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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

Covid pandemic, KNDU debate and civil-military relations

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By Dr. Laksiri Fernando

Covid-19 pandemic, undoubtedly, is the central challenge Sri Lanka is facing today, along with other countries. All indications are that the world might not be able to get back to ‘normal’ at least until 2023. This is assuming that our governments would be able to implement viable vaccination programmes and other necessary measures with people’s cooperation.

 

Gravity of the pandemic

Even that ‘normal’ might not be the ‘past normal’ with most countries facing continued economic devastation, weak workforces due to poor health conditions, disrupted international trade relations, and environmental catastrophes. It is not clear what kind of a political-economic ‘model’ would hold for the future as liberal capitalism is the root cause of most of the present disasters, plundering of natural resources, pollution of environment, displacing of animals and over exploitation of the human resource.

In the case of Sri Lanka, so far the challenge of the Coronavirus pandemic has been handled satisfactorily, although the necessary cooperation from some important sections has not been forthcoming. The near future, however, is not very clear given the devastating effects of the fast-spreading new Delta variant. Nevertheless, there are sections in the polity who want to desperately continue their politics, protests, strikes or even ‘plans to overthrow the government’ disregarding these conditions.

To the people, politics in a democratic system is about choices through trial and error. They did a trial in 2015 and found an error. They have again done a new trail in 2019/2020 and may be evaluating the results. The best possible choice for the people under democracy is to get the best out of any government that they elect during the tenure through dialogue, cooperation, non-cooperation, criticism and constructive criticism. This is exactly what is happening in countries like Australia where I live at present. Strikes and protests are staples in the democratic menu, but not exactly under conditions like the prevailing pandemic.

 

Measures in Australia and Sri Lanka

Until recently, Australia managed the pandemic fairly well, given the cooperation the central government and state governments received from the oppositions, medical professionals, health workers, trade unions and the public. Unlike France, there were not much opposition to lockdowns, face masks, social distancing, or strict guidelines. Australia managed the situation quite well, like New Zealand until recently.

Perhaps because of the successes, Australia also got a little complacent and the vaccination roll-out got delayed. This appears to be the key reason the virus started to spread again particularly in Sydney (NSW), in addition to the attack by the virulent Delta variant since last month. Now there are strict rules again. Compared to Sri Lanka, the public health system is quite advanced and the private sector is cooperating. There were no strikes or protests by doctors or nurses, although there are similar pay anomalies and grievances on their part. They were patient and tolerant.

Of course, the grievances in Sri Lanka are more grave, as a poor and developing country. Moreover, politics is exceedingly hot. Education is a field greatly affected in both countries with obvious future repercussions. In Australia, teachers are cooperating fully, conducting online teaching. In Sri Lanka, obviously there are problems, but teacher protests are completely undermining the efforts to resolve them.

Australia has the necessary resources to offset the adverse economic effects on employment and businesses, due to lockdowns and other restrictions, through job-keeper, job-seeker and business concessions. However, such possibilities, in Sri Lanka, are limited. In controlling the spread of the virus, Australia is implementing extremely effective contact-tracing measures and asking people to follow strict rules. While this type of accurate measures are difficult in SriLanka, many people who are infected or possibly infected appear to be taking these instructions lightly.

Because of, people’s widespread mistrust of the police, the application of these regulations through the police in Sri Lanka has become difficult. This is not the case in Australia. There is no apparent opposition to lockdowns or other government measures by opposition political parties at the national, state or provincial levels. The opposing Labour Party cooperates with the government, critically as necessary.

There were some protest demonstrations against lockdowns recently in Sydney and Melbourne which were forcefully dispersed and the perpetrators were brought to justice with punishments and heavy fines. This kind of pandemic control might not be possible in Sri Lanka given the present political culture and people exercising freedoms without responsibilities.

The NSW government brought the military into the scene and prevented any protest from taking place during last weekend. Soldiers are also deployed to ‘knock door-to-door’ in local government areas, where strict lockdowns are implemented, to reprimand those who disobey. Of course these measures are implemented with civility and respect for people’s rights.

 

KNDU Debate

Although the pandemic is the main challenge at the moment, the government, the Opposition, the civil society, media, academics or any other party should not neglect addressing or discussing other issues. What is necessary is to understand the circumstances, and prepare for the next stage, without unnecessarily postponing anything else. Therefore, the KNDU (Kotelawala National Defence University) debate is important but it should be placed in the broader context.

There is a pressing need to expand, upgrade and diversify University education, of course without violating the basic principles of free education. While around 350,000 students sit for the admissions examination (GCE-A), and around 200,000 students qualify for admissions, only around 30,000 are admitted to universities. This year the University Grants Commission (UGC) intends to enroll an additional 10,000 students to bring the number to around 40,000. Annually over 10,000 students go abroad for their education. These figures very clearly show the need to further expand university education.

Under the UGC, there are 15 universities and the average student intake is around 2,000. The expansion of university education has been lethargic, from my experience, due to the centralised control of the UGC. At least universities like Colombo, Peradeniya and Moratuwa should have been granted autonomy a long time ago, to expand, be efficient and innovate.

KNDU has been under the Ministry of Defence and independent from the UGC. The property was donated by Sir John Kotelawala and as a fee levying university it has become largely self-reliant. Its capacity has increased over five-fold, admitting less than 200 students at the beginning and increasing eventually to around 1,000 per year. KNDU is primarily a defence university (special purpose), but admits civil students. The teachers are mainly military but with other reputed academics participating.

 

Some questions

There can be (and are) inconsistencies and weaknesses in the proposed Bill for the KNDU. But such weaknesses exist even in the Universities Act (1978). It is up to the government and the Opposition to sort them out.

1. KNDU is primarily opposed claiming it jeopardises free education. General Sir John Kotelawala Defence Academy or University was in existence since 1981, but there was no such opposition before. There are private universities, but those are also not opposed, but patronised by some. KNDU fees should be reasonable and it should not be a profit making enterprise. Some public universities running on a fair-fee basis, with other assistance, would help expand ‘fully free education’ for needy students while expanding the university system in the country as a whole.

A university (first) degree today is considered only a basic qualification internationally. Therefore, expansion of university education is a must for Sri Lanka to be on par with other countries in knowledge, skills and capacities. KNDU appears to make a useful contribution towards this end.

2. KNDU is also opposed because of its military affiliation or nature. This is largely a misplaced and/or emotional outburst. During 2005 and 2010, I was affiliated with the KNDU, mainly teaching human rights. I have known many civilian academics teaching different subjects in KNDU then and thereafter. Since then, the civilian student population has expanded even to the point of including foreign students. The interaction of civil and military, local and international is a healthy atmosphere at the KDU.

Student unions are barred at KNDU. Instead there are social clubs. Military training is reserved for military cadets. Perhaps sports should be promoted for civilian students (aiming at Olympics!). Sri Lanka is poor in sports except for cricket. Of course the quality and standards of KNDU courses, curricula and teaching should be reviewed by the UGC or such organisation.

 

Civil-Military Relations

I believe the newly proposed KNDU Bill can play a major role in civil-military relations. This is something neglected in Sri Lanka. Defence forces are and should be ‘People’s Defence Forces.’ They are not enemies of the people and should not be the case. The defence personnel, and also the police, also should learn how to deal with the people with civility.

In Australia, a Civil-Military Centre (ACMC) promotes this scenario. The Centre also includes the police in its programmes. Its mission statement is, “We work in contexts where there are no easy answers, where the environment is always changing. Our purpose is to support civil-military-police capabilities to prevent, prepare for and respond more effectively to conflicts and disasters.”

Particularly in the context of a pandemic like the Coronavirus, recurrent floods, landslides and droughts, and oceanic disasters like X-Press Pearl, the field of study of ‘civil-military relations’, both in theory and practice, is important. In all these activities women should be given equal prominance. The proposed KNDU Bill, with positive amendments, can expand university education, upgrade and diversify courses and curricula, and also promote civil-military relations, of course without jeopardizing free education.

 

A civil-military seminar in Australia (ACMC)

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Opinion

Apples and doctors

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Once at a party, in Riyadh, a very close engineer friend of mine (late Yaseen Marikkar) who, in fact, helped to recruit hundreds of his workmates who were with him when he was attached to a British firm in Colombo. He was married to a doctor (late Doctor Nafeesa Marikkar) and told those present that the English proverb ‘An apple a day keeps the doctor away’ does not work with everybody and in his case even if he were to take two apples a day he cannot keep this doctor away — pointing at his wife, who is a doctor.

There was loud laughter! However, according to studies, it should work, at least with some. Although there is another apple-related saying that I am quoting here, with utmost reluctance, since it is a little harsh on the doctors, most of whom dedicate their life to serve humanity. It goes as follows: “Eat an apple on going to bed, and you’ll keep the doctor from earning his bread.” We admit that in every profession there are bad apples, too, so the medical profession is no exception.

Apple contains Vitamin C, which helps our immune system in our body. It also prevents heart diseases and cancers. It contains phenols, which reduces bad cholesterol, and it prevents tooth decay and infection that damages the structure of teeth and thus paves the way for a new saying, “An apple a day also keeps the dentist away.”

Survey has revealed, apples protects brain diseases and, most importantly, of all other fruits, it tastes great! Apple is an affordable fruit in many parts of the world although it is not the same in most of the Third World Countries, where this ‘little doctor’ is scarce and expensive.

 

S. H. MOULANA

 

 

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Opinion

The need for vaccination and masking

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First, I will give the bad news. Princetown is a fishing village in Massachusetts the USA. This region has achieved a high rate of vaccination against Covid. While Massachusetts is the second highest state in the rate of vaccination, Princetown had vaccinated almost all of their population, above 12 years. Encouraged by this high rate of vaccination, Princetown did what it does best, partying. On 4th of July, in the warm Summer weather, thousands got into pubs, restaurants and beaches. By 12th of July, new cases of Covid started to crop up and soon there were 833 new cases. The bad news is that 73% of these cases were fully vaccinated. Moreover, studies, based on these cases, proved that the Delta variant is more transmissible than previously thought, in line with Chickenpox and Ebola.

Now for the good news. The good news is that only seven out of 833 cases, had to be hospitalised and nobody died. This proved that the vaccines were really good. Serious illness, in the vaccinated, was rare, and death was almost nil. The vaccines were found to be more effective compared to their performance in clinical trials. The other bit of good news is there is no evidence that Delta causes more severe illness than the original strain, though it replicates at a much faster rate and spreads faster. This may be because the virus knows it should not kill its host for it cannot survive without the host!

The USA government was thinking about fully opening the country, and lifting the safety measures’ like social distancing and wearing masks, as about 50% of the population has been vaccinated. Now the government may have to change these plans as the Delta variant shows a capability of spreading even among vaccinated people. This is the situation in the European countries, too. British PM Boris Johnson is supposed to have said “No more lockdowns. Let the bodies pile high”. However, bodies did not pile high, as sufficient numbers had been vaccinated and people wore masks. Where governments, and the people, had been careless, Covid has caused huge catastrophe. Indonesia is ravaged by the Delta variant and is paying the price for being lax with the preventive measures. So is Brazil. There is a lesson in all this for Sri Lanka, too.

The infection rate, in Princetown, due to the Delta variant, was swiftly brought down from 15% to 5.9% by strictly practicing preventive measures like wearing of masks and limits on indoor gathering. They didn’t have to go for a complete lockdown. The high rate of vaccination, made this possible. Adequate vaccination and masking, saved the day for Princetown. Health authorities and virologists now say the way to winning the war against the Delta is to achieve a high rate of vaccination and for people to wear masks when they go out.

There is a lesson the world can learn from what happened in Princetown. No one can lower guard just because he or she has received both jabs of the vaccine. The goal for the world would be to achieve vaccination of the global population, above 12 years of age, in adequate numbers, as quickly as possible, and then to follow the preventive measures that were successful in Princetown until the virus, unable to find hosts in sufficient numbers to replicate and spread, would lose the battle. Total lockdown, unless affordable as in Australia and China, could be avoided by adopting these methods.

The war against the virus would be won and we would be able to start a mask-less life only if and when the whole world is adequately vaccinated. Until then, everybody, whether vaccinated or not, will have to wear masks and follow the health guidelines. When we could achieve total victory would depend very much on the attitude of the 15 countries who are holding on to large stocks of vaccines, though WHO targets for vaccination in those countries have been reached. They are reluctant to release the vaccines for they fear that the need for a third jab may arise. They must realise that even a third jab may not protect them if a variant capable of bypassing the antibodies emerges in a country where the pandemic is rampant due to inadequate vaccination. A better insurance against variants would be to make available the vaccine to the poor countries as soon as possible. There are countries in the African continent where vaccination rate is very low and less that 1% has been given the jab. This sad state is due to the unavailability of vaccines. If this situation continues, the world will be ruled by Covid for years to come.

In Sri Lanka, the Delta variant is threatening to cause a huge devastation. The government is racing against time to get the people vaccinated. More than 300,000 are given the jab everyday. This is a good rate. People must take whatever vaccine is available as all vaccines are effective in preventing serious illness and death. The government, at this juncture, may not want to go for a total lockdown because of the economic situation. People must cooperate with the government if the looming disaster is to be avoided. All those who have got on to the street, with various grievances, genuine or not, must think of the grave risk they take. The whole country is placed at great peril due to their irresponsible actions. The country is at war with an invisible enemy. This is not the time to crowd the streets to support their demands. They could wait for better times. The government, too, could avoid attempting to get controversial legislations enacted during these times as people are unable to participate in the dialogue that must precede enactment of crucial acts of Parliament.

 

N.A.de S. Amaratunga

 

 

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