Public perceptions of pesticides & how they influence policy: Case of CKDu in Sri Lanka

I am not a public health or environmental expert, but have long covered related topics as a science journalist.

Among my long-standing interests are the downstream health and environmental effects agrochemicals – both chemical fertilizers and farm chemicals applied against pests and weeds. Parallel to this, I have also been covering chronic kidney disease of uncertain aetiology (CKDu), a mysterious illness that has been affecting thousands of Lankan farmers for nearly 25 years.

A link between agrochemicals and CKDu is suspected, but not yet scientifically proven (even though environmentalists ask us to believe so). It is a current yet contentious topic, which I chose for my presentation to an international workshop on “Pesticides and Global Health: Research, Collaboration and Impact” held at the Department of Anthropology, University of Durham, UK, on 10 – 11 February 2015.

This workshop launched Pesticides and Global Health: An Ethnographic Study of Agrochemical Lives — a research project funded by the Wellcome Trust and hosted by Durham University.

In my presentation, I explore the topic from the angle of public perceptions, which are largely shaped by what appears in the media. This has been problematic since mass kidney failure in Sri Lanka has been compounded by what I call a ‘mass media failure’.

Most of our media have failed to understand, analyse and report adequately on this public health emergency. Instead of helping affected people and policy makers to work out solutions, some journalists have become amplifiers of extreme activist positions. This has led to alarmism and policy confusion.

What is to be done? There are no short-cuts to the scientific investigation process which must follow – that means further research is needed to find definitive evidence for causative factors. That could take a while, given how people are exposed to multiple environmental, lifestyle and genetic factors.

But meanwhile, the welfare of those already affected by the disease and their families needs to receive greater public support. Environmentalists trying to score points from this tragedy overlook this vital humanitarian aspect.

A few excerpts from the presentation below. See full presentation above.

Advocacy journalism is fine; activist journalism is questionable

Advocacy journalism is fine; activist journalism is questionable

We need Lankan media to be more reflective, less accusatory

We need Lankan media to be more reflective, less accusatory

Spare a thought for today’s policy-makers who must think and act on the run…

Spare a thought for today’s policy-makers who must think and act on the run…

 

 

 

 

 

Mass Kidney Failure and Mass Media Failure in Sri Lanka

The kidneys are vital organs in our body that help keep the blood clean and chemically balanced through filtering. Healthy kidneys separate waste and excess water.

Similarly, a healthy and vibrant media helps separate fact from fiction, and provides clarity and context vital for an open, pluralistic society to function.

In Sri Lanka, mass kidney failure during the past two decades has been followed by what I see as a mass media failure to understand, analyse and report adequately on this public health emergency. Instead of helping affected people and policy makers to work out solutions, some journalists have become mere amplifiers of extreme activist positions.

As health officials and policy makers struggle with the prolonged humanitarian crisis, partisan media coverage has added to public confusion, suspicion and fear. As a science writer and journalist, I have watched this with growing concern.

I just gave a talk on this to the Science Communication Leadership Workshop which was part of the First General Assembly of Association of Academies and Societies of Sciences in Asia (AASSA) held in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on 17 October 2012.

Here is my presentation:

See also my recent writing on this topic:

Sunday column 19 Aug 2012: Science and Politics of Kidney Disease in Sri Lanka

Sunday column 26 Aug 2012: Watch out! Everybody Lives Downstream…