AAAS award misstep could be an opportunity .

Alternative medicine



The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has presented an award for Scientific Freedom and Responsibility annually since 1980. “It honors scientists, engineers or organizations whose exemplary actions have demonstrated scientific freedom and responsibility in challenging circumstances. “

These awards have gone on these past 38 years without much notice, recognizing worthy scientists and organizations for their service. For example, the 2018 award went to Marc Edwards, “a civil and environmental engineer whose team documented lead contamination in the water supply of Flint,” Michigan. This year is a little different…

The 2019 AAAS award winners are…

AAAS 403 error screenshot
The award announcement is no longer accessible, but you can view a PDF here.

Global Fight Against Lethal Herbicides Earns 2019 AAAS Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award was the title of this year’s award announcement. Lethal herbicide – that must be something really bad, right? What could it be? AAAS is referring to glyphosate, apparently.

This year’s award was so controversial that many scientists took to Twitter to express their displeasure. AAAS has revoked public view from the announcement page (though Biofortified saved a PDF) and AAAS announced on Twitter that they will not give the award as planned.

Like many others, I am curious about the circumstances of the nomination and award process, and what happened behind closed doors that resulted in this surprising retraction. In this post, I humbly suggest that AAAS has an opportunity here to improve not just one award or one committee but to reconsider how the organization can encourage different types of scientists to work together.

Who are the awardees?

The awardees, Sarath Gunatilake and Channa Jayasumana, along with Sisira Siribaddana, published Glyphosate, Hard Water and Nephrotoxic Metals: Are They the Culprits Behind the Epidemic of Chronic Kidney Disease of Unknown Etiology in Sri Lanka? in 2014. This paper is specifically mentioned in the award announcement. They went on to publish Simultaneous exposure to multiple heavy metals and glyphosate may contribute to Sri Lankan agricultural nephropathy in 2015. Two are medical doctors; all three conduct human health-related research:

  • Sarath Gunatilake, University of California, Long Beach – mental health, international health, hospital management and quality assurance, training health care workers, disaster management, and occupational and environmental health research in international settings
  • Channa Jayasumana, Rajarata University of Sri Lanka – causes and treatments for chronic kidney disease, nephrotoxins, epistemology, and traditional medicine systems
  • Sisira Siribaddana, Rajarata University of Sri Lanka – tropical medicine, chronic kidney disease, snake bites, diabetes, complementary and alternative medicine, and bioethics

Dr. Gunatilake has strong opinions about glyphosate. He “describes the deadly chemical as an octopus with poisonous tentacles reaching far and wide” as breathily reported in a Daily Mirror article, Glyphosate without adjuvants not very useful. Dr. Jayasumana also has some strong opinions, even testifying at the so-called “Monsanto Tribunal” that use of glyphosate has caused “ecocide”.

According to the AAAS press release about the award, the researchers “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.” I was not able to find independent verification of such death threats, though I am searching only in English.

Clearly, these public health researchers want to protect public health and according to the announcement they did face “challenging circumstances”. So in that sense, they are deserving of this award. Unfortunately, they did not exemplify scientific responsibility in the conclusions that they drew.

Before continuing, I want to be clear – I’m not necessarily saying that researchers with unusual results should not be honored for perseverance in the face of adversity. No one should face death threats, no matter their research claims. Researchers should be free to seek funding and to attempt to publish results, even when they go against the overall consensus on a subject.

Glyphosate is an easy target

Glyphosate is a surprisingly controversial herbicide. The controversy is surprising because of how benign it is. Like GMOs, glyphosate has become a scapegoat or proxy for many socio-economic issues in food, agriculture, and beyond.

Iida Ruishalme has published an extensive series about glyphosate if you would like to get into specifics. Briefly, animals, including humans, do not have the metabolic pathway affected by glyphosate. Dietary exposure of glyphosate is low. Even among the most exposed populations, glyphosate does not cause cancer. There has been limited evidence that glyphosate could be an endocrine disrupter, but it was not identified by an endocrine disrupting chemical by the US Environmental Protection Agency in their Tier 1 Screening Results and Tier 1 Assays: “there was no convincing evidence of potential interaction with the estrogen, androgen or thyroid pathways.”

Use of glyphosate has increased over time. In Long-term trends in the intensity and relative toxicity of herbicide use, Andrew Kniss showed that in the United States, “glyphosate accounted for 26% of maize, 43% of soybean and 45% of cotton herbicide applications” in 2014/2015. But, because of glyphosate’s low toxicity relative to other herbicides, it only contributed a small percentage of the chronic toxicity hazard in these crops.

Because of its prevalent use globally, glyphosate is an easy target. But in some ways, further replacement of other herbicides with glyphosate would further reduce overall risk.

Chronic kidney disease and the glyphosate ban

In Glyphosate, Hard Water and Nephrotoxic Metals: Are They the Culprits Behind the Epidemic of Chronic Kidney Disease of Unknown Etiology in Sri Lanka? the awardees reported that the disease had plagued rice paddy farming areas in Sri Lanka since the mid-1990s. The researchers hypothesized that glyphosate was the “Compound X” that binds to metals and carries them to kidneys to cause damage.

If only chronic kidney disease of unknown etiology (CKDu) could be stopped by just removing glyphosate. But this hypothesis didn’t pan out in 2014, or today. Three recent reviews and meta-analyses tell us the full story.

CKDu currently occurs among agricultural workers in 5 areas of the world: North Central Province in Sri Lanka, Andhra Pradesh in India, Tunisia, El Minya in Egypt, and parts of El Salvador and Nicaragua. CKDu presents differently in each area and seems to be associated with different factors in each area as well, according to a 2017 review Endemic Nephropathy Around the World.

The reviewers also describe 2 previous unexplained chronic kidney disease epidemics with similar symptoms but that pre-date glyphosate. Itai-Itai disease in Japan, first identified in the 1910s, was found to be due to cadmium-contaminated crops. Balkan endemic nephropathy, first identified in the 1950s, was found to be due to accidentally consuming seeds from a toxic herb. Subsequent cases have been identified when people intentionally take certain toxic herbs as herbal remedies.

What do epidemiological studies tell us about chronic kidney disease of undetermined cause in Meso-America? A systematic review and meta-analysis, from 2017, concludes: “Our meta-analysis showed positive associations for males (versus females) and family history of CKD, water intake, lowland altitude and CKDu. There were no significant associations with pesticide exposure, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs intake, heat stress and alcohol consumption.”

Pesticide exposures and chronic kidney disease of unknown etiology: an epidemiologic review, also from 2017, “performed a systematic review of epidemiologic studies that addressed associations between any indicator of pesticide exposure and any outcome measure of CKD.” They confirm that “existing studies provide scarce evidence for an association between pesticides and regional CKDu epidemics.” They suggest that more studies should be done.

Despite the lack of evidence for the hypothesis that glyphosate causes CKDu, Sri Lanka banned glyphosate in 2014, apparently in large part due to the work of the awardees. In 2015, the National Academy of Sciences of Sri Lanka issued a Statement on the Banning of Glyphosate, suggesting that the evidence points to the need for clean water and medical care for people in the affected area, education about safe use of pesticides, and controls on the importation of sub-standard pesticides – all evidence-based measures. When we blame the wrong things for public health problems, people continue to get hurt.