Main Logo

Saturday 2 July 2011

Devivaru, Arsenic and Science

The ITI that first refused to test for Arsenic in samples of water from Rajarata wells supplied by the University of Kelaniya has apparently carried out tests to find out whether Arsenic is present in samples of pesticides either collected by them or provided by some other government authority. According to the tests supposed to have been carried out at the ITI, Arsenic is present in two brands of pesticides out of about ten brands. These figures may be wrong as I have no direct access to the data revealed at a press conference held on Monday the thirteenth at the Ministry of Agriculture. The Minister of Agriculture has also said at the same press conference that Arsenic is found in small quantities in these two brands of pesticides, nevertheless he had taken action to stop distribution of the same. We thank the Minister for his prompt action and also the ITI for apparently carrying out the tests without giving in flimsy excuses. However it is said that later the Minister had stated that there was a conspiracy against cultivation of rice in this country, and appears to have implied that our group is discouraging the farmer by claiming that arsenic is present in pesticides. In this connection he could consult his cabinet colleague Mr. Wimal Weerasinghe whose associates are spearheading a campaign against what they call “paan thrusthavadya” (bread terrorism), on whose side our group is in this campaign.

The Minister of Agriculture should refrain from making these insinuations without finding out facts. We are not a group against cultivation of rice in this country and the Minister has to be reminded that some students and teachers of the Faculty of Science of the University of Kelaniya have already cultivated a paddy field in Kirimetiyagara close to Kadawatha, without using any agrochemicals. It is now in the fourth “kanna” and we invite the Minister to visit our “kumbura” with his officials in order to learn a few things about “hela govikama”. It has to be emphasized that what we practice is not carbonic farming or green farming or anything that we have copied from the west, but “govikama” we had had in this country before the westerners, especially the English ruined it and then introduced so called scientific farming. Even in “govikama” we were guided by “samyak drshtika devivaru” who instructed on various aspects of “hela govikama”.

The group at Kelaniya is happy and feel vindicated as at least two brands of pesticides have been tested positive for Arsenic. If not for the experiments carried out at the University of Kelaniya, nobody would have suspected of Arsenic in pesticides, and the particular brands of pesticides would have been still available in the market. It was the group at Kelaniya that investigates into the Rajarata Chronic Kidney Disease first came out with the fact that Arsenic is present in at least in the samples of pesticides, and the samples of water from Rajarata areas collected by them. Prior to that no Chemist in Sri Lanka to my knowledge had claimed that Arsenic was present in at least some of the pesticides used in Sri Lanka in amounts exceeding what may be called the “safe limits”.

The merit (pina) in this regard should go to the “samyak drshtika devivaru” who first told that Arsenic is present in Rajarata drinking water and later revealed to us that Arsenic which is not found naturally in Sri Lanka has found its way to the wells and the wewas in Rajarata through Agrochemicals. It was this information that led us to test for Arsenic in pesticides, and it has to be mentioned that all the samples we had collected from various areas were contaminated with Arsenic.

In this connection I must mention again that though we obtained our knowledge of Arsenic in pesticides and drinking water in Rajarata from the “samyak drshtika devivaru” we never wanted the others to believe us simply on that information. We got the idea from the “samyak drshtika devivaru” but in order to convince those who had been trained in the western tradition we tested for Arsenic in water, soil, agrochemicals etc., in the laboratories of the Faculty of Science at the University of Kelaniya, using standard procedures in western Chemistry. In this regard I must again bring to the notice of the general public that when we were without a method in standard western chemistry to test for Arsenic in hard water (kivula) it was again the “samyak drshtika devivaru” who helped us indicating a method. The test was carried out in the laboratories with success.

The question may be asked as to the differences in the results we had obtained and that of ITI and other government “recognized” or accredited laboratories. While we had tested positive for Arsenic an all our samples, including those provided by Sri Lankan Customs, the government institutes have apparently found Arsenic only in two samples of pesticides. Now I do not claim to be a Chemist western or otherwise, even in my wildest dreams having failed in Chemistry at the University Entrance Examination as well as the GSQ (first year qualifying) examination at the University of Ceylon. I have only a pass in Chemistry at the GCE (OL) examination and even that “knowledge” is more than fifty years old. However, I am told by learned Chemists at the University that it is difficult to test for Arsenic in the laboratories at least for two reasons.

Firstly the Arsenic contaminated material has to be “digested” to get rid of various organic substances found in the sample, as otherwise the Atomic Absorption Spectrophotometer would not indicate the presence of Arsenic. Thus “digesting” has to be carried out taking extra precautions before the sample is tested. The second factor is that Arsenic is very sensitive to heat and the temperatures have to be controlled in the process of “digesting”. Arsenic apparently has a boiling point lower than the melting point and sublimation takes place and arsenic would vanish into air unless the correct temperatures are maintained. Our western Chemists have been very careful in taking all the precautions in carrying out the tests for Arsenic.

These may be the reasons rather than conspiracies that have led us to find Arsenic in our samples when the others have not been successful. We are prepared to open our laboratories for the Minister of Agriculture and the other concerned officials and invite them to be present when we test for Arsenic and we would invite the customs to provide the samples. On the other hand we would request the Minister to give us an opportunity to be present in the laboratories of the government institutions that carry out tests for Arsenic. While our people are dying in Rajarata we should not get involved in a game of conspiracies and counter conspiracies, and get together to help the Rajarata farmers as well as others to live a healthy life. (The Island - 2011/06/15)

Copyright Prof. Nalin De Silva