1992 January: Pesticide Sales Halted + Poisoning. Pesticide: Parathion

Pesticide Sales Halted Until Safety Inquiry’s Findings

The Age Friday January 31, 1992

A working party set up to inquire into the insecticide parathion will report to the Government in six weeks.

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.

Distributors of ethyl parathion have been asked to stop further sales pending the results of the investigation. A code of practice for the use of ethyl parathion will be introduced within days.

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.

The Victorian working party will make recommendations on the future use of all forms of parathion. It will also look at alternatives to its use, including non-chemical or organic pest control.

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.

Mr Baker said the parathion issue was vexatious, but there were no simple solutions. He was hopeful that the working party would produce “some balanced answers”.

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.

Mr Baker said that without effective pest control, 75 per cent of the Goulburn Valley fruit crop could be destroyed by codling moth.