CKDu, Glyphosate and Hoodwinking People


Dr Parakrama Waidyanatha

I cannot help but marvel at Dr Kamal Wickremasinghe’s (DR KW) exhaustive expedition into the CKDu –glyphosate wilderness (Midweek Review, The Island 28th Dec 2016), but missing the ‘wood for the trees’ again and returning with some poor quality ‘picked cherries ‘about which he is harping a lot! My task of dealing with issues he has raised has been made easy by a lucid and balanced analysis of the subject by Mr Bodhi Danapala which appeared in The Island of the 28th Dec 2016.. However, it should be important for the readers’ benefit if I briefly re-examine some of the issues raised by Dr KW, not specifically dealt with by Mr Dhanapala, and why I say he has ‘missed the wood for trees.’ It may lead to a bit of repetition, for which, I believe, the Editor will bear with me.

Is there any evidence of a CKDu- glyphosate association?

Dr KW has not responded to several key points I brought up in my previous article in The Island of 21st Dec., that dispel the myth of any association between glyphosate and CKDu (chronic kidney disease of uncertain aetiology), Instead he had quoted some publications on kidney damage in animals in glyphosate administered trials. There are probably several thousand publications on glyphosate and health, it being easily the world’s widest used pesticide. For example, in the U.S, according to the US Dept. of Agriculture, glyphosate use doubled from 1996 (62 million pounds) to 2012 (128 million pounds). In most countries including Sri Lanka the volume of glyphosate use exceeds the cumulative volume of all other pesticides. The key issues he has not responded to are, firstly, why is CKDu not prevalent in other parts of the dry zone outside the CKDu endemic area but with similar farming practices and hard water, the latter being an obligatory factor according to the Rajarata-Kelaniya group’s hypothesis on CKDu causation, and on which Dr KW seems to have great faith!. Secondly, could he explain how glyphosate could play a role in CKDu given the temporal distinction between CKDu identification in the NCP (1994) and commencement of glyphosate use in the region ( after 1997). However, its wide use in arable farming actually started only after the ban of the much cheaper and widely used herbicide, paraquat in 2007. Thirdly, why is there no CKDu at all in the wet zone where the glyphosate use is more than double that in the dry zone. Fourthly, why has no other country in the world, or more specifically, no other country with CKDu such as India, Egypt or any Latin American country which also widely use glyphosate, considered it as a chronic kidney disease risk factor? Finally and most importantly, could he explain how, whereas only 3.5% of the CKDu patients had urine glyphosate above reference limits, double the number of control (non-CKDu)subjects had it as per the WHO -GOSL 2013 study data . Furthermore, all other pesticide residue levels in the urine of control subjects from a non-CKDu area (Hambantota) were much higher than in that of CKDu patients( see Table). Does this not vindicate the position that there is no evidence to implicate pesticides in the causation of CKDu. In fact it is a puzzle why the WHO Report did not include the pesticide residue data of control patients despite being available.

As regards his observations on the WHO- CKDu Presidential Taskforce Consultation, April, 2016, although Dr KW did not explicitly state that the Consultation Report supported the glyphosate ban it was implicit in his expressions that the report connived with the glyphosate ban. Unfortunately my explanation in this regard, in the previous article quoting an extract from the Report was partly omitted perhaps for want of space. It is sad that Dr KW had overlooked the most relevant portion relating to his argument in the Report , the section on Agrochemicals (page 14). It states that "the evidence of causality of this association" (between pesticides and CKDu) "was considered inconclusive due to lack of consistency of the findings, lack of temporality where association was observed….". There were also two other exhaustive reviews by specialists relating to agrochemicals which were submitted to the Expert Consultation for discussion Both dealt in depth about glyphosate, amongst other things, but none even hinted any support for the glyphosate ban. So could Dr KW still hold forth his contention that glyphosate ban is the "most scientifically prudent action to have been undertaken by the government on the basis of available evidence"? No published research or reputed scientific entity other than the Kelaniya –Rajarata group, has endorsed a glyphosate- CKDu relationship!

Lifting the ban

The findings of the Consultation Report and the other two reports should have been a good basis for the government to have lifted the ban that it unwisely rushed into, without adequate examination of the evidence or consulting the scientific community. According to the grape vine, at the final glyphosate meeting chaired by the President, when a renown professor of chemistry got up to speak, he was shouted down by a powerful, politician priest who is, amongst other things, an advisor to the President in agriculture! The latter had prevailed over the entire meeting, lending all other officers into submission and precipitating the decision he wanted! This is how scientific decisions are made in this country! The President has been repeatedly inviting the expatriate Sri Lankan scientists to return home, at least periodically, and help in the national development effort. Surely, should he not first gainfully utilize the available local expertise? Fortunately the government, though belated, has now appointed a team of experts to review the decision on the glyphosate ban, apparently at the unceasing insistence of the Minister of Plantation Industries. He is aware of the devastation that the ban has inflicted on the tea industry. Some plantations are back to the pre 1960 era of manual weeding, when weed control was exclusively through soil scraping with ‘sorandiyas’, which was not an implement but a ‘weapon’ that devastated tea soils for half a century, if not more! It was reported that the tea lands probably lost 3-4 feet of top soil over the years which lead to the abandonment of thousands of acres of tea due to loss of fertility and, consequently, low productivity, especially from the mid country. Anyway, manual weeding is no longer possible given the serious labour shortages and high costs.

It is the water probably, not agrochemicals

Finally, let me ask Dr KW to consider using his communicating talent to convey the now available evidence as to the causation of CKDu to the public. It is becoming exceedingly evident that the disease is tied up with the drinking water. Whereas people drinking water from dug wells, shallow or deep, seem to get it, those drinking water from the rivers, streams or reservoirs generally do not. Further, it appears that the water from wells close to reservoirs or rivers is not associated with the disease. For example, those drinking pipe-borne water in the Anuradhapura city which gets the water from the reservoirs do not get CKDu. There is an informative study that was initiated by the late Mr Ranjith Mulleriyawa in the village of Ginnoruwa in Girandurukotte, a hot spot for CKDu. In Ginnoruwa, there are two villages Sarabhumiya and Badulupura. The latter village is on higher ground away from any reservoirs and rivers, and the people here drinking water from the dug wells seem to be associated with the disease. Out of some 90 families 46 people are disease-afflicted. On the other hand, Sarabumiya is a much larger village, on flatter land where most of the paddy fields are, probably with about 500 families, and hitherto only two CKDu cases are reported there from; and interestingly, one of the patients had lived for a long period in Badulupura and moved to Sarabumiya recently. There are indications that many of the dug wells have high fluoride levels, and the latter is nephrotoxic. The government must as a matter of highest priority, monitor these wells for Fluoride and conductivity and identify the suspect wells. There are 176,000 such wells in the Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura districts alone. Secondly, potable water should be provided to people with suspect wells. Rain water harvesting has been practiced at Badulupura from recent times, and the people are highly satisfied with such water for drinking and cooking.

So let’s stop ‘flogging the agrochemical horse’ but continue with the research for identifying the aetiology of the disease. More urgently, the government should redouble it effort of giving potable water to the affected areas. Over to you, the Presidential Task Force on the Prevention of CKDu!

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