lanka are nowhere near it. Sri Lanka gives the opportunity to the pseudoscientists to mislead law makers at individual levels.

Obviously, the Sri Lankan food production system affected by the absence of required fertilizer inputs is not in a position to deliver the staple and complementary food for the nation. It is already late to put things back in the track before everything gets beyond control. Let the country believe in science and its true scientists at least now and act sensibly.

 



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Features

UK support for govt.’s pragmatic reconciliation process

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Lord Ahmad with GL

By Jehan Perera

The government would be relieved by the non-critical assessment by visiting UK Minister for South Asia, United Nations and the Commonwealth, Lord Tariq Ahmad of his visit to Sri Lanka. He has commended the progress Sri Lanka had made in human rights and in other areas as well, such as environmental protection. He has pledged UK support to the country. According to the President’s Media Division “Lord Tariq Ahmad further stated that Sri Lanka will be able to resolve all issues pertaining to human rights by moving forward with a pragmatic approach.” The Minister, who had visited the north and east of the country and met with war-affected persons tweeted that he “emphasised the need for GoSL to make progress on human rights, reconciliation, and justice and accountability.”

Prior to the Minister’s visit, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had announced in Parliament that his government had not violated nor would support “any form of human rights violations.” This was clearly an aspirational statement as the evidence on the ground belies the words. Significantly he also added that “We reject racism. The present government wants to safeguard the dignity and rights of every citizen in this country in a uniform manner. Therefore I urge those politicians who continue to incite people against each other for narrow political gains to stop doing so.” This would be welcome given the past history especially at election time.

The timing of Lord Ahmad’s visit and the statements made regarding human rights suggest that the forthcoming session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, commencing on February 28, loomed large in the background. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights will be presenting a written report on that occasion. A plethora of issues will up for review, including progress on accountability for crimes, missing persons, bringing the Prevention of Terrorism Act in line with international standards, protecting civil society space and treating all people and religions without discrimination.

The UK government has consistently taken a strong position on human rights issues especially in relation to the ethnic conflict and the war which led to large scale human rights violations. The UK has a large Tamil Diaspora who are active in lobbying politicians in that country. As a result some of the UK parliamentarians have taken very critical positions on Sri Lanka. Lord Ahmad’s approach, however, appears to be more on the lines of supporting the government to do the needful with regard to human rights, rather than to condemn it. This would be gratifying to the architects of the government’s international relations and reconciliation process, led by Foreign Minister Prof G L Peiris.

REACHING OUT

In the coming week the government will be launching a series of events in the North of the country with a plethora of institutions that broadly correspond to the plethora of issues that the UNHRC resolution has identified. War victims and those adversely affected by the post war conditions in the North and livelihood issues that arise from the under-developed conditions in those areas will be provided with an opportunity to access government services through on-the-spot services through mobile clinics. The programme coordinated by the Ministry of Justice called “Adhikaranabhimani” is meant to provide “ameliorated access to justice for people of the Northern Province.”

Beginning with Kilinochchi and Jaffna there will be two-day mobile clinics in which the participating government institutions will be the Legal Aid Commission, Office for National Unity and Reconciliation, Office for Reparations, Office on Missing Persons, Department of Debt Conciliation Board and the Vocational Training Authority to mention some of them. Whether it is by revising 60 laws simultaneously and setting up participatory committees of lawyers and state officials or in now launching the “Adhikaranabhimani” Justice Minister Ali Sabry has shown skill at large scale mobilisation that needs to be sustained. It is to be hoped that rather than treating them as passive recipients, the governmental service providers will make efforts to fulfill their need for justice, which means that the needs of victims and their expectations are heard and acknowledged.

It will also be important for the government to ensure that these activities continue in the longer term. They need to take place not only before the Geneva sessions in March but also continue after them. The conducting of two-day mobile clinics, although it will send a message of responsiveness, will only be able to reach a few of the needy population. The need is for infusing an ethic of responsiveness into the entirety of the government’s administrative machinery in dealing with those problems that reaches all levels, encompassing villages, divisions, districts and provinces, not to mention the heart of government at the central level.

The government’s activities now planned at the local level will draw on civil society and NGO participation which is already happening. Government officials are permitting their subordinate officials to participate in inter-ethnic and inter religious initiatives. It is in their interest to do so as they would not wish to have inter-community conflicts escalate in their areas which, in the past, have led to destruction of property and life. They also have an interest in strengthening their own capacities to understand the underlying issues and developing the capacity to handle tensions that may arise through non-coercive methods.

BUILDING PEACE

Many of the institutions that the government has on display and which are going to the North to provide mobile services were established during the period of the previous government. However, they were not operationalized in the manner envisaged due to political opposition. Given the potency of nationalism in the country, especially where it concerns the ethnic conflict, it will be necessary for the government to seek to develop a wide consensus on the reconciliation process. The new constitution that is being developed may deal with these issues and heed the aspirations of the minorities, but till that time the provincial council system needs to be reactivated through elections.

Sooner rather than later, the government needs to deal with the core issue of inter-ethnic power sharing. The war arose because Sinhalese politicians and administrators took decisions that led to disadvantaging of minorities on the ground. There will be no getting away from the need to reestablish the elected provincial council system in which the elected representatives of the people in each province are provided with the necessary powers to take decisions regarding the province. In particular, the provincial administrations of the Northern and Eastern provinces, where the ethnic and religious minorities form provincial majorities, need to be reflective of those populations.

At the present time, the elected provincial councils are not operational and so the provincial administration is headed by central appointees who are less likely to be representative of the sentiments and priorities of the people of those provinces. In the east for instance, when Sinhalese encroach on state land the authorities show a blind eye, but when Tamils or Muslims do it they are arrested or evicted from the land. This has caused a lot of bitterness in the east, which appears to have evaded the attention of the visiting UK minister as he made no mention of such causes for concern in his public utterances. His emphasis on pragmatism may stem from the observation that words need to be converted to deeds.

A video put out by the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office confirms a positive approach with regard to engaging with the Sri Lankan government. In it Lord Ahmad says “the last three days illustrated to me that we can come together and we can build a constructive relationship beyond what are today with Sri Lanka. We can discuss the issues of difference and challenge in a candid but constructive fashion.” Lord Ahmad’s aspiration for UK-Sri Lankan relations needs to be replicated nationally in government-opposition relations, including the minority parties, which is the missing dimension at the present time.

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Yohani…teaming up with Rajiv and The Clan

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I know many of you, on reading this headline, would say ‘What?’

Relax. Yohani, of ‘Manike Mage Hithe’ fame, is very much a part of the group Lunu.

But…in February, she will be doing things, differently, and that is where Rajiv and the Clan come into the scene.

Rajiv and his band will be embarking on a foreign assignment that will take them to Dubai and Oman, and Yohani, as well as Falan, will be a part of the setup – as guest artistes.

The Dubai scene is not new to Yohani – she has performed twice before, in that part of the world, with her band Lunu – but this would be her first trip, to Oman, as a performer.

However, it will be the very first time that Yohani will be doing her thing with Rajiv and The Clan – live on stage.

In the not too distant past, Rajiv worked on a track for Yohani that also became a big hit. Remember ‘Haal Massa?’

“She has never been a part of our scene, performing as a guest artiste, so we are all looking forward to doing, it in a special way, during our three-gig, two-country tour,” says Rajiv.

Their first stop will be Dubai, on February 5th, for a private party, open-air gig, followed by another two open-air, private party gigs, in Oman – on February 10th and 11th.

Another attraction, I’m told, will be Satheeshan, the original rapper of ‘Manike Mage Hithe.’

He will also be a part of this tour (his first overseas outing) and that certainly would create a lot of excitement, and add that extra sparkle, especially when he comes into the scene for ‘Manike Mage Hithe.’

Yohani and her band, Lunu, last performed in Dubai, a couple of months back, and Satheeshan, they say, was the missing link when she did her mega internet hit song – live, on stage.

There was a crowd to catch her in action but it wasn’t a mind-blowing experience – according to reports coming our way.

A live performance, on stage, is a totally different setup to what one sees on social media, YouTube, etc.

I guess music lovers, here, would also welcome a truly live performance by Yohani de Silva.

In the meanwhile, I’m also told that Rajiv Sebastian plans to release some songs of the late Desmond de Silva which he and Desmond have worked on, over the years.

According to Rajiv, at this point in time, there is material for four albums!

He also mentioned that he and his band have quite a few interesting overseas assignments, lined up, over the next few months, but they have got to keep their fingers crossed…hoping that the Omicron virus wouldn’t spike further.

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Multi-talented, indeed…

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Thamesha Herath (back row – centre) and her disciples (students)

We all know Trishelle as the female vocalist of Sohan & The X-Periments, so, obviously it came to me as a surprise when it was mentioned that she is a highly qualified Bharatanatyam dancer, as well.

What’s more, she has been learning the skills of Bharatanatyam, since her kid days!

And, to prove that she is no novice, where this highly technical dance form is concerned, Trishelle, and the disciples (students) of State Dance Award winning Bhartanatyam Guru, Nritya Visharad Bhashini, Thamesha Herath, will be seen in action, on January 29th, at 4.00 pm, at the Ave Maria Auditorium, Negombo.

Said to be the biggest event in Bharatanatyam, this Arangethram Kalaeli concert will bring into the spotlight Avindu, Sithija, Mishaami, Nakshani, Venushi, Veenadi, Amanda, Sakuni, Kawisha, Tishaani, Thrishala (Trishelle), Sarithya, Hewani, Senuri, Deanne and Wasana.

In addition to her singing, and dancing skills, Trishelle has two other qualifications – Bachelor in Biomedical Science, and Master in Counselling Psychology.

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