Toxicant released from sugarcane ash may be causing mysterious kidney disease in agricultural workers

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Burning sugarcane and rice husk may release a toxic substance that may be causing a mysterious kidney disease in agricultural workers, a study published today suggests. American Journal of Kidney Diseases.

An ongoing epidemic of chronic kidney disease has been observed among manual laborers in hot agricultural communities throughout the world, including Central America, India, and the Pacific coast of Sri Lanka. Although heat stress and climate change have contributed to the epidemic, researchers have identified tiny silica particles released from sugarcane ash that can be inhaled or ingested through contaminated drinking water to cause chronic kidney damage.

To date, there are no studies that we know of that have identified a toxin that can cause chronic kidney disease that is actually present in the kidney tissue of patients with this unknown disease. These data provide an important clue to the mystery and suggest that toxins from sugarcane ash may contribute to the disease, in addition to the heat stress of climate change.”

Jared Brown, PhD, is a professor at the University of Colorado Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences and one of the senior authors.

The University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus worked with doctors at Hospital Rosales in San Salvador, El Salvador, to evaluate patients with this mysterious chronic kidney disease. The authors found significantly more silica particles in the kidney tissue of patients with this particular disease than in patients with other known kidney diseases. Studies have shown that the disease can be caused by exposure to sugarcane ash, which contains amorphous silica nanoparticles. This process can also be associated with people who work in paddy fields, as burning of rice paddies, which is commonly done, can release siliceous ash.

“Although this data is preliminary, we can determine that sugarcane may not only be contributing to climate change, but it may be playing a role in the epidemic that is affecting agricultural workers,” said Richard Johnson, MD, CU Anschutz School of Medicine professor and one of the senior authors. “This disease has been specifically identified as one of the first newly recognized diseases resulting from warming. Now we know that toxins are also involved. Hopefully this work will spur efforts to focus on sugarcane burning as a potential risk factor for the development of this mysterious climate. Workers and adjacent sugarcane fields Residents have kidney disease.


Journal Reference:

Rogers, K. L., etc (2023) Silica nanoparticles and Mesoamerican nephropathy: a case series. American Journal of Kidney Diseases.

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