Qld fruit fly treatment poisoning workers

December 12, 1995

By Allan Little and Bernard Wunsch Following the detection of the papaya fruit fly in northern Queensland in October, an extensive quarantine area between Cape Melville, Mt Surprise and Cardwell is being policed by the Department of Primary Industries (DPI). The Queensland primary industries minister, Bob Gibbs, has announced a "program of eradication, not containment" of the fruit fly. The program involves the use of large quantities of pesticides, some of which are banned in the USA. The outbreak of the papaya fruit fly is the first in Australia. The fly is particularly damaging to the fruit industry as it attacks green fruit rather than just ripe fruit like more common strains. In 1976, the DPI set up a papaya fruit fly monitoring program from Cairns to the Torres Strait Islands. The program was scaled back in 1991 despite two departmental reviews which proposed that monitoring "be extended to cover likely points of entry". This infestation is a direct result of DPI budget cuts by Queensland state governments which have not been prepared to fund proper monitoring. Despite hundreds of kilometres of coastline which could be invaded, two traps set in Cairns in mid-1994 were the only measure used by the DPI to test for fruit fly. Now the DPI says it will take two years and $2 million to eradicate the pest. Since the quarantine began, fruit growers in the area have initiated a mass fumigation of fruit and fruit orchards. Many pesticides dumped on the Australian market from the US are being used. The DPI is encouraging the use of the chemicals dimethoate and fenthion. Dimethoate is as yet untested in Australia but overseas research shows it to cause immune system malfunction. Fenthion is an organophosphate, also untested in Australia. It was banned in California in 1991. The DPI has also admitted that while it is not advertising the use of EDB (1, 2-dibromomoethane) and methyl bromide (bromomethane), these chemicals too are being used in fruit fly treatment. Both EDB and methyl bromide have been banned in the US and other countries because they are highly volatile and toxic down to 10,000 parts per million. Bromomethane is not detectable by smell but research has shown that inhalation can cause psychosis and brain damage. The department has reduced the withholding period for pesticide treated fruit from seven days to zero claiming that all residues on fruit being sold and transported are "below allowed levels". Dimethoate is classified as a "systemic" chemical meaning that it works by soaking into the living tissue of the fruit to kill insects. With the relaxed withholding laws, some fruit may be reaching markets still contaminated with pesticides. The withholding periods were put in place because dimethoate levels are too dangerous for consumption immediately after dipping. Yvonne Cunningham, an Innisfail resident, is very critical of the DPI and questions its claim that the chemicals used in dips to kill fruit flies have "low toxicity" and a "short residual life". Accusing the DPI of "acting like cowboys" in the use and storage of these toxins, Cunningham told Green Left Weekly that workers in the quarantined area were being hospitalised for possible pesticide poisoning after vomiting blood. Forty workers have walked off the job in protest at the lack of protective clothing, ventilation and showers when working with the pesticides. The workers are also worried about applying pesticides with solvents such as xylene which can damage the eyes and lungs, she said. Cunningham also told Green Left that some unemployed workers have been recruited onto the fruit fly program having been told that they would lose their dole if they didn't work in pesticide treatment. Workplace conditions are very poor with casual hiring, 14 hour shifts and meals served in packing sheds close to pesticide storage, she said. According to Cunningham, the present DPI policy reflects a "bananas before people" mentality. "Workers have the right to know what the effects of exposure to chemicals at the workplace have on their health", she said. Like Cunningham, Dr Kate Short from the Total Environment Centre in Sydney, and author of Quick Poison, Slow Poison: Pesticide Use in the Lucky Country, believes that the pesticide treatment is a quick fix solution fuelled by scares of losses in fruit exports. In an interview with ABC Radio National three weeks ago Short raised concerns about the slowness of the National Registration Authority's chemical review process. Only five of the 200 chemicals targeted for review have been tested by the Authority and many more toxic chemicals should be banned in Australia, she said. Short argues that "there are many alternative treatments for fruit fly" including natural insecticides such as neem oil and pyrethrins which can be grown in Australia and are less toxic to mammals than the chemical cocktails currently being used. In addition, heat treatment can be used for some fruit varieties instead of dipping the fruit in pesticides.