By CHANDRE DHARMAWARDANA
Every country has a lore of “traditional medicine” in addition to the mainstream medical system, which today is based on a rigorous system of institutionalized medical education based on science. Even the WHO has recently recognized and attempted to give formal structure to such Traditional and Complementary (T&C) systems of medicine (see: https://apps.who.int/iris/handle/10665/312342;jsessionid=4ADD7EEB300760DC10D0C42745ABDC31).
Thus, the WHO defines “traditional medicine” as:
“The sum total of knowledge and practices, whether explicable or not, used in diagnosing, preventing or eliminating physical, mental and social diseases. This knowledge or practice may rely exclusively on past experience and observation handed down orally or in writing from generation to generation. These practices are native to the country in which they are practiced. The majority of indigenous traditional medicine has been practised at the primary healthcare level”.
Traditional medicine, and other so-called complementary systems of medicines, tend to be far less institutionalized, with the methods of treatment traditionally handed down from a teacher to a student, who becomes part of the teacher’s “family”. This is the “guru-kula” system, where the teaching is retained as a family secret and handed down. Nevertheless, as these systems progressed and received state patronage, institutionalization and open publication of medical practices began to appear. The Mahavansa alludes to hospitals even for animals in ancient Lanka. In India, too, Sanskrit texts like the Charaka Samhitha and the Sushrutha Samhitha of Ayurveda, record the level of surgery as well as methods of treatment available to the ancients.
Nevertheless, every physician was supposed to keep his/her “Guru-mushti” (what the teacher holds in his fist), i.e. secret knowledge that the teacher revealed to the pupil, only at his deathbed. They claim that such medical practices have been confirmed by use “down the ages”, and the epithets “prathyaksha” in Sanskrit, and “ath-dutu” in Sinhala are often used to indicate safe and “well tested” medications.
No record keeping of the treatment and their outcomes, adverse effects, etc., were practised until the rise of modern medicine. Hence the claim that these preparations are “ath-dutu”, or “prathyaksha” is unjustified. Case histories that can be scrutinized by independent investigators are lacking.
Even today, when individuals propose “new” treatments for Covid-19, they make claims that the treatment is based on “ath-dutu” ancient herbal lists ,etc., as if that is all there is to it. Others, e.g., the “Hela Suvaya” team, claim that their herbal prescriptions are guided by God Natha. When a person from Hettimulla, Kegalle claimed to have created a Covid-19 treatment, to be given “free”, it attracted massive crowds! Supporters even question the need for double-blind clinical tests or chemical analysis of the new product. Politicians rush to swallow the medicine in public, while the educated public can only groan in silence.
The traditional medicine that existed in Europe in medieval times, prior to the rise of modern scientific medicine, included traditional medicine from Indian, Greek and Arab sources, together with alchemy, which was the search for a means of transforming lead into gold. Many alchemists were also medical physicians who kept their medical as well as alchemical knowledge secret.
The rise of modern scientific medicine can be attributed to the recognition, during the renaissance, that secrecy must be replaced by openness and sharing of experience to ensure objectivity. It was recognized that one’s own observations or once own experiences can be highly unreliable. How one feels, or what one sees, depends on many factors besides the level of alcohol in the blood!
Learned societies like the Royal Society (November,1660) were created for open discussion and public proof. A claimant of a “new discovery” has to reveal all details in public, at a meeting of the learned society. The tradition of holding onto “secret knowledge” or “Guru-Mushti” was thrown out. Record keeping, use of quantitative data, and repeating the experiment or test in front of everybody were key features of the methods of empirical science put into practice by the Royal Society.
So, all claimants of “new” Ayurvedic or Traditional cures for Covid (or Dengue) must release carefully recorded case histories that the claimant can use to prove that there is a preliminary case for what is claimed. It is not enough to make claims of “paran-paraa-gatha vattoruvak” (herbal list handed down from generation to generation). The quality of the herbs used must be recorded, and weighed ingredients must be indicated in grams rather than in terms of some traditional ambiguous unit. A medical body should examine the case histories and decide if there is a case for undertaking further confirmatory studies. That is, bogus claims must be eliminated at the outset. In the scientific method, any claim has to be independently verified by repeating the process, using the same prescribed medications.
Purity and consumer protection are very important and unfortunately lacking in many T&C medications (See https://dh-web.org/place.names/bot2sinhala.html#herbal). Chemical analyses of commercial Ayurvedic preparations have revealed toxic ingredients like Lead (Pb), mercury (Hg), harmful alcohols like methanol, propanols, and other ingredients, as well as extreme variation in amounts of active ingredients. Some contain admixture of potent western drugs although this is illegal. So chemical analysis of proposed T&C drugs is necessary for consumer protection.
An attractive but dangerous feature of T&C medical systems is that they can become “personal health prescriptions” (PHP) that an individual may administer without going to a physician. Modern mega-Vitamin therapies are also PHPs from “complementary” or “alternative” medicine. They become “home remedies” that people swear on, although they may not have kept records of how the PHP worked for them. Patients lack the equipment and laboratory facilities to monitor their condition. In effect, a PHP is a herbal prescription, or the use of some exotic root, fruit or “Vitamin”, without a proper case record, evolved by oneself, or “given” by a “trusted Vaidya” or medical savant. The PHP may have been adopted from some old book or an “ola-leaf” record.
St. Jerome who lived to a very ripe age in the 4th century had his own PHP for good health.
“From his 31st to 35th year he had for food six ounces of barley bread, and vegetables slightly cooked without oil. But finding that his eyes were growing dim, and that his whole body was shriveled with an eruption and a sort of stony roughness he added oil to his former food, and up to the 63 rd year of his life followed this temperate course, tasting neither fruit nor pulse, nor anything whatsoever besides”.
Today, no one would recommend such a diet free of fruits and pulses, and yet, for many centuries, many Christian monks followed St Jerome’s diet claiming it to be a “proven” healthy diet.
In India, Vagabhatta and Nagarjuna were two great teachers who prescribed the use of “Rasaindur”, which turns out to be mercury sulfide. Although these authors prescribed many such metals in their “Rasha-shasthra”, today we recognize them to be toxic and dangerous to health if ingested even at a few parts per million. The Sanskrit text “Rasatarangani” prescribes preparations containing lead, mercury, gold, silver and many other metals which are cooked with lime and herbal juices (e..g, from Nuga, the banyan tree). Well known Ayurvedic texts like the Charaka Samhitha and the Sushrutha Samhitha recommend preparations containing substances now recognized to be toxic. So the “Rishis” failed to notice the toxic effects, probably because there was no recording of case histories and studying them objectively.
Unfortunately many T&C medications are taken over by individuals who transform them into personal health prescriptions (PHPs), without the knowledge to adequately control the quantities used. For instance, “polpala” (Aerva lanata) may be taken as a herbal tea but frequent use may have serious adverse effects on the urinary tract. Similarly, individuals may use “Thebu” (Costus igneus) to control blood sugar, but end up with hypoglycemia and other side effects.
In an earlier epoch, people used to relieve their bowls in their own backyards, near paddy fields (or on the beach!). Hook worm and other intestinal-parasite infections became common as people also walked barefoot in the same land area, or in the fields. Thus there was also a tradition of taking a purge, containing mainly Aralu (Terminalia chebula) at least every six months. This was “a good health practice” recommended by T&C medicine. However, as this was administered as a home remedy, the amount of “aralu” was never properly controlled, leading to dangerous purging in some cases, and no effect in other cases. Furthermore, the purge has little effect on hookworms and such parasites, but it dangerously disturbs the gut microbiome of the person taking the purge.
So, in conclusion, at least the following steps are needed to make T&C medicine safe:
1. Every new claim must be supported by well recorded certified case histories and clinical records that are needed to justify further trials.
2. The prescription must quantitatively specify the full formulation and be subject to a chemical analysis to ensure that no known toxins are contained in the product.
3. Marketing of the product must be done ensuring product-uniformity and product standards to ensure consumer protection.
4. T&C medications must NOT be adopted as home remedies as self-medication is always dangerous.
Those who really saved country from a power crisis
I served in the Ministry for Power and Energy, including the Ministry for Mahaweli Development, for two decades or more, and a recent news item in your newspaper caught my eye. It reads: “Minister of Power Dullas Alahapperuma said yesterday, Sri Lanka would have faced a minimum of, 16-hour power cuts on a daily basis if not for the visionary initiatives of the late President J. R. Jayewardene and the late Gamini Dissanayake to implement the Mahaweli Development Project and Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s bold decision to launch the coal power plant complex at Norochcholai. Irrespective of political differences, correct decisions taken with regard to the power sector should be praised.”
I would like to inform the present Minister for Power, Dullas Alahapperuma, and The Island readers of the real facts which the minister may not be aware of, and to give credit to those who deserve it.
It is true the Mahaweli Development Project commenced without any controversy, but the Norochcholai Coal Power Complex has a sad history; the then Bishop of Chilaw objected its construction as he felt it would affect the holy shrine of St Anne’s at Talawila – 13 Km away. This unfounded objection delayed the commissioning of this plant as scheduled in 2000, and went on to year 2004, after we faced a severe power cut of nearly six-hours a day. All this was due to lack of political will to carry out this work in the national interest.
The situation was so bad that The Island (20 May 2004), editorially lashed out at all governments prior to 2000: “The power crisis which is defying solutions, certainly needs the personal attention of the President herself. There are oil lobbies, coal lobbies or religions and multimillion-dollar commissions involved. In this process some people involved are bound to cry ‘foul’ as it always happens when such decisions are taken. A strong political leader has to take responsibility and make that decision. If they cannot, they are not national leaders”.
The engineers of the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) carried out a very effective campaign to educate the masses; they organised seminars and panel discussions in the electronic media. The most effective and convincing seminar was conducted by the Electrical Division of the Institute of Engineers Sri Lanka, organised by Eng. B. R. O. Fernando, where the Chief Guest was the then Minister of Power Karu Jayasuriya. This seminar was well attended by all sectors, Industrial, commercial, domestic consumers, where eminent electrical engineers addressed the gathering, Surprisingly and sad to say Karu Jayasuriya, went back and wrote to say that as a matter of policy this project is disallowed.
The policy as it would appear was not to displease the Catholic voter and not national interest. If the project commenced as scheduled, the CEB would have called for worldwide tenders and the best selected, but due to this delay the government had to depend on China who came up with a proposal to fund and construct. They funded, used the funds to employ their own men, materials, and machinery, virtually paid themselves the funds leaving the Sri Lanka government to pay back the loan with interest. Today, we are saddled with an ‘Always Break-down’ plant. This started the rot in the CEB, resorting to power purchase from the private sector with corrupt deals.
Soon after the defeat of the government, mainly on this ground, the new government, under Mahinda Rajapaksa, faced the same problem, and the then Minister of Power and Energy Susil Premaayantha, was pressurred or goaded by the CEB Engineers and consultants to a point that he had no alternative, and against party politics and wish, he threatened to resign unless the Cabinet approved his proposal. Hence it is seen the credit for the construction of Norochcholai Coal Power Complex should go to the engineers of the CEB, who pushed the Minister to a point of no return, and not any political party or individual.
Minister Alahapperuma has been quoted in The Island news items under discussion as having said that since 2013 after the Norochcholai power plants One and Two, no major or stable power plant have been added to the grid.” Here again is political interference delaying the construction of the LNG plant at Kerawalapitiya, which should have come into operation about four years ago. For the information of the present Minister for Power, tenders were called for this project and the lowest tenderer was awarded the tender, but the Ministry intervened, and wanted the tender to be awarded to a next higher Chinese bidder, and as several appeals from the lowest tenderer went unheeded, the lowest tenderer, a local company, had to seek legal remedy. Fortunately, with the change of government, under the present Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, this has been sorted out by awarding the construction to the lowest tenderer as recommended by the Tender Board and work inaugurated a few weeks back, while the culprits who delayed this project for reasons left to be guessed are protected.
It is heartening to note the present Minister for Power, Alahapperuma, is taking meaningful steps to right the wrongs of former governments, and steer the CEB to an efficient financially viable state institution, as it was before 1990, where the CEB ran as a profitable venture. Towards this end, all concerned, CEB employees, PUCSL and the consumers should extend support and most importantly ward off foreign interventions in this vital sector.
G .A. D. SIRIMAL
Monumental blunders paralysing Sri Lanka
The late JR Jayawardena: Accomplished a disastrous programme of attacking the basic principles of democracy
Sri Lanka was hailed as a potential paradise, at the time it gained independence from British rule, in 1948. Sadly, after 73 years of misrule by the homegrown leaders, we are languishing as one of the poorest countries, on the verge of bankruptcy. It is worth probing into the past to identify what went wrong, and see whether even belatedly a course correction can be attempted. I will confine myself to the post-independence era, being born a “free man” just an year after that landmark event, but now just one of over 22 million citizens fully in debt to the tune of hundreds of thousands of rupees each. The leaders that guided us towards this sorry state should bear the blame.
We are a nation with a rich heritage, an incomparable mix of multi-ethnic and multicultural diversity, adding colour and variety to the societal landscape. Our natural resources are known to be enormous, in proportion to the relatively small land area. Unfortunately, it appears that these are the very virtues that make the nation languish without progress on all fronts. By boasting incessantly about the glories of the past, without basing our efforts on those achievements for future progress, the nation is in an unenviable position. Bad economic planning with no long-term policies, political brinkmanship, and communal disharmony, created by shortsighted actions of the leaders, have been mainly responsible for our sorry plight. Unlike many other developing countries we have not had long-term plans, like a five year or a ten-year plan. With change of government, every few years, an entirely new “development plan” is instituted, discontinuing all good that was done by the predecessors.
From the very beginning, Sri Lankans were unable to reach a consensus for peaceful coexistence with the minorities. It is true the majority community had to re-establish its rightful position, after prolonged discriminative policies, during colonial rule. It is also true that the minorities all over the world tend to ask for more than their fair share. Yet our leaders were not far sighted enough to control popular sentiments, giving into majority demands to the dismay of others. The Sinhala Only policy after 1956 turned out to be one of the most disastrous. It showed the minorities, in no uncertain terms, that they will forever be second class citizens in their land of birth. That can be singled out as the most harmful event that initiated ethnic disharmony.
Free education has failed to adapt to present day needs, producing graduates and others who are not suited for productive employment. Educational reforms, to keep pace with the ongoing technological advances, are slow to come by. The arts stream, taking in a large proportion of undergraduates, continues to produce graduates with little prospect of employment. Eventually, the government is compelled to employ them in pensionable posts with little in return for development.
Masses in poverty
Democracy is considered as one of the best forms of governance. This is so only with an electorate with high literacy, good quality of life, everyone if not the vast majority above poverty line, and future prospects for peaceful existence guided by leaders with foresight and without greed for self-aggrandizement. In the absence of these vital components, democracy could be a recipe for chaos. This unfortunately has been the curse of Sri Lankans. Successive governments have failed to improve the quality of life of the people. Instead, it appears that the leaders would prefer to keep the masses in poverty, allowing the politicians to rule forever exploiting their misery. Though called a paradise blessed with vast natural resources and a manageable population, the country situated in a strategically important position in the Indian Ocean, all features ideal for rapid development, is cursed with a corrupt self-seeking leadership over so many decades since gaining independence.
The attacks on democracy started seriously with the postponement of elections in 1975, for two years. However, it was the advent of JR Jayawardena, as President of the Republic, in 1978, that was a watershed in the politics of the country. Here was a man people looked up to as a great democrat, with maturity, education and an upbringing in a respectable and economically sound family background. He had long term experience in politics, had actively participated in the independence struggle, and could stand shoulder to shoulder with any world leader. He did not have to worry about perpetuating a family dynasty and had only about 10 years to fulfill the great expectations of his people. He was given a thumping majority at the elections so that he could usher in an era of prosperity, a free and just society — his slogan for the election campaign, without any significant hindrance from the emasculated opposition.
Paradoxically, what he accomplished was a disastrous programme of attacking the basic principles of democracy. Those changes laid the groundwork for ongoing corruption and fraud by the politicians to this day, which we find almost impossible to extricate ourselves from, nearly half a century later. A new constitution, concentrating power in the hands of a president who could function above the laws of the country with immunity, was instituted in 1978, with hardly any public consultation. Removing the civic rights of the respected and well-loved lady Prime Minister, was an act of unimaginable vengeance, which could be considered as one of his worst acts. Removing Tamil members from parliament on the pretext of them not honouring the constitution, thus denying them the forum to air their grievances, was a major step that led to the escalation of terrorist activity. Obtaining signed but undated letters of resignation from the people’s representatives made them dummies, with no chance of giving independent opinions. He amended the constitution at will to suit his immediate petty needs. The Parliament, elected on the first past the post system was treated as if it was on proportional representation. The highly questionable referendum in 1982, to extend the life of the Parliament for another term, remains as one of the biggest black marks in parliamentary history.
Perks and priviges
Members of Parliament were given all perks and privileges to ensure that they were kept happy without hindering or questioning the President’s programme. Luxury duty free vehicles, residences in Colombo, even to those with private residences in the city, were among them. They themselves decide what their emoluments should be. The palatial official residences given to ministers, in the most fashionable areas in the city, makes one wonder whether we are living in a highly developed first world country. It is unimaginable that a life-long pension is granted after just five years of “service” (rather self-service) in Parliament, when an ordinary citizen has to toil for at least 20 years to earn a paltry pension.
The ex-presidents are given the choice of any residence in any part of Colombo for them and their spouses to live in retirement, until death. It is shameful that at least two of them still enjoy that facility even after they have returned to active politics. Why the government is obliged to provide office facilities and security details to even the widows of ex-presidents is beyond reason.
These measures have burdened our economy to such an extent that is impossible for a debt-ridden country like ours to bear. It is not possible to relieve ourselves from this burden, as current or future incumbents, are unlikely to be patriotic or generous enough to give them up. Opening the economy without any safeguards led to perpetuation of bribery and corruption. Whatever economic benefits from the Accelerated Mahaweli Programme, free trade zones and the like are far outweighed by the ongoing overbearing financial burdens described above. One wonders whether the main function of the Sri Lankan state is to maintain in comfort the past and present politicians and their families.
Interference with the judiciary, while professing a just and free society all the time, was most despicable. Residences of judges who gave adverse verdicts were stoned by their goons. This was taken to new low levels decades later, when a chief justice who gave a verdict unfavourable to the government was removed unconstitutionally, and more or less physically thrown out of her official residence. The one who replaced her was arbitrarily removed later. More recently, the amendment to the constitution that enabled the President to handpick the judges, will turn out to be the last nail in the coffin of an independent judiciary.
Youth unrest was simmering for some time. It was JRJ’s policies that created situations that led to the eruption of armed rebellions, both in the North and the South. The immense damage these did to the nation, on all fronts, domestically and internationally, is too well known to be dealt with in detail here, and is bound to plague the nation for a very long time. JRJ can be labeled as the leader who initiated the downfall of our democracy, despite having the full knowledge of how unbridled powers could derail the nation’s path to progress. The most unfortunate situation is that the leaders who followed, every one of them of a lesser predisposition, intellectually, have had no hesitation in using him as the benchmark to judge their own performance, and giving that as an excuse to justify their own antidemocratic and corrupt activities.
The unfortunate events of July 1983 were the beginning of the darkest period in the post independence era of this country. The cost in human and material terms of the ensuing civil war over nearly three decades is unimaginable. The Diaspora, that established themselves abroad as a consequence, continues to be an ever worsening international headache for the country. While winning the war in 2009 was a remarkable achievement, successive governments have failed to capitalize on that, and counter the international fallout regarding alleged human rights violations. Lack of a coherent policy in tackling this issue, compounded by very poor amateurish diplomatic efforts, is making the nation a “wanted criminal”. Political expediency blaming each other to remain in power is a continuing destructive saga.
With the entire country giving a sigh of relief by eliminating the terrorists in 2009, immediate action should have been taken to alleviate the suffering of the people in the North and East. A firm policy should have been developed to address whatever grievances that led to the rebellion in the first place. With the overwhelming popularity of the leadership, the Southern populace would have accepted whatever was offered by a hand of friendship to minorities. Most unfortunately, the war-winning political leadership was more interested in making use of the “victory” to perpetuate their dynasty in power forever. Towards this end the Sinhala Buddhist chauvinists were encouraged in their divisive activities, further alienating the minorities. A golden opportunity for reconciliation was thus buried in political expediency.
Billions of dollars obtained as loans at commercial rates of interest, have been used for extravagant projects which do not bring in returns that would go towards paying them back. Now more loans are being taken, purely to service what has been obtained already. Caught in this vicious cycle, the nation goes down an abysmal path towards financial bankruptcy in the near future.
The North is languishing in a multitude of social problems which need political will, much planning and financial investment to be sorted out. Along with high rates of poverty, unemployment and landlessness is the added burden of drug addiction and resultant antisocial activities of the youth. The locals are under the impression that the police or the armed forces do not take any action to control the drug menace or may even actively promote that. While dealing with the civil society should be a function of the police, it is accepted that the armed forces should remain in the North and East at a sufficient scale to ensure the non-resurgence of terrorist activity. It should be kept in mind that the latter objective is best achieved by winning the hearts of the people. As the Northern and Eastern population is an integral part of the Sri Lankan citizenry, one cannot go on ill-treating them as the vanquished in a battle. However, many of the activities of the law enforcement authorities have caused suspicion with the local populace that could defeat the very purpose they are supposed to serve.
The role of the Army along with the Buddhist priests in establishing new places of worship or reviving temples that have remained dormant for many decades in areas with hardly any Buddhist residents is being treated with suspicion. Buddhist monks from elsewhere are being “planted” in these temples. As there are hardly any Buddhists in the vicinity, they are being serviced and provided with security by the Army. It appears that the local non-Buddhist population is coerced by the forces into participating in various religious functions. These activities may give the impression that there could be a sinister long- term plan to colonise the area with Sinhala Buddhists.
Rebels in the North
It is known that thousands of Sinhalese and Muslim long-term residents were driven out of the North by rebels at the very beginning of the conflict. They may be allowed to return if they so wish, although such voluntary return seems unlikely in the present circumstances. Although the concept of a Tamil homeland may not be recognized, the fact that Tamil Hindus were the vast majority in the North for hundreds of years should be accepted and respected. Any seemingly state-sponsored attempts to upset that demography will undoubtedly arouse much hostility. It is disappointing that the committee appointed recently to preserve the cultural heritage in the North and East has no representation of the minorities.
The local Tamil population naturally is thoroughly disgusted with all these infringements in their neighbourhood. It will not be possible to go on alienating the minorities any more, making them keep their dream of an Ealam alive. It is inevitable that they seek the help of like minded people in India or the influential Diaspora in the West as the Sri Lankan authorities are turning a blind eye to their grievances. As a result the allegations of human rights violations against the Sri Lankan state would be a continuing problem to deal with at the international forums, like the UNHRC.
The situation in the Eastern Province with demography of sizable proportions of all three ethnicities, poses a different set of problems to be sorted out. The sensitive issue of alleged intrusion by a culture foreign to what we have known so far, has to be solved with much foresight and care.
The way all the warnings about the possible Easter bombing were ignored is inexplicable. The resultant catastrophe should be fully blamed on the leaders in government and intelligence services at the time. Political games played without finding out the actual culprits who planned the massacre, would guarantee another attack in the foreseeable future. It is frightening to note that those close to the current leadership are being blamed, though without proof so far, as the masterminds of the mass murder.
Ignoring the lessons learned by giving overwhelming powers to one party in the past, the electorate has given two-thirds majority to the present government. To make matters worse the 20th Amendment to the constitution has concentrated immense authority on the President. All that was achieved by the 19th Amendment, despite a few shortcomings, by ensuring parliamentary control of presidential action has been reversed. Removal of independent Commissions dealing with the judiciary, public service, police etc has installed an autocratic President, who is not accountable to the Parliament, and hence to the people. With his military background and hardly any experience in politics, the President is increasingly showing faith in the armed forces, and a small group of unscrupulous businessmen loyal to him to rule the country. How even the obvious civilian function of controlling the Covid epidemic is under the leadership of the Army commander is a glaring example. It becomes evident with every passing day that civilian rule in a democracy and international diplomacy, cannot be left in the hands of the armed forces. The details of allegations of many corrupt activities of the leaders and their cronies are already in the public domain. How democratically elected autocrats turned out to be ruthless dictators in many countries in the world is lost on the electorate.
Having detailed all the blunders Sri Lanka as a nation has committed, is there a way out of this dismal situation? The electorate tired of the corrupt leadership chose to elect “non political” professionals at the last election. Their naivety in politics, with poor knowledge of the suffering of the masses is now fully exposed, making a mockery of governance. The periodic changing of the governing party at successive elections has been an exercise in futility. The civil society, along with well meaning religious leaders of all faiths without any political leanings, should take immediate steps to educate the people on the need to change this way of life. The press and electronic media should shed their political affiliations and work openly towards long term peace and prosperity of the nation. Social media should be fully mobilized and properly regulated, to keep people informed of the need for a radical change in their attitudes. All justifiable grievances of the minorities should be addressed with no further delay, so that they can be taken fully on board to forge peaceful coexistence and progress. The leaders should set an example to the people by being patriotic and truthful. It was exactly such a path that enabled Sri Lanka (and India) to overcome the might of the British Empire and gain independence. No doubt it is going to be an onerous task at a time when our own leaders are subjugating us.
A FREE THINKING
Absurd standardss on Cadmium and Lead in fertilizers
An opposition member of parliament, Dr Harsha De Silva raised the issue of “contaminated” fertilizer stocks in the House. News reports and social media state that fertilizers “Laced with Unsafe Levels” of Lead and Cadmium have been released in Sri Lanka. Exposure to even small amounts of these heavy metals over time, mainly through the food chain, or by smoking, causes kidney, liver, bone and neurological damage in humans, leading to a variety of chronic diseases.
According to the news reports “The SLSI had suspended the release of the TSP consignment after it found that Lead and Cadmium in the imported fertilizer were higher than the maximum levels for toxic elements based on Sri Lanka standards specifications……However, following a meeting at the Presidential Secretariat, Director Senaratne authorized the release of the consignment into the market, on a strictly conditional basis, considering the food security of the country”.
Anyone reading the news would be justifiably alarmed, as both cadmium and lead are toxic substances that should not get into the food chain, even in small concentrations. However, we point out here that the fault is not in the imported fertilizer, but in the ridiculous standards stipulated by those who wrote Sri Lanka’s standards for heavy metal residues in fertilizers. This is a topic that I have addressed in newspaper articles as well as in technical studies [e.g., Dharma-wardana, Environmental Geochemistry and Health volume 40, pages 2739–2759 (2018) ].
This report must be taken in the backdrop of news about toxins in coconut oil, as well as the attempt of a TV-media host to make the SL Standards Institute (SLSI) Director Dr. Senaratne to reveal names of companies alleged to have imported contaminated coconut oil. She quite correctly stood her ground and declined to reveal names and make public accusations.
The Director of a scientific laboratory is not mandated to act as a public prosecutor. However, her answer showed that scientists are not media savvy and may give totally inappropriate answers that media outlets seek to create media hype. The fact that media hosts should try to destroy due process, and create “instant exposés” in an inappropriate manner, show the extent of the decline in public standards of justice and fair play in the country.
However, let us use this opportunity to educate ourselves regarding toxic substances in general, and heavy metals in fertilizers, in particular. Due to lack of space, here we examine only the case of cadmium, whose Sri Lankan standards are stated in SLS-812-standard-1988, amended and re-approved in 2008. This says that a kilo of TPS fertilizer cannot contain more than 5 mg of cadmium (or 10.9 mg per kg of P2O5). This is an absurd specification, which is impossibly LOW, such that there are very few mineral sources that conform to such a specification.
Let us look at this in comparison with the standards required by other countries for cadmium in fertilizer.
Each country, and sometimes each state or province of a country, sets its standards based on the naturally existing cadmium levels in its soil. Most parts of the UK have very high cadmium levels in its soil, and so inputs of Cd via fertilizers make little difference. Some parts of Western Europe (e.g, Brittany, in France, or parts of Holland) have low natural levels, while Belgium is as contaminated as the UK. So the European Union, as a whole, hopes to gradually tighten its standards and move to 20 mg/kg by 2040. But Sri Lanka has already, in 1988 itself, set its Cd limit at the impossibly low value of 5 mg/kg !
Was this very low limit set already in 1988 so as to disallow every imported batch of fertilizer, so that it can be allowed only when the right pockets are filled? Did the ring of racketeers with greased palms get broken, or did it not change with the change of government, and was this the reason why this matter had to go right up to the top for the “approval” of a perfectly safe and fine fertilizer? The fertilizer has been “condemned” as being “laced with cadmium” and other heavy metals using deliberately contrived specifications ?
How clean the food you eat depends fundamentally on the cleanliness and ecology of the soil to start with. It is only secondarily dependent on the purity of fertilizers in regard to trace metals, or the presence of traces of pesticides; even though a very different hype has been developed in the media for the consumption of a public frightened for its health and ready to even believe people like Dr. Mercola (see:
http://www.dailynews.lk/2018/11/07/features/167704/toxic-cocktail-myth-and-truth) or even “Dr”. Dhammika Bandara inspired by Kaali Amma.
All soils have a certain amount of naturally occurring toxins, as well as toxins from human activity, e.g, earth works, mining, farming, burning of fossil fuels or forests that cause acid rain and noxious fumes, and poor disposal of garbage. Even organic farming, often believed to be clean and “natural”, produces toxins similar to those in mineral fertilizers, as composting plant matter leads to the cyclic accumulation of heavy metals like cadmium and lead found naturally in the soil, and re-concentrated in plant matter used for composting.
Mineral fertilizers like triphosphate (TPS) are mined from the ground, usually from desert locations (e.g., in Morocco, Nauri Islands in New Zealand). These mineral deposits are becoming increasingly scarce and phosphates are a threatened commodity. Mineral fertilizers applied to the soil also contribute some cadmium (and other trace metals) to the soil.
Let us take an “extremely polluted sample” of fertilizer by Sri Lanka’s specification, e.g. Nauru phosphate which has some 90 mg/kg of cadmium, i.e., 15 times more than that specified by the current absurd SL standard. We have shown (e.g., https://doi.org/10.1007/s10653-018-0140-x)
that it will still take many centuries to modify the cadmium levels in, say, Sri Lankan soil significantly by such fertilizer additions. Hence even such a so-called “bad” fertilizer, but used in Australia and New Zealand, would be perfectly safe for use in Sri Lanka too.
Sri Lanka has a deposit of phosphate minerals at Eppawala. While it is quite high in its arsenic contamination, it has very low cadmium contamination. Some people have urged the government to exploit the Eppawala deposits. I have opposed this as the conversion of the rock phosphate to usable TPS etc., is a highly polluting process that is best done far away from human habitations – i.e., unsuitable for Sri Lanka. In any case, a local production will also cost three to ten times more than what is available in the international market. Given the increasing scarcity of phosphate, the local deposit should be regarded as a national treasure that must be conserved for future use, until cleaner nano-technological methods for mineral exploitation become available.
Hence, I urge the government to change the cadmium and other heavy metal specifications used in Sri Lanka to conform to modern scientific knowledge, and align its standards with values used internationally. Having looked at the level of cadmium in Sri Lankan soils, I believe that an appropriate standard for Sri Lanka is to set its upper level for cadmium to be about 100-150 mg per kg of Phosphate, instead the current absurdly low value.
The author is currently affiliated with the National Research Council of Canada, Ottawa, and the University of Montreal. He was a past VC and Professor of Chemistry at Vidyodaya/SJP university.
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