Lankan farmers face heavy-metals
fear By Amantha Perera
COLOMBO - A new report links the high
prevalence of chronic kidney disease in Sri
Lanka's main agricultural production regions with
the presence of heavy metals in the water, caused
by fertilizer and pesticide use.
past two decades, dozens of studies have been
conducted on the large number of kidney patients
in Sri Lanka's agro-rich north-central region.
However, none had conclusively identified a clear
On August 14, a group of Sri Lankan
doctors released a report that they said was
compiled as part of a joint research project by
the Sri Lankan
government and the World Health Organization
The report states that: "Exposure
to a combination of factors that are toxic to the
kidneys (rather than one single factor) seems to
cause this kidney disease. Toxic factors
identified up to now include nephrotoxic
agrochemicals, arsenic and cadmium."
Cultivating toxic crops As many
as 400,000 people in the north-central region may
be suffering from kidney disease, said doctors
taking part in the release of the report. They
added that in the past two decades, as many as
22,000 people may have died as a result.
"The reason for the spread is heavy metals
in the water caused by the unregulated use of
fertilizer and pesticides," Dr Channa Jayasumana,
from the Faculty of Medicine at the Rajarata
University in Anuradhapura, told IPS.
Jayasumana was on the team of doctors who
released the report. They said they had handed the
study over to the government last year, and
accused the authorities of failing to release it
to the public, and of failing to take action on
So far neither the government
nor the WHO country office have acknowledged or
denied its contents. WHO sources confirmed to IPS
that a researcher cited in the report, Dr Shanthi
Mendis, works for the international organization.
But they said some of the details reported in the
media differed from those in WHO reports. They
declined to go public, and said the research was
associated with WHO research said the organization
has in fact made a recommendation to the Sri
Lankan government to regulate and standardize
fertilizer and pesticide imports - the doctors'
However, another report,
published just one day after the study's release,
dismissed heavy metals as the main cause.
The report, "Environmental Contamination
and Its Association with Chronic Kidney Disease of
Unknown Etiology in North Central Region of Sri
Lanka", released by the New Delhi-based Centre for
Science and Environment (CSE), identifies poor
water quality as the main reason for kidney
failure in that region.
The report says:
"Heavy metals in drinking water are not related to
chronic kidney disease in Sri Lanka. If heavy
metal is responsible, then there is a different
source for it than drinking water, and that should
CSE deputy director Chandra
Bushan told IPS "The problem is with the quality
of the groundwater. It is contaminated due to
geological and environmental reasons."
But, he said, if fertilizers and
pesticides were the main cause, then the disease
should also be visible in other agricultural areas
of the country with equally heavy use.
CSE report also found that dug wells and tube
wells were much more dangerous than natural
The report stated that "The
affected area covers approximately 17,000 square
km, with a population of about 2.5 million, in
which more than 95% live in rural areas."
Citing the main hospital in the North
Central Anuradhapura District, the report said
that in 2010 there was "a 227% increase in live
discharge patients with end-stage chronic kidney
disease, whereas the death rate increased by 354%
during the last few years."
the numbers cited by the CSE report, which was
released in Anuradhapura, more than 10% of the
island's population of nearly 21 million lives in
these high-risk areas. The regions most in danger
are the north-central, eastern, southeastern and
central, as well as parts of the northern
provinces - Sri Lanka's main agricultural
Despite the different
conclusions reached by the two reports,
researchers involved in each study acknowledged
that the issues raised by the other were
"We have always said that
fertilizer and pesticide use should be regulated,"
CSE's Bushan said.
"There is no question
that the water quality is bad, we agree with
that," said Jayasumana, whose research was cited
in the CSE report as well.
also called for immediate action to stem the
spread of kidney disease.
show that male farmers, who spend much of their
time outdoors in the fields, are struck down most
often. The CSE report says it is male farmers
between the ages of 30 and 60 who are at highest
The Sri Lankan research shows that
at least 15% of men between the ages of 15 and 70
were affected in the north-central and
southeastern provinces. "Men over the age of 40
years, who have been engaged in farming for more
than 10 years, are at higher risk of developing
this disease," it states.
clear danger for men in the high-risk age bracket,
especially those engaged in agriculture, options
are few and far between.
"What to do? We
have to use fertilizer and pesticide if we want to
get a good harvest, we have to drink the water if
we don't want to die of thirst. No one has told us
what to do and what not to do," said Karunarathne
Gamage, who lives in the country's North Central
Bushan said the CSE study also
emphasized the poor quality of medical services
available in the region. One session of dialysis
costs the Sri Lankan government around US$90, and
most regional hospitals lack staff and facilities
to carry out such procedures regularly.