Monsanto pressures Sri Lanka to reverse ban on herbicide believed to be causing widespread kidney disease

Sunday, April 20, 2014 by: David Gutierrez, staff writer
Tags: Monsanto, glyphosate ban, kidney disease

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(NaturalNews) Monsanto has successfully pressured the government of Sri Lanka to back off from banning its signature chemical glyphosate, commonly known by the trade name Roundup. The Sri Lankan government had moved to ban glyphosate following findings that linked it to an epidemic of kidney failure that has killed tens of thousands of agricultural workers.

For years, a rare kidney disease has been devastating farm workers in Central America, Sri Lanka and India. The cause of the disease remains unknown, although scientists have suggested that a combination of chronic dehydration (due to hard labor in tropical climates) and exposure to toxic chemicals may be to blame.

On March 12, the Sri Lankan government made an announcement that the country's president would be banning the herbicide based on a scientific report that "revealed that kidney disease was mainly caused by glyphosate."

Monsanto, other chemical companies and Sri Lankan officials connected to the pesticide industry immediately began contesting the decision, attempting to cast doubt on its scientific basis. Less than a month later, the government placed the glyphosate ban on hold.

A similar story took place in El Salvador last year. The country's Legislative Assembly approved a ban on glyphosate and 52 other agricultural chemicals, largely due to their suspected role in the kidney disease epidemic. The president refused to sign the bill into law, however.

Roundup binds to toxic metals

The scientific paper that led to the now-suspended Sri Lankan ban was published by Channa Jayasumana of Rajarata University in Sri Lanka, along with another Sri Lankan researcher and one from California State University-Long Beach. The paper suggested that Roundup is unique among herbicides in the strength with which it binds to heavy metals, including toxic ones such as arsenic and cadmium. This binding produces new, stable compounds that do not break down until they enter the kidneys, the researchers hypothesized. In fact, glyphosate's original patent was as a chelating agent, a chemical that forms strong bonds with metals.

"Glyphosate acts as a carrier or a vector of these heavy metals to the kidney," Jayasumana said.

Scientific support for this hypothesis is accumulating. A World Health Organization study found detectable levels of both glyphosate and cadmium (as well as other pesticides and heavy metals) in the urine of kidney patients, as well as in the environments of places where the disease is endemic.

Both experimental and theoretical evidence also support the contention that glyphosate binds to metals more strongly and aggressively than other pesticides. At least one experimental study has suggested that it forms strong bonds with cadmium specifically.

"As far as I know, there are no other common herbicides that would have this same sort of strength of interactions with metals," U.S. Geological Survey researcher Paul Capel said.

Although the existence of a chemical compound formed by a union of glyphosate and toxic heavy metals has not yet been proven, Jayasumana's paper suggests a possible chemical structure for this compound. In addition, Jayasumana says that his research team has detected the compound and is planning to publish the findings.

"We experimentally detected [the compound] in drinking water samples, some food items and in urine samples of [kidney disease] patients," he said.

Ban may still go through

The fight over the future of glyphosate is far from settled. In Sri Lanka, the ban may still go forward. In El Salvador, campaigners hope that the country's newly elected president will sign the ban that his predecessor rejected.

And in Brazil, which has not suffered from the kidney disease epidemic, a prosecutor has nevertheless asked the government to ban glyphosate and a number of other agricultural chemicals.

Their safety, he says, has never been proven.

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