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Opinion

Our polluted sea and disappearing marine life

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by Emeritus Professor Upali Samarajeewa

(smrjee@gmail.com)

Many lists, figures and numbers could be seen in the public media on the toxic materials supposed to be in the containers of the wrecked ship. Some materials have been discharged to sea. More may be in containers. Experts seem to assume that all the oil in the ship got burned in the fire. Unfortunately, the numbers, volumes and interpretations keep on changing, creating more questions in the public mind than answers. Basically, there had been many chemicals, bulk of which would have got diluted and carried away by the currents reducing the potential threats. It accounts only for whatever that came out of the containers due to fire or other damages. What is intact, trapped and locked in the containers but soaked or washed away by the waves continuously would not be known or understood. We leave it to the ocean to decide the fate of its fauna and flora.

Simple calculations of the initially released figures of the quantity of micro-plastics, (which are less than 5 mm in size), and the number of bags containing them calculated with simple arithmetic do not tally mathematically. New concerns are arising on increasing numbers of turtle bodies and dead whales appearing in our shores. It may even beat the COVID 19 trend.

Leaving aside the soluble chemicals momentarily, the threat from micro-plastics appears to be on the increase, though what appeared on the beaches were removed efficiently – thanks to the armed forces, the public and others. Research on micro-plastics recognizes that they behave differently from the normal plastic waste that goes into the sea through flowing rivers and other pathways. In general, the micro-plastics are said to be passing through the gut of marine fish, provided the constrictions in the passage of the gut are bigger than the pieces of plastics. However, it is not logical to expect the passage through the gut as an empty tube with no constrictions and valves allowing free flow. Available research suggests only those plastics smaller than 486 micro-meters could be absorbed through the epithelium of the gut in fish. Thus, there is an element of safety in considering human exposure through edible components of fish, if adequate care is taken to remove the fish guts prior to cooking. It is also known that a certain amount of micro-plastic can get trapped in the gills of fish, obstructing flow of sea water and hence the availability of oxygen.

Small fish such as sprats, and crustaceans like prawns and crabs are part of our diet. Sprats may or may not swallow microplastics, but the risk of transferring microplastics to human food remains high through small fish as gut contents remain intact at cooking. The feeding habits of crustaceans allow intake of much more plastics and retain more than 95% of what they ingest in their soft tissues, without digestion.

The unusual numbers of turtle bodies appearing in shore require increased attention, as the bodies may serve as indicators of what is happening in the sea and what is to be expected. It is scientifically shown that the turtles tend to misidentify plastics as food, due to a specific sensory reason. Plastics smells like foods to turtles. This results in turtles chasing behind the micro-plastics to satisfy their hunger, till the guts get packed up with micro-plastics. The ship also had carried crude synthetic rubber. The actual physical form of this rubber is not known. Rubber is heavily toxic to turtles. All the dead turtle bodies have been sent for analysis by the Government Analysts or for postmortem by the Veterinarians adhering strictly to legal requirements. Those reports may appear in files. Why not somebody with authority, split open the guts of the turtles and examine the contents of rubber, new micro-plastic beads from the ship and old plastics of different shapes to understand the actual cause of deaths. There are enough degree holders with zoology knowledge in various institutions. They possess experience in dissecting rats, cockroaches, and even small sharks. It is time for them to come out and help the more advanced scientists providing basic clues. The responsibility lies in the institutions, authorities and agencies serving public good. It is established that consumption of 14 pieces of plastics accounts for LD50 for turtles (The 50% lethal dose for a turtle to die). Counting beyond 14 is no daunting task for a population with high literacy rate. Rapid results and appropriate approaches could generate information fast to avoid more assumptions and guesses.

The microplastics released from the ship are of tiny size with a high absorptive surface area. The micro-plastics increase their absorptive capacity over months, as tiny pores appear on the surface during decay. These new plastic pieces possess high ability to adsorb organic molecules and concentrate them on the surface. Marine environment is full of toxic organic pollutants discharged from the rivers and through other human activities. The ship itself may have added loads of non-fuel oils as indicated in the information available to the public. These oils and some other spillovers from the decks would have been adsorbed by the micro-plastics. It is shown scientifically that the substances adsorbed by the microplastics get desorbed in guts of marine animals, due to acidity and enzymatic digestive actions, leaving the plastics free for another round of absorption once they are discharged back to the sea. It provides a mechanism for continuous intoxication of marine fauna.

It appears there are adequate stocks of common salt for consumption for one year. As the load of micro-plastics increase in the sea, and as they break down slowly into smaller particles there arise a possibility of increased numbers of plastic particles passing through the current sea water filtering mechanisms. The microplastics may serve as nuclei around which the salt could crystallize. In the long run it may be appropriate to establish more effective filtering of sea and examine sea water at least microscopically as a safety mechanism.

It is also reported that there was lead, copper and aluminium in recognizable quantities in the ship. They may continue to dissolve slowly into the sea water. Old plastics pollutants already in the sea could attract the charged metallic components effectively creating a new pathway for transmitting them into marine bodies, plant, or animal.

The shelf life of a plastic shopping bags in our marine environment with plenty of sunlight, is around 2 years; the equivalent for the micro-plastic beads that appeared in our shores is 800 – 1200 years. This brings in a durable mechanism to circulate potential toxic materials into guts of marine fish for many years.

There is no direct research to recognize threats to human life, due to accumulation of plastics in the body. Experiments carried out with tissue cells from the human body cultivated under laboratory conditions, have not demonstrated any toxicities to cells by micro-plastics. The threat of micro-plastics serving as carriers of harmful ingredients to human body cannot be ruled out.

The public has concerns about the safety of fish consumption. With a reasonable degree of responsibility, it could be said that the food safety threat from consumption of big fish is low provided they have not died before being caught. The consumption of small fish with the guts poses a risk. The risk tends to be higher with marine fauna having outer shells, prawns, crabs etc. – the crustaceans. At this moment, clear scientific information based on post-mortem findings of turtles can throw a lot of light on the threats we may be facing though marine food. If the flesh of turtles shows high levels of heavy metals, there is a need to be cautious. If the flesh is free of unusual chemical constituents, but the guts are packed with micro-plastics the threat to human food chain lies more with plastics and not the chemicals released from the ship. It is up to the scientific authorities to discover the reality.



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Opinion

A ‘painless shot’ from Army

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When I was told that the Army was administering Sinopharm Covid vaccinations at Viharamaha Devi Park with special provisions for individuals with disabilities, I decided to take my wife, herself a Rehabilitation Medicine Physician, but now afflicted with Alzheimers disease, for her Covid shot, not knowing quite what to expect.

At the driveway into the park an Officer in smart uniform stopped me and inquired politely if there was anyone with a disability. When I answered in the affirmative, indicating my wife, I was asked to drive in and given instructions where to park my vehicle. In the parking area, another army officer kindly directed me to park under the shade of a “Nuga” tree for my wife’s comfort and asked me to proceed to the Registration desk and obtain my vaccination card.

Walking the short distance to the registration desk I observed those awaiting the vaccination seated comfortably in shaded and green surroundings. There was even a vending machine which was, I presume to provide refreshments for those waiting.

The several registration desks were manned by smart young male and female army personnel. The gentleman who attended to me took down my details and when my contact number was given information that the owner of this phone number had already had the vaccination appeared on the computer correctly, as I had been already vaccinated. Now, I expected a typical “public servant’ response that the “rule” is that a contact number could be registered only once. However, the officer used his brain, and after listening to my wife’s situation proceeded to complete the form. Then came the consent form that had to be signed. When I explained that my wife was unable to do so again I expected him to say, “Then get a letter from a doctor saying she cannot sign.” But this officer who did not behave like a robot used his judgement and allowed me to sign the form.

The paper work having been duly completed, I was asked to bring my wife to get her shot. When I explained that it would be very difficult, but not impossible, I was directed to the doctor at the site. I walked up to the young yet professional looking doctor attired in scrubs. When I explained my position, he promptly directed a staff member to go along with me to the vehicle and administer the injection while my wife was still seated there.

I then inquired if the young man who was helping my wife could also get his vaccination, and “no problem” was the answer. And before I could say “Sinopharm” the whole procedure was done and dusted!

What first class service!

To be at the receiving end of empathy and kindness was indeed a satisfying experience.

My thanks and appreciation to the organisers of the vaccination programme at Viharmahdevi Park on Wednesday (21 July)

Those who are critical of the army playing a lead role in Covid pandemic control, please take note.

Dr. N.Jayasinghe

Physician.

Colombo 7

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Opinion

On ‘misinformation’ against Minister of Health

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Dr. Upul Wijayawardhana (UW) is a regular contributor to this newspaper. His articles are almost always interesting and sometimes they provide valuable perspectives.

I find his criticism/castigation of the Minister of Health (MOH) in an ‘epidemic of misinformation’ (Island 19.07.2021) unfair and baseless. UW singles the MOH out as ‘the leader of the pack, undoubtedly is the Minister of Health who conveys wrong health messages’. This is erroneous and unwarranted

The main issues that UW quotes in support of his argument is that ‘she recently went to a shrine to thank a goddess for protecting her’ and ‘that she dropped pots in rivers to prevent the spread of the pandemic’.

From the onset of this pandemic a multitude of rituals have been conducted and they are still in force; all night Pirith, Bodhi Pooja, continuous chanting of the Ratana Suthraya, etc. The MOH releasing pots to the rivers that would wash down the ‘pandemic’ to the sea was one such ritual. A salient point to be appreciated is that while there is the possibility that the MOH herself believed in the effects of releasing these pots; this ritual was done primarily for the country/public rather than herself- hence the coverage on TV and news.

In contrast to this, her fulfilling a vow that she and/or her family made on her behalf when she was at death’s door, is based on a personal belief, and unlike the previous public action was done as an extremely private affair. If not for the fact that she is the MOH and her actions got reported in the press, none of us would have been even aware of this act. One would be hard pressed to find anyone in this country who has not fulfilled a vow; be it for himself or herself / siblings/ parents /children with regard to examinations, illnesses, promotions, etc…

None of these actions has any bearing on how the MOH has advised the public based on the counsel that she has received from her health officials and as such she is certainly not guilty of conveying any ‘wrong health messages’.

The MOH contracted Covid -19 because she was at the forefront of this epidemic and was constantly in touch with frontline workers. Not because she abandoned good health practices in favour of a cultural ritual! She had to be admitted to the IDH, was in the intensive care unit and according to medical sources was quite sick. We now see her on TV, the effects of the Covid-19 are apparent, a person who has had a near brush with death, fully cognizant of the danger of her current position. Certainly this would not have been something she signed up for when she took on the job as the MOH! This being the case, for UW, a doctor of medicine, to refer to ‘There are other idiotic politicians around the world who paid with their lives for the folly of not accepting the reality of a viral pandemic’ is not worthy of a healer.

Having recovered from her illness the MOH at a press conference publicly thanked her medical team for the effort they put into saving her life. I am sure that she would have thanked them personally as well. UW concludes his diatribe against her saying ‘Her life was saved not by goddesses, but by the excellent doctors, nurses and other health professionals Sri Lanka is blessed with. A person who is unable to even grasp that reality surely does not deserve to be the Minister of Health’. Is UW seriously suggesting to this readership that the MOH is unaware of the difference between science and culture? Is it his contention that anyone who engages in a religious /cultural ritual has no grasp of reality?

As a side note I am amused by the use of the term ‘Sri Lanka is blessed with ’. Based on UW’s logic ‘who are highly trained in Sri Lanka’ ought to have been a more appropriate term as blessings have nothing to do with a scientific reality!

 

Dr. Sumedha S. Amarasekara

 

 

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Opinion

Night soil as fertiliser

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I write with reference to a letter on night soil as a source of fertiliser by my good friend Upali Wickremasinghe which appeared in the Island of 17/07.

In the first place we were not talking of ammonium sulphate only but all chemical fertilisers vs compost as the sole supplier of nutrients for successful crop growth.

His suggestion to use night soil is an invitation to revisit the smelly past. It is true that some Asian countries and Sri Lanka too used this on a very limited scale many years ago mostly on home gardens.Our concern is on  much larger holdings. Irrespective of the scale of operation the implementation poses many problems,

Outdoor latrines have to be built. Who collects and cleans the buckets used? In the olden days scavengers were employed. Today, we attach more respect and dignity to human labour. These kinds of latrines particularly around Negombo were designed for the pigs reared on the range. Repulsive no doubt. I remember a story I heard as a child. A state councilor who visited a friend in Negombo spent a night with him. The following morning when using the toilet he was amazed to find a pig catching his dropping in midair. He is supposed to have commented that although he had been a state councilor for many years it was the only day that his motion was carried! There was also a practice to tether buffalows to coconut palms overnight. Their dung and the urine nourished the palms.

I will not elaborate on the sanitary and enviorenmental issues which are bound to be overwhelming

Some theoretical concepts cannot be adopted in practice particularly on large scale. UW talks of some girls in Nigeria generating electricity from urine, One could also conceptualise to extract sugar from the urine of diabetics. How feasible is it?

UW in earnest implores to find ones roots. Whatever it means it cannot be scattering human waste  all over.

Let us view the fertiliser issue crippling the farmer and the nation more seriously.

 

Gamini Peiris

Panadura

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