The inquiry, announced yesterday by the Minister for Food and Agriculture, Mr Baker, follows complaints from the Australian Workers Union that uncontrolled use of the chemical in Victoria’s fruit-growing areas was endangering the health of fruit-pickers.
The union drew attention to two poisoning cases last month in the Goulburn Valley in which a grower and his wife were treated in hospital. They had been diluting parathion concentrate to spray fruit, but had not worn protective gloves.
Poisoning can lead to impaired mental function and may affect physical coordination. In the United States, there have been 52 recorded deaths from parathion poisoning over 25 years. In Brisbane recently, a handyman working at a nursery died after accidentally drinking a form of parathion in a Coca-Cola bottle.
Mr Baker said he had decided to move quickly to protect Victoria’s reputation for chemical-free food products. “There is no doubt that our effort to significantly reduce chemical residues … has provided new market opportunities and the chance for premium pricing in overseas markets, particularly Asia,” he said. “If there is any suggestion of either a health risk or a danger … then it’s important to put it away quickly.” According to the Food and Agriculture Department, test results available since 1987 have only shown safe residue levels in fruit.
The working party, to be headed by a toxicologist, will include a representative of fruitgrowers, a representative of the Department of Food and Agriculture, and two representatives of the Victorian Trades Hall Council. It will plan an intensive education program for Goulburn Valley growers for this season and will review, in consultation with the departments of Health and Labor, the reporting procedure of accidents involving agricultural chemicals.
He said parathion was used in fruit-growing areas throughout Australia. It was also used on some citrus crops and in the growing of cotton, but not on a routine basis. It is used to kill codling moth and the oriental fruit moth. In the United States, ethyl parathion is used on alfalfa, barley, canola, corn, cotton, sorghum, soya bean, sunflowers and wheat. It is not used on Victorian grain crops.