Forum Post: Monsanto's Herbicide Linked to Fatal Kidney Disease Epidemic: Could It Topple the Company?
Posted 10 months ago on July 11, 2014, 12:41 a.m. EST by LeoYoh
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Monsanto's Herbicide Linked to Fatal Kidney Disease Epidemic: Could It Topple the Company?
Thursday, 10 July 2014 09:18
By Jeff Ritterman, M.D., Truthout | News Analysis
Also see: Dahr Jamail | Salvadoran Farmers Successfully Oppose the Use of Monsanto Seeds
Monsanto's herbicide Roundup has been linked to a mysterious fatal kidney disease epidemic that has appeared in Central America, Sri Lanka and India.
For years, scientists have been trying to unravel the mystery of a chronic kidney disease epidemic that has hit Central America, India and Sri Lanka. The disease occurs in poor peasant farmers who do hard physical work in hot climes. In each instance, the farmers have been exposed to herbicides and to heavy metals. The disease is known as CKDu, for Chronic Kidney Disease of unknown etiology. The "u" differentiates this illness from other chronic kidney diseases where the cause is known. Very few Western medical practitioners are even aware of CKDu, despite the terrible toll it has taken on poor farmers from El Salvador to South Asia.
Dr. Catharina Wesseling, the regional director for the Program on Work and Health (SALTRA) in Central America, which pioneered the initial studies of the region's unsolved outbreak, put it this way, "Nephrologists and public health professionals from wealthy countries are mostly either unfamiliar with the problem or skeptical whether it even exists."
Dr. Wesseling was being diplomatic. At a 2011 health summit in Mexico City, the United States beat back a proposal by Central American nations that would have listed CKDu as a top priority for the Americas.
David McQueen, a US delegate from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who has since retired from the agency, explained the US position.
"The idea was to keep the focus on the key big risk factors that we could control and the major causes of death: heart disease, cancer and diabetes. And we felt, the position we were taking, that CKD was included."
The United States was wrong. The delegates from Central America were correct. CKDu is a new form of illness. This kidney ailment does not stem from diabetes, hypertension or other diet-related risk factors. Unlike the kidney disease found in diabetes or hypertension, the kidney tubules are a major site of injury in CKDu, suggesting a toxic etiology.
CKDu is now the second leading cause of mortality among men in El Salvador. This small, densely populated Central American country now has the highest overall mortality rate from kidney disease in the world. Neighboring Honduras and Nicaragua also have extremely high rates of kidney disease mortality. In El Salvador and Nicaragua, more men are dying from CKDu than from HIV/AIDS, diabetes, and leukemia combined. In one patch of rural Nicaragua, so many men have died that the community is called "The Island of the Widows."
In addition to Central America, India and Sri Lanka have been hit hard by the epidemic. In Sri Lanka, over 20,000 people have died from CKDu in the past two decades. In the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, more than 1,500 have been treated for the ailment since 2007. Given the rarity of dialysis and kidney transplantation in these regions, most who suffer from CKDu will die from their kidney disease.
In an investigation worthy of the great Sherlock Holmes, a scientific sleuth from Sri Lanka, Dr. Channa Jayasumana, and his two colleagues, Dr. Sarath Gunatilake and Dr. Priyantha Senanayake, have put forward a unifying hypothesis that could explain the origin of the disease. They reasoned that the offending agent had to have been introduced into Sri Lanka within the last 30 years, since the first cases appeared in the mid-1990s. The chemical also needed to be able to form stable complexes with the metals in hard water and to act as a shield, protecting those metals from metabolism by the liver. The compound would also need to act as a carrier and be able to deliver the metals to the kidney.
We know that political changes in Sri Lanka in the late 1970s led to the introduction of agrochemicals, especially in rice farming. The researchers looked for likely suspects. Everything pointed to glyphosate. This herbicide is used in abundance in Sri Lanka. Earlier studies had shown that once glyphosate binds with metals, the glyphosate-metal complex can last for decades in the soil.
Glyphosate was not originally designed for use as an herbicide. Patented by the Stauffer Chemical Company in 1964, it was introduced as a chelating agent. It avidly binds to metals. Glyphosate was first used as a descaling agent to clean out mineral deposits from the pipes in boilers and other hot water systems.
It is this chelating property that allows glyphosate to form complexes with the arsenic, cadmium and other heavy metals found in the groundwater and soil in Central America, India and Sri Lanka. The glyphosate-heavy metal complex can enter the human body in a variety of ways. The complex can be ingested, inhaled or absorbed through the skin. Glyphosate acts like a Trojan horse, allowing the bound heavy metal to avoid detection by the liver, since the glyphosate occupies the binding sites that the liver would normally latch onto. The glyphosate-heavy metal complex reaches the kidney tubules, where the high acidity allows the metal to break free of the glyphosate. The cadmium or arsenic then damages the kidney tubules and other parts of the kidneys, ultimately resulting in kidney failure and, most often, death.
At this point, this elegant theory advanced by Dr. Jayasumana and colleagues can only be considered hypothesis-generating. Further scientific studies will need to confirm the hypothesis that CKDu is indeed due to glyphosate-heavy metal toxicity to the kidney tubules. For the present, this may be the best explanation for the epidemic.
Another explanation is that heat stress may be the cause, or a combination of heat stress and chemical toxicity. Monsanto, of course, is standing behind glyphosate and disputing the claim that it plays any role whatsoever in the genesis of CKDu.
While the exact cause of CKDu has not been proven conclusively, both Sri Lanka and El Salvador have invoked the precautionary principle. El Salvador banned glyphosate in September 2013 and is currently looking for safer alternatives. Sri Lanka banned glyphosate in March of this year because of concerns about CKDu.