A critical analysis of the article “Banned pesticides in well water linked to declines in kidney function: Study”
Posted on January 16th, 2022

Chandre Dharmawardana

The following article appeared in the newspaper morning.lk.I have added my comments in bold italic regarding the contents of the article.
Chandre DW

Banned pesticides in well water linked to declines in kidney function: Study

By Beyond Pesticides

(Beyond Pesticides is a non-profit organisation headquartered in Washington, D.C., which works with allies in protecting public health and the environment to lead the transition to a world free of toxic pesticides)

Well water in agricultural regions of Sri Lanka is contaminated with highly hazardous insecticides and associated with a decline in kidney function, according to research published in the npj Clean Water journal this month. 

Unfortunately, these US researches did a one time-point analysis of pesticides, and detected some pesticides that do NOT persist for more than a day in the environment of the hot (30-36 Celsius) dry zone.  Local scientists (e.g., Aravinda et al, Jayasiri et al) have also made measurements of pesticides and have shown that the presence of such pesticides is highly sporadic and episodic.

The conclusions drawn by these US scientists have already been criticized by other researchers as being highly unwarranted and indeed false.

This finding is the latest piece in an ongoing puzzle” regarding the epidemic of chronic kidney disease of unknown origins in Sri Lanka and other developing countries in agricultural regions. Although the exact etiology of the disease has not been confirmed, a number of scientific studies have pointed the finger at industrial agriculture, increasingly finding evidence of chronic pesticide exposure in affected populations.  

Industrial agriculture is practiced everywhere in the country. The disease is found in some villages in the Dry Zone, interspersed with other villages that have NO CKDu even though they are agricultural villages. So the disease is UNCORRELATED with farming and agriculture.

To better understand the connection between agrichemical exposure and kidney health, researchers enrolled 293 individuals from Wilgamuwa, Sri Lanka into a prospective study. Baseline data was retrieved on occupational and environmental exposure factors, focusing on the water source individuals used at their homes. Samples of each participant’s household wells were taken and analysed for the presence of pesticides.

Of the wells sampled, 68% were found to contain pesticides. Further, every well where pesticides were detected had at least one pesticide recorded above global drinking water guidelines.

This fact that pesticides were detected during a single time-point analysis does NOT mean that these toxins are a persistent component of the water consumed by the people. Chronic toxicity is caused by the regular ingestion of small quantities of a toxin and not by sporadic injection. The scientists failed t o look at blood and urine to establish their case.

The pesticides reported last about a day in the hot climate. If the water is boiled they volatilize with the steam.  However, that such excesses occur even sporadically shows that pesticides are being poorly handled by farmers, and the public health authorities should take action to control the mis-handling of pesticides.

The chemicals found were also some of the most toxic pesticides to ever be sold, including the organochlorine insecticides DDT/DDE, propanil, and endosulfan, and organophosphate diazinon. None of these chemicals are permitted for use in Europe or the US, and some like endosulfan are being phased out globally through the Stockholm Convention.

Indeed, these pesticides are not only nephrotoxic (i.e., affects the kidney), but they also damage the liver (hepatotoxic).  There should be strict regulations regarding their use.

The Sri Lanka, CKDu is not co-associated with hepatotoxicity. This means that the Sri Lankan CKDu is most unlikely to be caused by these pesticides. Furthermore, these pesticides cause glomerular damage of the kidney, where as in CKDiu we mostly see tubule-interstitial damage. That too is not consistent with the causation of the illness by these pesticides proposed by these researchers.

The study found that individuals reporting drinking well water during their lifetimes had a glomerular filtration rate (a measurement of kidney health) that was significantly lower on average (6.7) than other individuals who never drank well water, after accounting for differences in age and sex. Although this study does not reveal causation, it provides strong evidence that water contamination is playing a role in the development of the disease. 

It is likely that there is no single compound of concern but rather a multiple stressor interactor effect across environmental and agrochemical exposure, behaviour, and clinical factors,” the study reads.

The study cannot make this conclusion regarding agrochemical exposure.  The sampling of water was also done in the upper Mahaweli region south west of Wilgamuwa, and although many of those wells had pesticides, those villages did NOT have CKDU. The authors have conveniently ignored this important fact that goes against their hypothesis.

Prior research has found a range of chemicals linked to kidney damage. Even among the 40 most commonly used lawn care pesticides, the vast majority – 32 – are associated with damage to the kidney or liver. This includes widely used herbicides like glyphosate. In 2019, researchers Sararath Guanatilake (MD) and Channa Jayasumana (PhD) (who is the State Minister of  Production, Supply, and Regulation of Pharmaceuticals) were awarded the Freedom and Responsibility Award from the American Association of the Advancement of Science (AAAS) for their work uncovering the link between glyphosate and chronic kidney disease (CKD). 

This award is now widely recognized to be an unfortunate mis-step by the AAAS. For details, see the write up by a Florida University scientist Dr. A. Bodnar


Furthermore, neither this US study, nor the study of pesticide traces by Aravinda et al, or the study by Jayasiri et al found any glyphosate in the aquatic environment or soils. In fact, the WHO study did not find any glyphosate in the blood and urine of CKDu patients to within 97% accuracy.

The award came as the two scientists had to defend their research from death threats and claims of misconduct directly or indirectly from the agrochemical industry, Bayer/Monsanto in particular. In fact, after receiving the award, the Bayer/Monsanto bullying caused the AAAS to withdraw the prize and place the award under review. Ultimately, however, after a multi-month pause, the AAAS decided to confirm the original award.

Who bullied whom can be understood by reading Dr. Jayasuman’s book Wakugadu Hatana”, and also reading about the mock trial of Monsanto-Bayer conducted by a French journalist. The trial was said to have been attended by Ven. Ratana and Dr. Jayasumana.

Another pesticide, malathion, has recently been cited for its close link to kidney damage. A study published in October 2021 found significant associations with malathion exposure, low kidney function, and increased risk of CKD. With researchers now finding evidence that pesticide-contaminated well water may be a source of kidney dysfunction, it is evident that more action should be taken to protect those in intensive agricultural areas from pesticide exposure. While there is a desire to neatly separate bad from good actors in environmental mysteries”, including CKD and the ongoing decline of pollinators, it is evident that in a world awash in chemicals, it is a combination of these factors that is likely at play.

We must act both locally and globally to shift away from our toxic reliance on hazardous chemicals to grow food we know can be grown without these chemicals. Sri Lanka’s Government recognised this and attempted to rapidly transition the country to more organic agriculture. However, reports indicate that the approach taken simply stopped government subsidies for chemical pesticides and fertilisers, without widespread education on new practices or support for alternative products (there is further indication that this decision was in part a response to lost tourism dollars from the Covid-19 pandemic). 

Organic agriculture is about more than removing toxic pesticides and chemicals; it is a systems-based approach that reorients crop production and pest management towards soil health, increased diversity, and working with, rather than against, natural processes. While Sri Lanka’s dive into organic was not successful in this initial attempt, more and more farmers are now aware of the dangers and the need to transition to safer practices. 

Sri Lanka’s plunge into organic agriculture by a process of fear-mongering based on false conclusions (like those of this US study by Valhos et al) has boomeranged on itself. One needs tonnes of organic fertilizer to effectively replace kilograms of inorganic fertilizer.  In the end, one hectare of paddy land cultivated organically cannot yield more than 1.5 to 2 tonnes of paddy in the best of circumstances. If conventional farming is used, the output per hectare is 4-5 tonnes of paddy. Even then Sri Lanka finds itself short of rice as significant amounts (some 30-40%) are lost during storage and distribution due to weevils, bugs, mold and unavoidable waste. Hence organic agriculture is a formula for famine until Sri Lanka’s population stabilizes and decrease to more manageable levels. Organic agriculture that uses composting adds a very large load of green house gases and worsens the already precarious problem of global warming.

Major changes rarely occur successfully all at once, but are often the result of many trials, eventually embracing new approaches once education and practices are further developed.

The trails must be first conducted in a limited scale and the possibility of success has to be established. You cannot experiment with the lives of vast numbers of people by putting their lives at risk. Such agricultural experiments were conducted under Stalin when Lysenko attempted to introduce what was known as Marxist agriculture”, and this led to vast famines and deaths. The Soviet Union became a major importer of US wheat. Sri Lanka is likely to become a major importer of food stuffs grown in other countries using conventional agriculture, while claiming to practice organic agriculture.

As the present study shows, Sri Lanka’s work to reduce and eliminate toxic chemical use is important for its citizens’ health; with hope the country will learn from its mistakes and continue efforts to increase adoption of organic agriculture.

The present study (by Vlahos et al) shows nothing except the haste and the incompetence of the scientists who led the study in drawing unwarranted conclusions from meagre data. The data show NO CORRELATION between CKDu and agrochemicals.

A recent comment on this flawed study may be found in the research paper

Comment on “Water sources and kidney function: investigating chronic kidney disease of unknown etiology in a prospective study”, by P. Vlahos et al

available from the Cornell University preprint archive.


(The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of this publication)

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