Arsenic upheaval: the truth and fiction


Alleged presence of Arsenic (As) in rice and pesticides in an article published in the ‘Vidusara’ news paper on 27th April 2011 has created a media sensation. The gist of the story based on an interview with Dr. Channa Jayasumana (MD) of Rajarata University was that the cause for Chronic Kidney Disease of Unidentified Etiology (CKDu) in the North Central and Uva provinces is deposits of high levels of As compound in kidney. It was implied that people get this As from eating high levels of As and the reason for high level of As in rice is the presence of high levels of As in commonly used pesticides in the area.

Although this allegation need to be investigated cautiously as it is the fifth hypothesis that has been put forward for the cause of CKDu by groups of scientists, the responsibility vested upon me as the Registrar of Pesticide (ROP) derived me to immediate action. First I wrote to every member of this group and requested them to give me a report of their findings including the names of pesticides that contain As, their points of sale, method used for detecting As, the accuracy and precision of the instrument used for analysis. It this allegation is true the remedial measures need to be taken immediately. Therefore I faxed my request to the prominent members of the group and even contacted Dr. Jayasumana through his mobile phone. I am yet to receive an official reply to my request.

However, after several phone calls Dr. Jayasumana provided me just a list of 28 pesticides with no other information. Assuming these are the pesticides alleged to contain high levels of As the ROP office was directed to take samples from sales outlets in Padaviya, Sripura, Girandurukotte and Dehiattakandiya areas where CKDu incidence is high. The procedure to follow when taking samples is stated in the Pesticides Control Act No. 33 of 1980 (Amended by Act no ?? of 1994). Accordingly pesticides in a single container was divided into three equal samples and sealed in front of the shop owner. One of the sealed samples was given back to the shop owner with written instruction keep it safely. Other two samples were brought to the ROP office and one of the samples is kept locked up and the other was sent for analysis to check for the presence of As and Mercury. The sample kept at the point of sale can be used by the affected party from with my permission from any laboratory they wish in case the analysis of ROP shows damaging results. Analytical results of the affected party, if contravene the results of ROP, can be used to challenge the ROP in a court of law and the court can order to release the sample kept in the ROP office to a laboratory of choice by the court for resolution of the conflict.

The ROP can accept analytical results only from an ‘authorized analyst’ defined in the Control of pesticides Act. Accordingly samples of 28 pesticides were sent to locally and internationally accredited Industrial Technology Institute laboratory of the Ministry of Science and Technology for analysis.

We as a responsible government organisation did not want to respond to various allegations in the media on this As issue until the results of our investigations mature. However due to various misinformations that could mislead the public and harmful to our country were becoming rampant in the media the Department of Agriculture and the Ministry of Agriculture decided to reveal the analysis so far carried out. Armed with the results of 23 pesticide samples and 20 rice samples a press conference was convened by the Minister of Agriculture o 13th June 2011. Following are the results of pesticide analysis we have received so far.

According to above results Carbofuran (an insecticide) and Glyposate (herbicide) contain minute amounts of As.

The authorized standard Institutions in the world over including Sri Lanka set maximum the table 2 shows the maximum permissible As levels for some consumer items in Sri Lanka (Standards for Foot Contaminates, C.D.R.A. Jayawardene, Sri Lanka Standards Institute).

Unfortunately there is no maximum permissible level of Arsenic set for the two pesticides that are positive for presence of As either in local standards or FAO pesticide guidelines. However by comparison with the values allowed for some food items in the table 2 you will realize that the amounts found in the two positive samples are very minute.

The As upheaval in the country lead me to temporarily hold importation, distribution and sales of the As positive products. Before ordering the restrictions ROP office has taken stock of the products in hand of these companies and ordered them to inform their agents around the country not to sell the products. ROP office also has directly informed the agents of companies and has taken steps to monitor retail sale shops through the ‘Authorized Officers’ throughout the country who have been appointed by the Director General of Agriculture according to the provisions of the Act. This monitoring is possible as all shops which sell pesticides are registered in the ROP office.

It is not possible for me to decide whether the levels of As detected is harmful for the human health and environment. To take such decisions there is a Pesticide Technical and Advisory Committee (PeTAC) appointed according to the Act. This committee, chaired by the Director General of Agriculture, consists of 15 members of which 10 members are ex-officio including the secretary to the Ministry of Health, Directors of Tea, Rubber, Coconut Research Institutions, the government analyst and representatives from Sri Lanka Slandered Institute and labour commissioner. Other five members are appointed by the Minister of Agriculture include respected professionals with experience in research and use of pesticides who do not have any commercial interest related to pesticide industry.

Once the complete analytical report of all concerned pesticides is received from ITI the results will be submitted to the PeTAC for the recommendation on action needed to be taken on Arsenic contaminated pesticides. If the committee decides that the levels of As found could harm human health or the environment the pesticides will be banned otherwise the restrictions will be removed.

These facts were presented at the press conference held at the Ministry of Agriculture on 13th June. However, we have noted that all the facts have not been presented to the public and some misinformation is infused by the media. Therefore I kindly request the public to be aware and understand the following.

The story unfolded in the media on As in Rice and Pesticides has given the impression that Arsenic is not present in the unspoiled environment of Sri Lanka. This is fiction. Arsenic is the 20th most abandon element in the world and there is ample scientific evidence to show As is also present in Sri Lankas’ environment including soil, water. Living organisms and even in human body albeit in very minute quantities.

Of course chronic As poisoning can occur if considerably high amounts of As is accumulated in the body. Most of the measurements on Arsenic is total As. It is also important to understand that only the inorganic As can accumulate and be poisonous. Organic As is usually excreted from human body.

The amount of As absorbed by different plants varies according to the species and the amount of As present in the soil. If there is elevated levels of As in the soil or ground water plants may absorb relatively higher amounts. The rice plant is known to absorb more As than other serials as it is grown in water. However, only 2-3% of As absorbed to the rice plant is deposited in the rice kernel both in organic and inorganic forms.

Milled rice may contain minute amounts of As. According to the research reports from around the world milled rice contain about 80-200 ug/kg As. Since China produce Rice with high amounts of As in some areas it has developed a maximum allowable limit of 150ug/ka of rice. However Cordex Elementrious the World organisation for setting maximum residue levels (MRL) in food has not yet established a MRL for As. On behalf of the Director of the Rice Research and Development Institute of the Department of Agriculture I am happy to report that 20 rice samples tested so far out of 60 samples taken from all over the country including CKDu areas have not been positive for As.

It is important to be informed that not only rice but many food items including wheat flour contains minute amounts of As in them. Usually sea food has relatively higher amounts of As.

The gazette notification of 6th June 2001 has prohibited among others importation of pesticides with As or Mercury as the active ingredient. It does not provide any authority to prohibit importation of pesticides with As or Mercury as minute impurities. However the ROP office guarantees that no pesticide with high levels of As or Mercury has been registered in Sri Lanka.

There has been an attempt to compare the actions taken by the Customs department and the ROP office and point out that ROPs reaction was lethargic or half hearted. I am not aware of the customs Act but I can assure that the ROP office has acted swiftly within the framework of Pesticide Control Act and better reaction cannot be expected without amending the Act. The analytical report that has been accepted by the customs cannot be accepted by ROP for the reason already mentioned.

Before ending this article I would like to draw your attention to another aspect of the whole affair. As you are aware our country depends on export of many agricultural products. Loose tongues and irresponsible reporting could lead to irrevocable repercussions in the export sector and thereby adversely affect the whole economy of Sri Lanka.

One interested group has already termed this as As terrorism. Yet close scrutiny of the fact and media sensation created points at wheat flour terrorism or even Biological Warfare, in my opinion.

Dr. Anura Wijesekara

Registrar of Pesticides

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