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Sink differences and unite to save precious lives!

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The world is facing the threat of the Covid-19 pandemic and the death of millions of people. The whole world, including our beloved motherland, is witnessing dangerous and unforeseen developments. A historical moment is upon us, during which there can be no room for anything other than truth and reason. This Coronavirus is a threat to all humanity, irrespective of one’s race or religion. Nations should be joining forces to fight it, but sadly such collaboration is largely absent at this time.

This is the time to shun all our political, racial and religious differences and unite to rescue our people from the current dangerous situation.

The famous American teenage poet, Mattie Stepanech said ‘Unity is strength … when there is teamwork and collaboration, wonderful things can be achieved.’ We urge all citizens to take the Coronavirus pandemic seriously, and to comply with the ultimate responsibility of not endangering others’ lives.

We all must respect the precautionary preventive measures advised by the national and international health authorities. Lack of unity among people, and disrespect to advice from health authorities, can further worsen the situation we are already in.

S. H. MOULANA



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Opinion

Right to Life – Right to breathe clean air

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By Dr. Ranil Senanayake

‘When you cannot take a breath, nothing else matters’ – American Lung Association

The most important thing in our lives that we forget is the air that we breathe. The air or atmosphere is part of the great global commons that every living being depends on. What is it?

Air is 78 percent nitrogen, 21 percent oxygen, 0.93 percent argon and 0.04 percent carbon dioxide. Although oxygen is the third most abundant element in the universe, free molecular oxygen (O2) is one of the rarest things in the entire universe. The only place known to have an atmosphere with O2 is planet Earth.

An exercise: Close your eyes, take a deep breath and know that your breath was made possible by a plant, somewhere at some point in time on this planet. Take a minute to be thankful for your easy breath. On average, a human needs about 750 kg of oxygen per year. All of humanity consumes about 7 billion tonnes per year.

The free oxygen in the atmosphere is 1.2×1015 tonnes (12,000,000,000,000,000 t), but it is unstable in our planet’s atmosphere and must be constantly replenished by photosynthesis in green plants. Without plants, our atmosphere would contain almost no O2. An important thing that needs international address is the fact that the system that replenishes the oxygen of our atmosphere is under threat. We remove the vegetation that produces oxygen at a prodigious rate. According to Global Forest Watch, we fell about 15 billion trees each year. With one tree producing about 120 kg of oxygen per year, the loss of oxygen production is massive. The impact on the oceans is becoming just as serious.

Oxygen is not only consumed by transport and steel production, it is also used to improve the thermal efficiency of fuel. Oxygen is used to treat polluted water and hazardous wastes and for the gasification process of coal. The gas can also replace chlorine in the pulp and paper industry in order to reduce pollution. Oxygen also finds large applications in the medical industry. The unaccounted uses from rocketry and the military have begun to eat into the replenishment rate of oxygen into the global commons at a prodigious rate.

Currently, at 20 percent, any drop in the local oxygen concentration can be disastrous, below 19.5 percent it can have adverse physiological effects and in atmospheres with less than 18 percent oxygen, it is life-threatening. While the concentration in the global commons is still acceptable, many large cities today are recording a drop in the local oxygen concentration with a rise in urban pollution.

As human activities have caused an irreversible decline of atmospheric O2 and there is no sign of abatement, it is time to take action to promote O2 production and pay for industrial use and consumption of O2. Vehicular traffic in cities with poor airflow design transforms molecular oxygen O2 into Ozone (O3). Ozone is good when it is high up in our atmosphere. It protects us from sunburn. Ozone is bad when it is close to the ground where we can breathe it in. You can’t see Ozone in the air but bad Ozone levels are sometimes called smog. It forms when chemicals coming out of cars and factories are cooked by the hot sun.

Breathing in Ozone can make you cough. It can also make it harder for you to breathe. Ozone might even make it hurt to take a breath of air. When you breathe in Ozone, it makes the lining of your airways red and swollen, like your skin would get with sunburn.

Unfortunately, adding to the problems of mining the global commons of air for its oxygen, there is also the issue of unchecked pollution. Air pollution has become a very serious and very visible burden on humanity. The WHO estimated that it was responsible for three million premature deaths worldwide per year in 2012; much of this mortality is due to exposure to small particulate matter of 2.5 to 10 microns in diameter (PM10) which causes cardiovascular and respiratory disease, and cancers.

Air pollution adversely impacts even healthy people; the effects include respiratory irritation or breathing difficulties during exercise or outdoor activities. The current health status and the pollutant type and concentration, or and the length of exposure to polluted air, determines the rate of cardiovascular and respiratory disease, and cancers. High air pollution levels can cause immediate health problems.

The air in Colombo is already of poor quality. PM10 has an annual average of 36 µg/m3 (micrograms per cubic meter). That’s 3.6 times the safe level set by the WHO. While the well-being of the citizens of Colombo seems the least important to the planners of our future, we need to inform ourselves on the cost we have to pay, so that we could defend ourselves from the consequences of ill-informed decision making.

The current air pollution level in all of Sri Lanka has an annual average of 22 µg/m3 of PM2.5 particles which is 2.2 times the WHO safe level. It has also been estimated that 7,792 people died from air pollution-related diseases and that the rate is increasing each year. The top illness caused by air pollution is Ischemic heart disease. Further, 33 children die of air pollution-related diseases every year. Currently, the main source of ambient air pollution in Sri Lanka is vehicular emissions, which in Colombo contributes to over 60 percent of total emissions. But, lurking in the activities of the proposed Port City and Megapolis, there is a huge hidden danger. The danger that uncontrolled construction debris will pose to air quality and to the health of the residents of Colombo city as well as creating a barrier to oceanic breeze that keep the air in Colombo reasonably clean.

As the skyline around Colombo will be increasingly blocked by current unplanned construction, the through-flow of air will be reduced. We can already feel the effect when we breathe at midday in Colombo.

Construction activities that contribute massively to air pollution, include landfilling, operation of diesel engines, demolition, burning and working with toxic materials. All construction sites generate high levels of dust (typically from concrete, cement, wood, stone and silica) which can carry for large distances over a long period. Construction dust is classified as PM10 or particulate matter less than 10 microns in diameter, invisible to the naked eye.

Another emerging threat to the air quality of this nation is the possibility that the Hambantota area could be used to house oil and chemical industries. The history of such industries has been one of polluting, as much as any government will let them. The air quality of this nation must be seriously addressed in the legislature and strong controls placed on activities that affect the quality of air.

It has been noted that the combined effects of ambient (outdoor) and household air pollution cause about seven million premature deaths every year, largely as a result of increased mortality from stroke, heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer and acute respiratory infections. The pollutant load in the atmosphere needs to be strongly controlled as it interferes with our right to breathe.

Up till now there has been no serious attain paid to the quality of the air that we breathe. This raises a question: ‘If I and my ancestors enjoyed a certain quality of breath, is not the reduction of that quality an infringement of my established right?’

Next: Right to life – Right to toxin free food

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Opinion

Red Alert: Need to quarantine imported organic fertilisers

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By CHANDRE DHARMAWARDANA

Canada

When the government suddenly banned the import of fertilisers and pesticides in April 2021 and went ‘100 percent organic’, many scientists warned of dire danger ahead.

The hubris of becoming the world’s first to be free of alleged agricultural toxins made the government stand firm. Its rag-tag of ideologically motivated advisors pointed to roadside mounds of leaves, or Salvinia on rivers, and claimed that enough organic fertiliser can be produced, locally, to meet all needs. It was claimed falsely that Lanka’s ancients had even made it the ‘granary of the East’.

A decades-old ‘good food for health’ movement, among elite circles and fashionable eco-activists, gained a foothold among Sri Lankan nationalists as well. They falsely claimed that even the Chronic Kidney disease of Rajarata is caused by agrochemicals and that Lankans die of cancer due to the use of agrochemicals. According to one politicised doctor, the ancients ate toxin-free food and lived to 140 years, while modern Lankans have eaten poisoned food since 1970 (see https://dh-web.org/green/cdw-Padeniya18May2021.pdf, or Pethiyagoda: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qnmRk3BRtQc).

According to news reports, Sri Lanka is to import organic fertilisers costing Rs 3.8 billion, to cultivate 1.1 million hectares. This is alarming news. Organic fertilisers should not cross borders, as microbes, viruses and other components in them, benign in the local biosphere, may become harmful in a different biosphere.

More alarmingly, the organic fertilizer is from China! China is the country using the MOST amount of the harshest types of agrochemicals and industrial toxins. Its ‘organic fertiliser’ is made of urban waste, raw ‘night soil’, seaweeds or whatever, and processed for local use according to standards satisfactory for those ecosystems; but certainly ‘not’ for Sri Lankan ecosystems. Sri Lanka uses very low amounts per hectare of agrochemicals, even in the tea estates, as compared to most countries (see: The Island, 2021/05/6 ‘Political rhetoric, or sounding death knell for Sri Lanka’s agriculture?’ https://island.lk/political-rhetoric-or-sounding-death-knell-for-sri-lankas-agriculture/).

So, importing Chinese ‘organic fertilizer’ is like exporting bags of ‘processed’ Meethotamulla garbage to some country foolish enough to pay 3.8 billion rupees for it! While such humus is useful to the soil, the universally valid chemistry of proteins shows that such ‘organic fertiliser’ cannot contain significant amounts of nitrogen or phosphorus needed for plant growth. Claims of organic fertiliser, with unusually high nitrogen, content are pure propaganda.

Precautionary principle

Viruses, bacteria and other organisms in any imported product mutate and infect the host country rapidly. This danger is well understood and reflected in Sri Lanka’s import control standards.

Dr. Chris Panabokke, Director General of Agriculture some decades ago, strongly opposed suggestions to even ‘test’ the use of imported nitrogen-fixing bacteria, to enhance Sri Lanka’s relatively poor soils. A ‘good’ bacterium of a foreign ecosystem may become dangerous in a new ecosystem. Even an accidental release is a catastrophe. So the so-called ‘precautionary principle’ becomes relevant.

If a traveller had even visited a farm in a foreign country, or brought a mere twig of a plant, strict rules are applied at immigration, even though invasive pathogens and pests hitching a ride on imports is inevitable. Such invasions, including the invasion of the COVID-19 virus, are processes that countries have learnt to control as much as possible.

Importation of fertilisers and other agrochemicals, be they inorganic or organic, requires that the product be sterile, which means free of living organisms, and free of soils. Impurities like heavy metals and chemical residues should only occur at levels below the maximum allowed limits (MALs).

No country willingly imports potentially dangerous materials that can irreversibly implode a country’s food system and the health of its citizens. The organic fertiliser needed to cultivate 1.1 million hectares may be anywhere from 50-500 million metric tonnes, depending on the planted crops and soil conditions. No exporter of organic fertiliser, anywhere in the world, is set up to sterilise such large quantities of organic fertiliser or remove any residual soils from such fertilizer. So it is safe to distrust any large export.

Facing danger when much is at stake

No country can properly sample a huge amount, 30 to 500 million metric tonnes of a non-uniform material like organic fertiliser. Elementary statistical theory shows that for such non-uniform materials a fraction 1/e of the total, where “e=2.718” (the base of the Napierian logarithm) must be sampled. Even all the analytical chemistry labs of the whole world working for the President of Sri Lanka, cannot do the job!

However, a non-uniform material contaminated with pathogens has billions of pathogens. So even a few samples may show SOME pathogens, though not all types of pathogens, and that is the red alert.

News reports say that two advanced samples were found to be contaminated with Erwinia and Bacillus bacteria dangerous to crops, and also other pathogens harmful to humans. This is extremely alarming news. The food security of the country, the health of its residents, and prospects for generations are at stake. When so much is at stake, the precautionary principle must be applied.

Steps to take in facing the ‘Red Alert’

These so-called organic fertilizers are likely to arrive in Sri Lanka anytime soon. Drastic steps are needed to avert an irreversible tragedy. Humpty Dumpty cannot be put back on the wall, and his splinters should not spew havoc all over the island. Hence, here are the steps to take:

1.

Leading agricultural and health scientists should file a fundamental rights petition, based on the intrinsic impossibility of fulfilling the plant and biohazard quarantine rules at the scale of the planned imports.

2.

Require that the imported material on arrival be quarantined in an off-shore facility (an army-controlled island, for example) and sterilised to free it of pathogens.

3.

Once sterilised, the heavy metals content must be reduced below the Maximum Allowed Limits, as discussed below.

4.

The only technically viable option for the mass sterilisation of millions of tonnes of a metrical is via gamma-ray irradiation. An off-shore facility must be built where the foreign organic material is slowly and repeatedly rolled over a battery of gamma-ray sources (see, for example, N. Halis, Med Device Technol. 1992 Aug-Sep; 3(6):37-45.)

5. The sterilized organic fertiliser must then be freed of heavy metals such as Arsenic, Cadmium, Lead, Mercury that are extremely harmful to human and animal health.

Considering Cadmium (Cd) as an example, and the European average of 50 mg of Cd per kilogram of inorganic fertiliser as the MAL, the safe amount in organic fertiliser (applied in tonnes and not kilos) should be hundreds of times less. In fact, almost all the heavy metals have to be removed. Chemically removing all the heavy metals from millions of tonnes of fertiliser is impossible, and creates the bigger problem of disposing of the impurity. The only option is to render the heavy metals inert and ineffective using a cheap, non-poisonous but powerful chemical chelating agent that is also available in commercial quantities.

The only substance that fits the bill is glyphosate. It is known to promote the growth of earthworms and increase useful microorganisms when applied to contaminated soils (see: Environmental Toxicology, 2014 https://doi.org/10.1002/etc.2683). The imported sterilised organic fertiliser must be mixed with the appropriate amount of glyphosate, in mixing vessels similar to cement mixers at each farming site.

6.

Alternatively, the import should be returned to China and Lanka suffers its loss, but avoids steps 1 to 5.

7.

The recent ambiguous gazette notification on limiting the import of agrochemicals should be challenged by importing a few kilos of urea and TPS as legal tests.

Once the first batch of organic fertilizer is handled according to the steps indicated above, no more organic fertiliser should be imported to avert irreversible tragedy.

Only locally made organic fertiliser must be used to provide ‘organic food’ for those who want it. Local composting must be technically controlled, to sequester dangerous greenhouse gases like methane and CO2 that should not be released into the atmosphere (see: R. Lal, https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/abs/10.1098/rstb.2007.2185). The major part of the market can be supplied via conventional agriculture, which is much safer from an environmental and human-health point of view than organic agriculture.

(The author was a professor of chemistry and a Vice-Chancellor of the Sri Jayewardenepura University in the 1970s, then known as the Vidyodaya University. Currently, he is affiliated with the National Research Council of Canada and the University of Montreal)

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Opinion

Disciplined society: Bridge too far?

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By Dr. Upul Wijayawardhana

Discipline, by definition, is the practice of training people to obey rules and orders and punishing them if they do not. But there is more to it. The government of the day can lay down the rules as well as the mechanisms for punishment if they are broken, but society has even a greater part to play, as disciplined behaviour is mutually beneficial. The behaviour of the majority of the public, rather the misbehaviour, contributing to the difficulty of controlling the present COVID-19 pandemic, is a case in point.

True, the Pohottuwa government has distinguished itself by scoring many own goals, but it has to be appreciated that the President and the government have done much to control the pandemic, under very difficult circumstances. For an under-resourced country, facing a severe foreign exchange crisis, due to the pandemic, to have vaccinated more than half of the adult population, in a relatively short period, is a remarkable achievement, as it surpasses some developed countries. True, mistakes were made but no country got things correct as this was an unprecedented situation. Had there been more cooperation from the public, including the Opposition, things could have been even better. Having seen how Britain, which was hit very much harder, controlled the pandemic, I wrote an article ‘Learning to live with Covid-19’ (The Island, 26 August) wherein I stated:

“Limitations in force in Sri Lanka, before the imposition of the curfew, were similar to the strictest lockdown measures in countries like the UK. Why is that Sri Lanka needs to go a step further and introduce a curfew? The simple answer is discipline; whereas in the UK the majority show disciplined behaviour, unfortunately, the opposite is true in Sri Lanka.”

Though many appreciated my article written in good faith, to offer scientific facts to convince the public that they have a greater part to play than the government, to overcome the epidemic and learn to live with it, most unexpectedly, the only rebuff I got was from a former colleague of mine. He lambasted:

“I was quite amazed and disappointed about your comments about the vaccination programme here. Every medical professional here, except the ever-diminishing number of those slavishly loyal to the Rajapksas, are extremely critical of the way it is done. This vaccination programme has totally ruined the reputation we had as a country with an exemplary immunisation programme for a long time. When the Army, politicians and other businessmen make decisions, overriding medical opinion, the outcome is obvious.

The vaccination queues are the latest super-spreaders. Many have got the infection few days after attending a mass vaccination site. The latter have become carnivals with the army band providing music and the President making a supervisory visit every now and then.

“You have suddenly found Sri Lankans to be very undisciplined. With such a set of power-wielding uneducated, undisciplined set of leaders, what did you expect the people to be? Living thousands of miles away, your extreme ignorance about the ground situation here, coloured by your unwavering loyalty to some politicians, is not surprising.”

I was shocked that a member of my profession sought to politicise a serious public health issue. Whilst pointing out that routine vaccination programmes are not comparable to a programme conducted during an extreme emergency and that many, including Dr. N.S. Jayasinghe, a much-respected physician, has written to newspapers praising the programme, I addressed the issue of indiscipline with the following response:

“I know from personal experience how undisciplined Sri Lankans are and it is not a new discovery! I left the GMOA because I was against strikes, a sign of lack of discipline among the members of the so-called noble profession. If you think Sri Lankans are disciplined, you are living in cloud-cuckoo land! Your statement that the vaccination programme acted as a spreader proves my point. If it did occur, it is because people do not know how to queue. They think if you push, things would be done quicker! If the Army had stood outside ordering people to queue properly, the Opposition would have claimed Gota was using the Army to tame the public!”

The last thing I wish to do is to criticize my brethren unfairly, from a distant land, but I am not left with much choice. It is pretty obvious that indiscipline has grown, as much as each successive government in Sri Lanka, since independence, becoming more corrupt than the previous.

We are supposed to be a Buddhist country and we expect the disciples of the Buddha to be the most disciplined. A Buddhist priest trying to assault a vaccinator, because the stock of vaccines runs out, may be interpreted as an isolated incident, but it is not. Utterances by some Buddhist priests in public are cringeworthy. A Buddhist priest leads a nurse’s trade union; much against the code of conduct laid down by the Buddha and adds insult to injury by getting them to take trade union action during a grave medical emergency, endangering lives. Buddhist priests are seen joining the teacher’s strike, too.

What about the noble profession of mine and my friend’s? Even before the pandemic, their trade union did not care two hoots about patients’ lives; going on strike being their first response to any problem! Unashamedly, they risked innocent patients’ lives during a pandemic to get their demands.

Not that there are no disciplined professionals. Much was made, in the media, of Dr. Ananda Wijewickrema’s resignation and a few others from the expert committee. One of their colleagues has written to this newspaper that they owe it to the public to declare why they resigned. The resignation itself says it all and that is the way decent professionals protest.

Now teachers have joined the strike bandwagon to settle a dispute that had been lingering on for over two decades. They do not care a tuppence about the future of our youth and in the process have lost all the esteem the public held them in. My friend, very conveniently, has failed to notice that the virus spread due to demonstrations held by teachers breaching COVID-19 regulations, despite it resulting in the unfortunate deaths of some teachers.

Leaving politicians aside, most of whom are undisciplined, irrespective of their complexions, when respected segments of the society, like the clergy, medical professionals and teachers, display gross indiscipline during an unprecedented period like this, can there be any hope? I wonder! I do hope the next generation ‘rebels’ against these, as generations do, so that a disciplined society may not be a bridge too far; I can only hope!

Coming back to the political accusations my colleague made, my reply was:

“I am not ashamed to admit that, any day, I would prefer Mahinda, Gota and Basil to Ranil or Sajith.”

Just a few days after my comment, Sajith made his declaration that there should be a snap-election. My assessment was confirmed by the leader of the JVP who responded by saying that Sajith should have his head examined!

Perhaps, there is more to it than that. Considering the number of protests and trade union actions that have taken place in spite of the continuing national emergency, one cannot be blamed for suspecting that there is a hidden hand behind all this. Maybe, Sajith let the cat out of the bag by his unguarded comment.

On top of the inherent tendency, it looks as if there is planned indiscipline too!

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