Connect with us

Opinion

To Bury or not to Bury: That is the Question

Published

on

By M.C.M. Iqbal PhD

The decision to make cremation the mandatory form of disposing the COVID-19 dead in Sri Lanka was based on the premise that there was (i) insufficient evidence on the possibility of the virus leaking out of the buried bodies from the cemeteries, (ii) the possibility of the virus entering the water table, and (iii) as a consequent to (ii), transmission of the virus among the population. The cremation decision was based on precautionary principles, as the SARS-CoV-2 is a new virus with many unknowns.

During the last few months, considerable scientific evidence has been published in international peer reviewed journals on many aspects of the novel coronavirus and its environmental impact. It is now time to lift the veil of ‘unknowns’ and move towards making informed decisions.

Viruses and virology is the domain of microbiologists, more specifically virologists. However, some basic knowledge in biology can help us understand the present pandemic and the various precautionary measures.

 

The virus

Let us begin with the virus. The official name of the virus is SARS-CoV-2 and the disease it causes is called COVID-19. A single virus particle (called a virion) consists of an outer shell made of protein, enclosing and protecting the RNA, the genome or in layman terms the software that runs the virus. It is very tiny (20 to 400 nanometres) and cannot be seen through a microscope (see Figure). The genome is like an instruction manual for our cells and the entire body to function. Once the virus enters our living cells (called infection), it stops the normal function of a cell and hijacks the cell machinery to produce more copies of itself, causing the cell to eventually burst open, infecting new cells with virus particles and initiating a chain reaction. Thus, living cells are necessary for the virus to survive and make copies. The only mission of the virus is to make more copies of itself.

Viruses are broadly divided into Enveloped and Non-Enveloped viruses. The envelope is an outer covering on the virus composed of a fatty substance (lipids) and proteins (see Figure). The SARS-CoV-2 virus is an enveloped virus.

The Coronavirus that you see illustrated has knob-like spikes on the surface embedded in the lipid envelope. These spikes are vital for the virus to gain entry into our cells in the throat and lungs (respiratory tract): imagine this as the key (spikes) to open the door (cells in the throat and lungs). Fortunately, this envelope provides a soft target and is easily broken down by soap, detergents and other disinfectants such as alcohol. Without this envelope the virus cannot infect us – it has no key to enter our cells. Hence the emphasis on washing our hands with soap and disinfecting the environment with alcohol and detergents – this is sufficient to destroy the virus.

The Non-Enveloped viruses do not have this lipid layer. They have a hard protein coat resistant to common disinfectants, enabling the virus to survive in the outside environment. Examples are the Poliovirus and the viruses causing dysentery.

 

Stability of the virus in the environment

In the past few months, scientists all over the world have looked at the potential risks of the SARS-CoV-2 virus entering wastewater and serving as a source of infection. Untreated waste (particularly from hospitals) and surface waters are a potential source of disease transmission and research done in these areas are at the initial stages. The virus is shed from patients who are under treatment in hospitals or quarantined at home, through their daily ablutions, sputum, and vomit, which can enter wastewater. Besides, faeces and urine from infected patients are also sources for the virus to enter sewage channels and seep into the water table. How stable are they in the outside environment?

A study on the stability of the virus on different surfaces under different environmental conditions simulated in a laboratory was done by the School of Public Health, Faculty of Medicine, Hong Kong and published in a leading medical journal, the Lancet Microbe (Chin et al. 2020). The major outcomes of this study were:

Temperature:

The virus is highly stable at 4 °C (e.g. in the fridge) but sensitive to heat. When the incubation temperature is increased to 70 °C, the virus is inactivated in five minutes. At 22 °C virus is not detected after 14 days and at 37 °C it is not detected after two days. The last two are feasible temperatures in Sri Lanka.

Stability on surfaces:

Infectious virus could not be recovered from printing or tissue paper after three hours, from wood or cloth after two days. The virus is more stable on smooth surfaces. Infectious virus could not be recovered from day four from glass and banknotes, and from steel after seven days.

Disinfectants:

The virus did not survive common disinfectants such as household bleach, ethanol, etc. It survived soap for five minutes. It also tolerates a pH range of 3 to 10. i.e., it cannot tolerate very low (acidic) or high (very basic) pH. The RNA of the coronaviruses, in general, is extremely fragile and can be rapidly degraded by enzymes (called RNAses) abundant in the natural environment (Brisebois et al. 2018).

 

Can the virus leak into

the environment?

Theoretically virus particles can enter the soil environment after burial of a COVID-19 victim if the corpse is not isolated in the grave by a ‘leak proof’ plastic body bag, as decay and decomposition sets in gradually. However, what enters the soil environment is not an intact virus capable of causing an infection. Once the patient dies, the virus in the body cells cannot multiply and they begin to disintegrate. Viruses need living cells within which they can multiply.

We should remember that the virus is not an active living organism capable of defending itself and transferring to a new host. The decomposing body releases a range of chemicals and enzymes that would breakdown the virus. Other micro-organisms, either from the decomposing body or living in the soil environment, would consume these virus particles. Thus, they have a short survival time in the outside environment where detergents and other chemicals in the wastewater and enzymes produced by bacteria can damage the virus envelope (WHO 2020).

Many people have died in the past due to very infectious bacterial (Pneumonia, Tuberculosis, Typhoid, Cholera) and viral (Polio, HIV, Ebola) diseases. Cremation was never mandatory for those patients and there has never been any outbreak of epidemics attributed to cemeteries where these patients were buried. Disease causing pathogens are very specialized micro-organisms that can survive only in their living hosts. Once they leave their host and enter the natural environment, they cannot compete with the free-living microorganisms.

 

The question of the water table

The water table is a huge body of water below the surface of the soil. You can find this out by looking into the nearest well. In low lying areas, such as in Colombo, the water table is close to the soil surface particularly during the rainy season. In the up-country regions or the dry regions, the water would be several metres deep in the well.

What is the risk of the virus entering the water table and infecting us? First, chances of finding a complete virus particle capable of causing infection are very small, due to reasons given above. Second, those living in urban areas do not consume ground water directly. The water we consume is disinfected at the Water Treatment plants of the Water Board and we also boil the water at home. The WHO has indicated that the virus survives only two days in dechlorinated tap water and in hospital wastewater at 20 ºC, and that there is no evidence that coronaviruses have caused infections through drinking water (WHO 2020).

Thirdly, drinking water is not a source of infection: the virus has to enter through our mouth, nose or eyes to enter the cells in our throat and lungs (respiratory tract), which is the main point of entry. Thus, infection of humans by the corona virus found in the water table is very unlikely. To quote Prof. Malik Peiris ‘COVID-19 is not a waterborne disease’. Full stop.

 

Corpse handling during COVID-19

Few peer reviewed papers have been published on handling and disposal of corpses of people who died from COVID-19. A publication by Nanayakkara et al in October 2020 reviews practices worldwide and also the risk of infection after burial from bacterial and viral diseases.

They conclude that due to inadequate knowledge available of COVID-19, it would be prudent to follow the safe corpse handling guidelines recommended by the WHO. They also state that because virus multiplication ceases as there is no living host, the virus can only spread to other humans by touching the corpse as COVID-19 is a respiratory virus spread mostly by respiratory secretions. The publication refers to WHO guidelines (WHO 2020), which states that graveyards of those who died from highly infectious diseases should be at least 30 metres from groundwater sources used for drinking water, and grave floors must be at least 1.5 metres above the water table, with 0.7 metre unsaturated zone and that surface waters from graveyards must not enter inhabited zones. Similar guidelines are also available from the Centres for Disease Prevention and Control of the USA (CDC 2020).

Rajanikanta et al. 2020, in an Indian perspective on handling the dead, emphasize the importance of handling the dead with dignity for the deceased and the surviving family. They also underline that more precautions need to be taken to prevent spread of the virus during handling the bodies, as SARS-CoV-19 is a new virus whose virulence and period of survival in the dead body is not yet entirely known. They suggest prevention of infection can be done by disinfection of the dead body with chlorine-based solution, enclosing it in a puncture proof body bag, minimal contact with the body and using airtight boxes for cremation or burial.

A recent article in the British Medical Journal, Global Health, where the authors reviewed the available literature to scope and assess the effects of specific strategies for the management of bodies of COVID-19 victims, stated, “There is scarce evidence on the transmission of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) and other coronaviruses from the dead bodies of confirmed or suspected cases” (Yaacoub et al. 2020).

Finally, internationally renowned Sri Lankan virologist, Prof. Malik Peiris has unequivocally stated, in an interview with the BBC Sinhala (https://www.bbc.com/sinhala/sri-lanka-55348348) that COVID-19 is not a water borne disease and the negligible chances of this virus entering the water table. In fact, in a three-minute video he provides a simple explanation to a layman on the period of infection of the virus, and transmission of the virus from a dead body. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K8ZYxZ-QajI&t=13s).

 

So, what does science tell us?

= The SARS-CoV-2 virus is fragile in the external environment and has a very limited period of survival (Firquet et al. 2015).

= Detection of the virus in the environment by PCR is an indication that the viral RNA is present; to determine if this is viable and able to cause infection, the suspected sample should undergo a cell culture test.

= The virus is not water borne: The present evidence is that the infection route into the respiratory tract is through the mouth, nose and eyes. The global pandemic in almost all the nations and millions of infected people, has not shown evidence of other routes of infection, such as by consuming food or water.

= The virus does not survive common disinfectants such as household bleach, ethanol, and hand soap solution (Chin et al. 2020).

The current pandemic, unlike other localised occurrence of diseases, is being played out on the global stage: almost all the countries are involved, under all conceivable climatic conditions. One cannot imagine a better scenario to draw conclusions. Science is a process, that makes deductions from rigorous sifting of evidence. Science would immediately jettison an inference if evidence is presented to the contrary. Since the outbreak of the pandemic this year, literally hundreds of peer reviewed publications have been published – that is available on the web for anybody to access.

 

How can we offer safe burials?

By taking the above into account, a safe burial protocol is suggested to prevent the virus from entering the environment.

Immediately after death, the body is surface disinfected and then place in a puncture proof, body bag with a disinfectant. This can be enclosed further in another body bag.

The body bags are transported from the morgue to the burial site in a plastic or aluminium box.

Burial sites should be located at least one km away from human settlements, and in a region where the water table is very deep (e.g., in the dry zone). A large block of land is available in Oddamavadi in the EP.

Finally, the grave could be lined with lime (calcium oxide- CaO), which would form calcium hydroxide in contact with moisture. This would provide an extreme basic pH, in which the virus would be destroyed.

Further guidelines stipulated by the WHO and the Health Authorities in Sri Lanka should be followed.

The stigma associated with Covid-19 and the fear of being cremated are now forcing some sectors of the community to avoid PCR/antigen testing. This could lead to uncontrolled eruption of new clusters. The cremation of Muslims dying of COVID-19 has polarized and created resentment within the community. As this article shows, the science is out there as is the evidence, to show that safe burial can be accommodated for this epidemic.

Legal, social, cultural and emotional views have been expressed in these columns and elsewhere. Except for a few courageous voices from others, the aggrieved community has been left without assistance. To quote Rev. Martin Luther King Jr, “The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people, but the silence over that by the good people.” 

One of our greatest attributes as humans is to empathise with fellow humans. Let us practise this!

 

(The writer does research in the Plant and Environmental Sciences. He can be contacted at mcmif2003@yahoo.com)



Continue Reading
Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Opinion

Monumental blunders paralysing Sri Lanka

Published

on

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.

 

Unfortunate events

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.

Dismal situation

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

SINHALA BUDDHIST

Continue Reading

Opinion

Absurd standardss on Cadmium and Lead in fertilizers

Published

on

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.

 

CHANDRE

DHARMAWARDANA

Canada

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.

Continue Reading

Opinion

After Geneva Resolution: What Next?

Published

on

By Dr Laksiri Fernando

The adoption of the UNHRC resolution against Sri Lanka is a setback not only to the government but also to the country and the people. It is however not the end of the world. The government as the elected authority by the people should now seriously think about the effectiveness of their foreign policies, foreign relations and perhaps personnel who are handling these crucial matters.

Defeating the resolution undoubtedly was a difficult task, among other factors, given the last government was completely following an opposite policy. Who was correct may be a debatable matter for some, but not for all or the majority. If Sri Lanka had a better profile among the OIC countries and a counter strategy for ‘reconciliation and accountability’ along with preventing terrorism, defeating the resolution could have been feasible.

Motives Behind?

The recent statement by Mangala Samaraweera that resolution 30/1 in 2015 was not only something co-sponsored by his government but in fact drafted by Ranil WickremEsinghe and a group is quite a revelation. Why did Samaraweera wait for such a long time to reveal the truth is the question?

Whatever the different nuances or tactics between governments, foreign policy should be a common endeavor that all governments should adhere to. National interest is the primary concern of any foreign policy, political, economic, or other. The ball is now with the present government to build that consensus with the main opposition, as Wickremesinghe and his UNP are now categorically defeated.

During the campaign for the resolution against Sri Lanka the last government’s position was a major trump card in the hands of the UK and the US to win over around 14 countries other than their own Western countries. It was primarily a campaign against the present government on political and on other grounds. As a report by the Universal Rights Group stated,i

“Two country situations in particular dominated the Council’s attention during its 46th session: Myanmar following February’s coup d’etat, and Sri Lanka following the return to power of the Rajapaksa family. At the end of the session resolutions on both situations (the former led by the EU and the latter by the UK) were adopted, by vote in the case of Sri Lanka (22-11-14) – the first time a vote has been called since 2014, and by consensus in the case of Myanmar (though many LMG States disassociated from the text).” (My emphasis).

The report was equating the election of Rajapaksa leadership to coup d’etat in Myanmar! It is very clear that motive behind the resolution was political, against an elected government whatever its main composition. This was also very clear from the High Commissioner’s report on Sri Lanka that paved the way for the resolution. They were angry with the government as it was not subservient to the international forces. One may agree or disagree with the government, but it was overwhelmingly elected by the people. It is still not known how far Ranil Wickramasinghe and his followers campaigned for the resolution. We may have to wait for Mangala to reveal it later! The politics of these people apparently are so treacherous to the country.

Legality of the Resolution?

There are people who wonder whether the recent UNHRC resolution is legally binding on the country or not? On this count, some have been even criticizing some Ministers on their statements. I have looked for authoritative statement from the OHCHR itself, but unfortunately clear procedures are not explained in their website for some (dubious!) reason. The best I could quote is from “The Human Rights Council: A Practical Guide” from the Swiss Mission in Geneva as follows under ‘HRC Resolutions.’ii

“HRC resolutions are the political expression of the views of its members, or a majority of its members, on specific human rights issues and problems that are of particular concern to the international community. They are sometimes also used to recognise the existence of certain ‘soft law’ principles (cf. e.g. Declaration on Human Rights Education and Training, annexed to res. A/HRC/RES/16/1). Regardless of their content, HRC resolutions are not legally binding.”

The emphasis in bold in the above paragraph is not mine. They were there in the Guide. According to this authoritative guide, (1) HRC resolutions are political expressions of member countries, of course on human rights issues, thematically or on country situations. Therefore, it is a political task for countries through diplomatic means to canvass and bring support for their positions. (2) Except in the case when the HRC approves UN General Assembly’s ‘soft laws,’ the HRC resolutions are not legally binding on member states or the target countries. However, the High Commissioner and the Office are legally binding in implementing them.

In May 2009, Sri Lanka successfully managed to obtain 29 out of 47 votes for its own resolution at the UNHRC when a UK lead group was planning to bring a resolution against the country. That was the success of diplomacy of the country that time. Of course, when such a resolution is proposed, the incumbent country has a duty to implement it. It is something that you do positively, and not negatively. Not as a tactic but as a commitment.

After that resolution, there were no resolutions on Sri Lanka until 2012. Thereafter it was a period of tumble down for the country particularly in diplomatic terms ending in Ranil and the group proposing something completely disastrous to the country. Under the circumstances, Sri Lanka’s defeat at the last occasion is not a surprise. Most of the independent countries were puzzled because of the zigzags of different governments.

It is doubtful whether the Ranil Resolution in 2015 was proposed with a genuine effort for reconciliation or accountability. It must have done as a tactic. This is also clear from Mangala Samaraweera’s statement. The purpose appeared to be to satisfy the Western countries (the US and UK) and not necessarily the Tamil community or the victims although the TNA also supported that effort.

Although Sri Lanka is not legally binding on the HRC resolution, there are political imperatives and customary practices that the country may have to follow. As the first struggle is over (with a setback of course), the country may have to use different tactics. More than being tactical, Sri Lanka can be straight forward and true to its beliefs. It should restart good relations with all countries irrespective of how they voted or behaved at the HRC, including the UK, USA, and the EU.

Although Sri Lanka is not legally binding on the HRC resolution, the High Commissioner and her Office are legally binding. Therefore, they may have to soon start fact finding and even visits to Sri Lanka. A Budget of $ 2.8million is indicated for this task. Although I said in my last article that Sri Lanka should not allow anyone from the Office to visit Sri Lanka that could be handled tactfully and cautiously.

Conclusion

The most important is to be true to Sri Lanka’s beliefs and interests. This is political realism. Although some foreign countries and Tamil diaspora believe that accountability is the priority matter, Sri Lanka believes reconciliation is the most important. Some are even asking for the ‘pound of flesh.’ This is all after supporting LTTE terrorism unashamedly. No sustainable accountability or reconciliation is possible without allowing the government of Sri Lanka to protect national security, prevent terrorism and develop the country. These should have been included in a true resolution in ‘promoting reconciliation, accountability, and human rights’ in the country.

On the question of accountability, there is another difference. Sri Lanka has shown that the country is ready to ‘forgive and forget’ most of the past atrocities of the LTTE for the sake of the future of all communities if the perpetrators genuinely repent. This may even apply to Adele Balasingham. At the same time, it is not ready to punish the military leaders who must have made mistakes in their judgements or directives. This has nothing to do with any actual or factual crimes committed by anyone in the field. The government should be ready or cannot prevent even today anyone filing such cases in the Supreme Court or before in the High Courts. Instead, going behind foreign jurisdictions cannot be acceptable for the great majority of the people.

Even at this stage of great controversy, there is a possibility of the government, preferably with the agreement of the opposition, making a statement to all member countries of the UN on something like “Prevention of Terrorism and Promotion of Reconciliation, Accountability and Human Rights.” It should be made clear to the international community that without measures for the prevention of terrorism through national security, sustainable reconciliation and accountability cannot be achieved. It should also be made clear that in Sri Lanka’s view human rights should go along with promoting human duties and responsibilities.

Continue Reading

Trending