Study Links Kidney Disease in Sri Lanka’s Farm Belt to Agrochemicals
2012-08-22 0:00

By Amantha Perera |

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 fertiliser and pesticide use.

Over the 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 cause.

But on Aug. 14, a group of Sri Lankan doctors released a report that they said was compiled as part of an ongoing joint research project by the Sri Lankan government and the World Health Organisation (WHO).

New research on the high prevalence of kidney disease in Sri Lanka’s farming areas mentions a possible link to heavy metals in the water, associated with fertiliser and pesticide use.

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.”

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 fertiliser 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 the results.

The report created a media stir in the country, but 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 organisation. 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 still inconclusive.

Sources closely associated with WHO research said the organisation has in fact made a recommendation to the Sri Lankan government to regulate and standardise fertiliser and pesticide imports – the doctors’ main demand.

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 be explored.”

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 fertilisers and pesticides were the main cause, then the disease should also be visible in other agricultural areas of the country with equally heavy use.

The CSE report also found that dug wells and tube wells were much more dangerous than natural springs.


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