1986 – 1995: Householders for Safe Pesticide Use. Pesticides: Hepatchlor.

The focus of the campaign then shifted to Western Australia. A former forest activist, Naomi Segal, set up the group Householders for Safe Pesticide Use in 1986, in response to her perception of a widespread pesticide problem from use of organochlorines to control termites. She put a small classified advertisement in the newspaper telling people that, if they were treating their houses for termites on an annual basis, they might be doing something not permitted by legislation. She immediately received fifty-five responses. There had been a number of serious incidents, including organochlorine-contaminated eggs from a backyard coop that were well over acceptable limits. In the worst example, a potter had his studio sprayed with heptachlor by a man who had been a licensed operator for twenty years. The application was so overdone that pools of heptachlor were left on the floor; people had to be evacuated from the building, and many became ill. The owner reported this to Segal and the case was one of several examined by an ABC ‘Four Corners’ team soon afterwards, along with numerous other incidents, such as deaths at a pheasant farm and a horse farm, and the high levels of organochlorines measured in mothers’ breast milk.

Public opposition persuaded the WA Environmental Protection Authority in 1988 to review the spraying program against Argentine ants. This concluded that the organochlorine sprays were having more environmental impacts that the ants, and the program was cancelled. In the same year, Greenpeace and Householders organised a joint occupation of the WA Health Department to demand better public information on heptachlor and chlordane. The protesters wrote ‘poison’ with hard-boiled eggs, Householders produced women who had discovered high organochlorine levels in their breast milk (one of whom was prepared to feed her baby on camera), some women came with hens, and one had a basket of contaminated eggs that she wanted to present to the Health Department. The department was not amused, but it soon began enforcing and tightening the legislation. It prosecuted a number of pest controllers who were in breach, and placed newspaper advertisements altering people to the health implications of these chemicals.

In 1989 both the state Labor government and the Liberal opposition gave commitments to banning organochlorines. In that year Housing Minister McGinty banned the spraying of heptachlor in existing buildings, and in 1990 he banned them from new buildings in the state housing sector. Such action persuaded Termi-Mesh, a company that manufactured a physical termite barrier, to set up in Western Australia, and many other followed. This made it more difficult for supporters of organochlorines to argue that there was no viable alternative to their usage in termite control. Over the next five years Segal pursued her campaign tirelessly. She co-operated with the Duggin Committee of the National Health and Medical Research Council, which was investigating the use of organochlorines; she was influential in that committees final report, published in 1992, which stated (somewhat ambiguously) that the chemicals should be banned immediately for existing buildings and later for new ones. This led to a further investigation by the federal government’s National Registration Authority; its report judged that the alternatives to organochlorines were viable and that therefore the chemicals should be banned. This was finally achieved in 1995 everywhere except in the Northern Territory.

P214/215. History of the Environment Movement. Drew Hutton Libby Connors