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Pesticide Spray Drift Forum in Canberra
August 26, 2006
The following is a report by Peter Evans on the Pesticide Spray Drift Forum held in Canberra on August 16, 2006.
Pesticide Spray Drift Forum Report
Recently I represented the SA Task Force on MCS at a public forum on pesticide spray drift, which was hosted by the national pesticide regulators, the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA). The APVMA is attempting to reduce the public health and environmental risks associated with pesticide spray drift and the forum was an opportunity for industry and the community to make comment on the final draft of the new pesticide spray drift policy.
International research over the last several decades has consistently identified exposure to pesticide spray drift as a major risk associated with the onset of multiple chemical sensitivity and chronic fatigue syndrome. An excellent article, “Crop Spraying: Could pesticide exposure have caused your M.E?”, by pesticide reform campaigner and ME/CFS sufferer, Georgina Downs, was published in the June 2006 edition of InterAction, the journal of the UK-based group Action for CFS. There are also references to reported links between pesticide exposure and MCS/CFS in a 2005 report by the UK Commission on Environmental Pollution, “Crop Spraying and the Health of Residents and Bystanders”, which you can read here.
Pesticide spray drift can cause severe, sometimes life threatening, sensitivity reactions together with major disability access barriers to public spaces and even private homes for people with MCS. It is not uncommon to hear stories of people with MCS, who often have very complex medical and support needs, being forced out of their homes and left with nowhere safe to go through their neighbour’s use of pesticide. Consequently, national policy on pesticide spray drift is of crucial interest to people with MCS.
Given the enormous troubles people with CFS/MCS experience with pesticides, you might imagine my frustration and anger when my request to the APVMA for MCS disability access accommodation at the forum was initially refused. I was told that the venue was accessible to people in wheelchairs and the hearing impaired but nothing could be done to help people with MCS access the forum, such as asking forum participants to avoid strong personal fragrances, for fragrance dispensers to be removed from the disabled toilets, or for the local Council to be asked not to spray herbicide near the venue prior to or during the event.
The APVMA does not formally recognise the existence of MCS so this discriminatory attitude was to be expected. However, persistent lobbying from me and another MCS activist, with some very realistic threats of public protest action against the event, and angry letters of complaint to the APVMA executive and parliamentary minister eventually convinced the forum organisers that they needed to take MCS disability access seriously.
This difficult situation reflects the general unwillingness of pesticide regulators to address MCS. If APVMA truly wants to engage in a public conversation about MCS and its links to pesticide then it must be willing to make MCS accommodation at this kind. Otherwise APVMA appears to be censoring discussion on MCS. Encouragingly, I was assured that MCS disability accommodation would be made available at similar APVMA events in future.
This was the first time that the subject of MCS had been raised seriously as an important public health issue at an APVMA forum of this kind. And APVMA’s executives demonstrated a real interest in the subject while attempting to give pragmatic responses to questions on how the needs of people with MCS might relate to agricultural spray drift policy issues like no spray zones around schools, hospitals, child care centres, and residential areas, prior notification of spray activity to neighbours, and improved pesticide label instructions and warnings. Some of the forum was devoted to technical matters on wind speed models and how droplet size in pesticide sprays could be maximised to reduce drift problems while still maximising spray efficiency.
One major omission in the policy, however, was the total lack of reference to residential pesticide use, such as household fumigations for termite or spider infestations, or neighbour’s use of herbicide by gardening contractors.
APVMA was entirely unwilling to give any formal commitment to protecting the health and disability access needs of people with MCS and continually referred to the current Office of Chemical Safety review of MCS as the basis for any future APVMA policy on MCS. The OCS review has been ongoing for several years now and hopefully will be completed soon. But the review has already been criticised for its lack of community consultation with MCS support groups.
One extremely disappointing aspect of the forum was the attitude of some industry representatives, who were clearly scornful of the notion of MCS and at one point even tried to make jokes about the disability access problems facing people with MCS. As a counter balance to this sad attitude, there were other very encouraging reports of a more responsible approach to the commercial use of pesticide. For example, the Cotton Growers Association in NSW has a long standing policy of prior notification and neighbour negotiation with the use of pesticide in cotton growing areas, as does the South Australian Forestry Department, which goes to great lengths to inform and support neighbours adjoining state forests, who may be affected by aerial pesticide spraying in their area. NSW already has pesticide legislation requiring prior notification to neighbours of commercial pesticide applications and such mandatory strategies to protect neighbours could be adopted by the APVMA if they chose to do so.
Overall I was impressed by the intelligence of the APVMA’s executive team but still disappointed by their insistence on relying on failed animal models of dose related toxicology as the main basis for national pesticide policy. In other words the APVMA still insists that no-one should be significantly harmed by pesticide exposure if the dose is assessed as low enough not to be toxic for the general population. This position is in direct contradiction to the experience of people with MCS. And until it changes the new spray drift policy will not be sufficient to protect people with MCS. Consequently, the APVMA continues to engage in systematic human rights violations and urgently needs to address this problem by broadening its information base to include epidemiological and clinical data that more realistically reflect the MCS public health experience.
As an additional bonus to the day-time forum I was invited to attend an evening dinner with members of the APVMA’s Community Consultative Committee. Here I gave short presentation on MCS and the public health and disability access reforms being made here in SA, including the recommendations of the Parliamentary Inquiry into MCS. It was reassuring that CCC members are seriously interested in MCS and are keen to have the issue included on the APVMA’s public health agenda, despite what some people believe to be lack of “hard data” on the subject.
In conclusion, my trip to Canberra was a very productive introduction to the national arena. More work on a national basis is vital if we are to achieve one of the main aims of the SA Task Force on MCS, which is to develop a nationally coordinated MCS prevention, health care and disability access strategy. Adequately reforming pesticide regulation is a key feature of this strategy.
The APVMA’s draft pesticide spray drift risk policy can be accessed on their website at www.apvma.gov.au. Comments on the draft are invited until 6 October 2006, either by post to: APVMA Spray Drift Proposal Comments, David Loschke, Pesticides Division, PO Box E240, Kingston, ACT, 2604, or by e-mail to: firstname.lastname@example.org.