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Lincoln to Lead AntiPollution Efforts in Sri Lanka

Lincoln Specialists to Lead Anti-Pollution Efforts in Sri Lanka

A Lincoln University research team is providing the expertise to improve monitoring for water pollution in Sri Lanka, and moves towards cleaner management practices, as concern increases over rapid farming development and heavy use of chemicals.

The three-year project is the largest international environmental toxicology project for Lincoln University to date. It will result in Sri Lankan scientists using new monitoring techniques for nitrate, phosphate, pesticides, heavy metals from fertilizers, veterinary drugs and also bacteria in organic fertilizers such as cattle manure.

Sri Lanka’s agricultural and horticulture industries have expanded in recent years, but excessive use of pesticides and high rainfall have resulted in chemical residues and excess nutrients being carried into surface water systems. In areas where aquifer systems are shallow there is the added risk of groundwater contamination.

The Lincoln University team includes a veterinarian and toxicologist, Associate Professor Ravi Gooneratne; an environmental physicist and contaminant transport specialist, Associate Professor Graeme Buchan; and a specialist in computer modeling, Professor Don Kulasiri.

The project will be delivered through the University of Peradeniya, where Dr Gooneratne and Dr Kulasiri both studied as undergraduates, and Rajarata University.

Dr Gooneratne says much of central Sri Lanka is ideal for intensive agriculture and horticulture, with a cool climate, good rainfall and free-draining soils. However, there had been heavy use of pesticides and chemicals in the belief that production would continue to increase.

“There have definitely been many economic benefits from increasing horticulture and livestock farming in the hill country areas, but there is significant public concern about the threat to surface water and the shallow aquifers from excessive use of chemicals,” says Dr Gooneratne.

The project has three main components. Dr Gooneratne will co-ordinate the monitoring of neuro-toxicity in aquatic worms exposed to agrochemicals, an early warning system which can detect some pesticides in concentrations as low as parts per billion (ppb). Dr Buchan will apply knowledge of the physics of water and microbial transport to identify vulnerable soils and suggest new management practices. This includes a proposal to construct experimental soil columns known as lysimeters, and to measure their ability to filter out contaminants. Dr Kulasiri will establish a computer model integrating soil, plant, climate and biomarker data to understand system dynamics and to evaluate pollution levels at sites identified as critical.

The project’s ultimate goal is to provide data that will allow the environmental effects of chemicals and nutrients to be managed effectively by local authorities and specialists, so that water bodies can be protected.

The project began in 2005 and will continue for another two years, funded by the Asia New Zealand Foundation and a grant from Sri Lanka. In December 2005, the Lincoln University team gave a workshop on environmental toxicology and computational modeling for 25 Sri Lankan scientists. Some of these scientists will visit Lincoln University later this year for further training in monitoring techniques and Lincoln University specialists will return to the Sri Lankan universities next year to assess the progress of the project and provide more undergraduate and postgraduate training.

Sri Lanka has banned the use of organochlorines, which are highly persistent in the environment, but there are no measures to restrict the excessive use of aggressive chemicals such as organophosphates and carbamates. Farm workers and contractors are particularly at risk because of the basic spraying equipment and lack of training, which often results on prolonged exposure to chemicals through the skin. Organophosphates and carbamates can have a range of health effects. In acute cases symptoms are associated with the central nervous system, including tremors, shortness of breath, salivating and reduced heart rate. In cases of chronic exposure symptoms can include numbness, headaches and memory loss.

Lincoln University is the only New Zealand university to provide a range of environmental toxicology programmes and has previously delivered aid-funded projects in Thailand, Malaysia and China.

Ends

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