By Bronwen Beechey
MELBOURNE — The Australian Workers Union has claimed that the health of fruit pickers is being endangered by uncon- trolled use of the pesticide parathion, and is demanding action from the Victorian government to end its use.
The union has called on the minister for food and agriculture, Ian Baker, to hold an inquiry into the use of parathion and to introduce a code of practice immediately.
Dr Yossi Berger, the AWU's health and safety officer, told Green Left that the dangers of parathion, which is used in the fruit industry to kill codling moth, were well documented.
"Parathion was originally developed in the 1940s by Nazi Germany for use as a nerve gas", Berger said. "There has been well-documented evidence of its toxicity, and in fact it was banned in Malaysia in the 1950s.
"Bayer Australia [which distributes the chemical] is claiming that the variety of the pesticide they are using, methyl parathion, is safer than ethyl parathion, which they withdrew from the market several years ago. While it is true that methyl parathion has a slightly higher lethal dose (i.e. it takes more to kill you), both ethyl and methyl parathion are classed by the World Health Organisation as highly toxic. To try to make a distinction between them is just silly.
"In fact, we should be asking Bayer why it took them so long to withdraw ethyl parathion from the market when its effects have been known for over 40 years."
Parathion acts on the nervous system, disturbing neural communication. The early symptoms of exposure are similar to those of influenza, which Berger points out make it particularly dangerous because workers often don't realise that they are poisoned. If the exposure continues or a large amount is absorbed, the symptoms develop to convulsions, respiratory failure, coma and death.
The most recent case of poisoning occurred in the South Australian fruit-growing town of Renmark, where two workers required medical treatment after a 20 kilogram container of parathion burst. "We are aware of about six or seven cases in Victoria over the last 10 months", Berger says, "but there is very little documentation. This is one area that we want the inquiry to cover."
Bayer spokesperson Roger Loveless claimed in the January 30 Age that "a fair bit of hysteria" had been whipped up. He stated that the pesticide "is being used responsibly and people that are using it know what they are doing".
But Berger dismisses these comments as nonsense. "How does he know that people are using it responsibly? Anyone who has worked with pesticides will tell you that a lot of farmers have a John Wayne sort of attitude — they won't wear protective clothing, they don't mix the concentrate properly, they just go out and spray everywhere. "Also, conditions for fruit pickers are notoriously bad — we've had cases where the employer hasn't provided drinking water or proper toilets, or has expected workers to stay in accommodation you wouldn't put a dog in. If the employers won't provide decent accommodation or facilities for their workers, they're not likely to worry too much about exposing them to chemicals."
If exposure to parathion is so dangerous, what is the effect of eating fruit that has been sprayed with it? According to Berger, this is a matter of concern.
"Not enough studies have been done on the possible effects of pesticide residue in food. We do know that around Shepparton crops are being sprayed about every three weeks with little regard for withholding periods before harvest. This is another area that the inquiry should take up."
Despite the withdrawal of ethyl parathion, Berger is concerned that supplies could still exist and may be being used. There should be an immediate ban on it use, he said.
On January 31, the Ministry for Food and Agriculture announced that a working party would be set up to report to the government in six weeks. The working party will make recommendations on all forms of parathion, and will look at alternatives to its use, including non-chemical or organic pest control.
The ministry has also asked distributors of ethyl parathion to stop further sales pending the results of the inquiry, and will issue a code of practice for the use of ethyl parathion within the next few days. n