The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) is cancelling plans to honour two Sri Lankan researchers who attempted to link a kidney disease epidemic in Sri Lanka to the glyphosate herbicide.
According to foreign media the AAAS which publishes the prestigious journal Science came under pressure from scientists.
The two scientists - Dr. Sarath Gunatilake and Dr. Channa Jayasumana were supposed to receive the organizations' 2019 Award for Scientific Freedom and Responsibility at the annual AAAS meeting next week.
But AAAS announced on Twitter Wednesday the presentation has been cancelled due to concerns by scientists and AAAS members "while we further evaluate the award selection."
Critics say the two scientists don't have the science to prove a linkage between kidney disease and glyphosate.
Kevin Folta, who chairs the horticultural sciences department at the University of Florida, also took issue with the AAAS press release about the award, which referred to glyphosate as a "lethal" herbicide. Read his comments at the bottom of this article.
The press release has been removed from the organization's website, but a copy of the text is given below :
PUBLIC RELEASE: 4-FEB-2019
Fight against lethal herbicides earns 2019 AAAS Scientific Freedom & Responsibility Award
Two public health researchers who battled powerful corporate interests to uncover the deadly effects of industrial herbicides, solving a medical mystery and protecting the health of farming communities across the world, will receive the 2019 Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Drs. Sarath Gunatilake and Channa Jayasumana faced death threats and claims of research misconduct while working to determine the cause of a kidney disease epidemic that has claimed tens of thousands of lives in their home country of Sri Lanka and around the world. Ultimately, their advocacy led to the culprit, an herbicide called glyphosate, being banned in several affected countries.
"To right a wrong when significant financial interests are at stake and the power imbalance between industry and individual is at play takes the unique combination of scientific rigor, professional persistence and acceptance of personal risk demonstrated by the two scientists recognized by this year's award," says Jessica Wyndham, director of the Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law Program at AAAS.
Beginning around 1994, rice farmers in Sri Lanka's North Central Province began falling ill with Chronic Kidney Disease. The epidemic was unique in that those succumbing to the disease were relatively young and did not suffer from ailments associated with CKD, such as diabetes and hypertension. In 2011, the country's Ministry of Health invited Gunatilake, a physician and researcher at California State University, Long Beach to investigate the cause of the disease.
At the time, Jayasumana, also a physician, was struggling to find funding to research the CKD epidemic for his doctoral degree at Rajarata University, in North Central Province. He decided to join California State University, Long Beach as a visiting scholar under Gunatilake's supervision, bringing with him samples of urine, drinking water and rice. Gunatilake and Jayasumana found that glyphosate, marketed mostly by Monsanto as Roundup, was transporting arsenic, cadmium and other heavy metals to the kidneys of those drinking contaminated water, causing CKD.
In 2014, they published their results in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. Because similar epidemics were occurring in Central America, North Africa and Southeast Asia, the study earned worldwide attention. To date, the paper has received 23,000 downloads and 64 citations.
Jeopardizing the profits of glyphosate distributors, subsidiaries and importers, however, did not come without consequences. Gunatilake and Jayasumana received death threats, and twelve scientists who had obtained industry-funded grants filed a research misconduct complaint against Gunatilake. Eventually, he was exonerated, after a California State University, Long Beach scientific investigation panel dismissed the complaint.
Thanks to pressure applied by a massive public health campaign led by Gunatilake, the Sri Lankan president created the National Project for Prevention of Kidney Diseases, naming Jayasumana as director. In 2015, Sri Lanka became the first of many countries to ban the import of glyphosate. Three years later, Sri Lanka lifted the import ban, but continued to restrict the use of glyphosate on tea and rubber plantations.
In the past few years, Gunatilake has convened multi-disciplinary international conferences to discuss the dangers of glyphosate and raised more than $20,000 to help the families of victims. CKD has claimed the lives of at least 25,000 Sri Lankans and 20,000 Central Americans.
"What started as a bold effort to provide a voice for the impoverished, powerless rice paddy farmers in Sri Lanka has now blossomed into a worldwide environmental movement through research, advocacy, networking and collaboration," wrote public health professional Hanan Obeidi in the award nomination letter.
The AAAS Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award was established in 1980. It honors scientists, engineers or organizations whose exemplary actions have demonstrated scientific freedom and responsibility in challenging circumstances. Achievements that the award recognizes include acting to protect the public's health, safety or welfare; focusing public attention on important issues related to scientific research, education and public policy; and establishing important new precedents in carrying out the social responsibilities of scientists or in defending the professional freedom of scientists and engineers. The award consists of a $5,000 prize and a commemorative plaque.
The awardees will receive the prize during the 185th AAAS Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 15, 2019.
Kevin Folta's response regarding the CKD research paper
I humbly ask this question. What am I missing?
I just read the press release from the AAAS about the 2019 Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award, going to two Sri Lankan physicians/researchers—Sarath Gunatilake and Channa Jayasumana—that apparently confirmed a deadly causal connection between a kidney disease (Chronic Kidney Disease of Unknown Origin; CKDu) and the herbicide glyphosate. Congrats, congrats!
Wow, I must have missed this. Certainly a concrete link would be big news, and if AAAS is awarding someone for this research it must have been a prominent publication. But I scan the literature almost daily and never saw this.
The names of the awardees seemed strangely familiar. Then it hit me: this was the 2014 paper where they looked at hard water consumption in Sri Lanka and then suggested a link between heavy metals and maybe glyphosate. The paper presented a hypothesis. There were no data. There were no experiments. It was a semi-well-crafted hypothesis that could be tested.
At the time the anti-pesticide world lit up in celebration. Finally they had the smoking gun. I remember this vividly—only there was no smoke, there was no gun. It was a hypothesis to test. These folks don’t actually read the papers.
This paper, presenting a hypothesis only, was sufficient to spark a ban of glyphosate in 2015, a move that drew criticism because the ban occurred in the absence of data. Later, reputable scientists would add that the ban threatened food security as farmers were stripped of a helpful agricultural tool, based on a hunch.
The Sri Lankan National Academy of Science made clear statements on the associations, stating that the “research is not conclusive” and “we are not aware of any scientific evidence form studies in Sri Lanka or abroad showing that CKDu is caused by glyphosate.” The same organization also notes no association between CKDu and cancer, which we’d expect if the herbicide was causing both diseases as some claim.
The researchers are obviously passionate about identifying the source of the problem in this region. An examination of their later work shows a dedicated inquiry into heavy metals and pesticides that occur in drinking water in agricultural areas, and their association with CKDu. They also look at the flip side and how access to clean water improves health outcomes. That alone is deserving of some recognition. I also think they would agree with me that the AAAS website was not fairly representing their work.
Many researchers, including these authors, have examined the connections to heavy metals, particularly arsenic and cadmium (including this work that shows cadmium dose-response), which are present in high levels in CKDu endemic areas, and arise from application of fertilizers and pesticides.
Their follow up paper added a correlation to the hypothesis by actually examining heavy metals and glyphosate in the urine of a relatively small number of subjects (10 ill, 10 asymptomatic, 10 from another area). Their conclusion was, “Although we could not localize a single nephrotoxin as the culprit for SAN (Sri Lankan Agricultural Nephropathy), multiple heavy metals and glyphosates (sic) may play a role in pathogenesis.”
A case-control study (self-reported health factors) by the same authors in a CKDu-endemic hospital also found statistical associations with application of several different herbicides and insecticides. There also was association with exposure to a variety of heavy metals in drinking water, especially from abandoned wells. The authors note that the majority of those answering questions were farmers who don’t use personal protective equipment when spraying pesticides. I’m not surprised that they’d have higher levels in their urine. Again, the authors were correct in noting the limitations of the study.
While the authors are appropriately conservative in their conclusions, the AAAS website seems to be pretty certain, especially about the “lethal” herbicide and the role of corporations in ‘suppressing’ this ‘research’.
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