Glyphosate and Chronic Kideny Disease


by Dr. C. S. Weeraratna (

Former Professor at Ruhuna and

Rajarata Universities

Glyphosate (G) is a herbicide widely used in many countries but its use is banned in some others. However, it is a very effective broad spectrum weed killer and its use worldwide has increased from 56 million kg in 1994, to 825 million kg in 2014 indicating its effectiveness as a herbicide. Its advantage as against many other weed killers is that it is not absorbed via the roots, being adsorbed to soil colloidal complex forming insoluble complexes which tend to remain in the soil without being leached. It is not recalcitrant as soil microbial organisms break it down to non-toxic compounds.

Since about the year 2000, a chronic kidney disease was reported mostly in the North Central Province. As the etiology of this disease is not known it is called a chronic kidney disease of unknown etiology (CKDu). According to the Ministry of Health, the number of CKDu patients in 2010 was 29,336.  By 2014, this number has increased to around 40,000. The current data is not available, but according to press reports nearly 60,000 people are affected by CKDu. They are mostly in the North Central, Uva, North Western and Central Provinces. There has been an increase in the number of patients suffering from (CKDu) in the Uva Province in areas such as Mahiyanganaya and Girandurukotte. Around 2000 people, mainly from rural areas, die of this disease annually.

During the last few years several studies have been conducted by many local scientists but they have not been able to identify the actual causal factor(s) of CKDu. Several factors such as agrochemicals, heavy metals, fungal and bacterial toxins, fluoride, indiscriminate use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, illegal drugs and illicit alcohol, microbial agents and chronic dehydration. have been attributed to cause CKDu. However, research studies carried out to-date suggest that consumption of contaminated water is the main cause of this disease.

A few years ago on the basis of recommendations made by some, arsenic was thought to be responsible for CKDu. Later the suggestion was made that glyphosate is the factor that causes CKDu. As a result in 2014, Glyphosate was banned in Sri Lanka, although the Pesticide Technical and Advisory Committee, the national authority designed to make all decisions relating to pesticides after reviewing the available evidence did not recommend such a ban as there was no proven evidence that CKDu is caused by Glyphosate.

No local or foreign research scientists have scientifically proved that glyphosate is the root cause of CKDu but some are of the view that it is carcinogenic. Presentations made by several scientists including Prof. Gamini Rajapaksa of the Department, of Chemistry, Peradeniya University, Prof. Sunil Wimalawansa attached to Cardio Metabolic Institute. in New Jersey in USA, and Prof. Chandre Dharmawadena of the National Reseach Council in Canada indicate that Glyphosate is not the causal factor of CKDu.

It has been reported that banning glyphosate caused severe financial losses to cultivators of annual crops such as paddy and maize, and the tea sector. The estimated loss to the tea sector because of the banning of glyphosate, in the year 2017 is around 10 billion rupees. Because of the need for extensive manual weeding in tea estates in the absence of using an effective herbicide, the ban has not only had marked negative effects on crop output and the economy but also has significantly increased soil erosion, leading to harmful environmental consequences. Because weeds were not effectively controlled, crop output was reduced causing the cost of production of tea to increase. The annual crops such as maize, paddy also faced similar plight. Hence, it is heartening to note that the government is going to remove the ban on importing glyphosate a herbicide. Thousands of farmers and Regional Plantation Companies (RPCs) would welcome this move.

Chronic Kidney Disease has a direct impact on patients’ daily life including their livelihood activities. With the advancement of the disease patients become too ill to continue in gainful employment, which affects the whole family. Assuming an average of five in a family of a CKDu patient, the total number of people affected financially, socially and psychologically may be around 300,000. Hence, taking immediate action to control CKDu is of paramount importance. It is because of the gravity of the problem that President Maithripala Sirisena in 2015 appointed a task force (PTF) to take preventive and welfare measures for the benefit of the people in the endemic areas.

It is absolutely essential that an integrated progarmme of action is implemented in the CKDU affected areas to prevent or control CKDu. Among such an integrated programme the following should be included.

1.   Conduct awareness programmes on water quality and its effect on CKDu in schools of affected provinces, in collaboration with the respective Departments of Education.

2.   Implement a programme to distribute good quality water to the people in the affected areas in collaboration with the Ministry of Water Supply and Drainage. This Ministry has already initiated a programme to install Reverse Osmosis Plants in some of the affected districts.

3. Promote rainwater harvesting in the affected areas in collaboration with Rainwater Harvesting Forum. Rainwater is free from toxic materials and can be collected with very little cost.

4. Establish a fund to assist the patients and their families to procure the necessary services, medicine, and travel to hospitals for dialysis. Such a fund could be established with the assistance of private commercial organizations.

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