Furore over arsenic shakes agri sector

By Arthur
Wamanan and Dinidu de Alwis

For decades, researchers have attempted to find the
cause for the kidney diseases faced by a large
number of people in the North Central province, in
what was called the Rajarata Chronic Kidney Disease
(RCKD). Several hypotheses were given, and some
remained while others were scientifically debunked.
Then a team of scientists headed by Prof. Padmini
Paranagama, Head of the Chemistry Department at
Kelaniya University, ventured out to find the causes
of RCKD late last year. The team was advised by
Prof. Nalin de Silva, Dean of the Faculty of
Science, Kelaniya University.
Their findings, which were announced over the
process of the last fortnight, managed to shake Sri
Lanka’s agriculture sector to the core, questioned
the processes that are in place to regulate the
import and distribution of agricultural chemical,
and caused panic in some areas of the country as
fears slowly swept through the island.
The community has now been divided: On one side the
scientists who conducted the research say that large
amounts of Arsenic were found from the samples they
collected. “We collected blood, tissue and hair
samples from cadavers, we took samples of drinking
water, trees and other vegetation in the area,” says
Paranagama. She remains confident of the methodology
they adopted – which is supposed to be a new method
of detecting Arsenic – and the findings they have.
Paranagama says as part of attempting to find the
source of Arsenic, they tested pesticides which were
most common in the area. “We tested around fifty
commonly available agricultural chemicals, and over
half of them were found to contain Arsenic in the
range of 1000-3000 parts-per-billion (ppb) of
Arsenic”.

Biggest shocker
The biggest shocker for the general public was the
claim that Paranagama’s team made, saying that rice
samples tested also contained Arsenic. When
contacted by The Nation, Paranagama refused to
disclose the exact amounts found, but said that up
to 100ppb was found in some of the rice samples
tested.
“We found Arsenic not only in rice grown in the
area, but in vegetables, cucumbers, corn, and even
the Kohomba (Margosa) trees in the area have it.
It’s everywhere,” said Dr. Channa Jayasumana who was
part of the research team.
Rice Research and Development Institute (RRDI), a
state body that functions as the overarching
authority on rice, says that rice in the market is
completely safe to consume.
According to the RRDI, there is no set maximum
permissible level of Arsenic that has been set for
rice in Sri Lanka, but the figure that China
regulates is 150ppb. RRDI says they tested 60
samples of rice, and have obtained the results of 20
of them.

“None of the 20 samples that we got results for
returned positive for Arsenic, and the test has a
minimum detectable level of 50ppb,” a spokesperson
for the RRDI said.
Registrar of Pesticides – the state’s governing body
– was quick to explore into the matter and refute
it. They obtained a list of 28 pesticides from the
scientists at Kelaniya, and tested them for the
presence of arsenic. The RoP says that the testing
process is completely thorough and in line with
international standards of testing, and that the
testing process is clearly laid out in regulations.
“Pesticides, at the point of sale, 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 to 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,” the Rop said in a statement.

According to the RoP, regulations stipulate that
the testing has to be conducted by an ‘Authorised
Analyst,’ and the institution they referred the
samples to was the Industrial Technology Institute
(ITI) – a body that has been in the research
industry for a long period and is the trusted source
for the average population for drinking water
testing.
The results showed that out of the 28 samples that
were submitted, three in fact did contain Arsenic,
but not to the levels that the initial team of
scientists allege. Serial numbers ROP2, ROP9 and
ROP23 contained 334, 166 and 370ppb respectively.
Ministry of Agriculture, under which the RoP
operates, says it took steps to remove the three
products from the market.

“The Arsenic upheaval in the country led me to
temporarily hold importation, distribution and sale
of the Arsenic positive products. Before ordering
the restrictions, the RoP office had 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. The RoP office also had
directly informed the agents of companies and had
taken steps to monitor retail sale shops islandwide
through authorised officers 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,” the Registrar said in the
statement.
Although they refused to provide The Nation with the
trade names of the three pesticides to verify their
claims, they say they are completely confident that
the entire stock of the pesticides that contain
Arsenic have been withdrawn to the last bottle.
The Customs Department is conducting its own
investigations into the presence of Arsenic in
pesticides. A highly placed official at the Customs
told The Nation that the department was still in the
process of conducting investigations on the issue,
but refused to comment on the progress of the
investigations or the findings so far as they were
not complete.

The source however said that the importation of
pesticides were carried out based on the approval of
the Registrar of Pesticides (RoP), and added that
the Customs was not aware of the standards to be
followed when it came to pesticides and added that
the RoP was responsible for looking into the
technical aspects of the matter. The source added
that the Customs would then act based on the
approval of the RoP.
“The whole process is handled and controlled by the
Registrar of Pesticides. The approval is given by
the RoP. The RoP in turn hands over the details of
the pesticides that have been cleared,” he said.
“There are countries where their soil has Arsenic.
But it is not the case with Sri Lanka. The soil is
not contaminated with arsenic. If there is Arsenic,
then it has to have come from the pesticides or
other chemicals,” the source added.

In responding whether the Arsenic found in the
pesticides has directly impacted the health of the
population of the country, the Registrar said “It is
not possible for me to decide whether the levels of
Arsenic detected are 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 Standards
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,”
he said.

The Registrar says 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 Arsenic found could harm
human health or the environment the pesticides will
be banned. Otherwise the restrictions will be
removed.
Both testers however, fully back their claims.

From the side of the ITI, they say that they have
been in the industry for decades, that their
equipment are of the highest standard, and they
partake in world-wide exercises to ensure that the
services they provide are of the highest quality.
“Unless staffers have years of experience behind
them, and unless we’re completely sure of the
quality of the work they do, we don’t let them
handle a test on their own,” a spokesperson for ITI
said.
For Nalin de Silva, backing his “new” methodology
and his team of scientists comes with ease. “If
anyone doubts the quality of our research, they are
more than welcome to come to our laboratories and
observe our tests,” he says adding “we expect to be
granted the same privileges.

Speaking to The Nation, Minister of Agriculture
Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena said that Sri Lanka is the
country with the lowest use of pesticide and
weedicides in Asia, adding, “The lesser chemicals
you use for agriculture purposes, the better. I
reiterate however, that the rice in Sri Lanka is
completely suitable for consumption and that people
have nothing to worry about.”
He also urged the agriculture sector to minimise the
usage of chemicals in production, and said that
government hopes to implement measures to further
reduce the amount of pesticides and weedicides used
in the agriculture industry.

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