Somewhere deep inside the Australian Pesticides and
Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA), a little known statutory authority in
Canberra, someone has supposedly been studying the dangers of
azinphos-methyl (AZM) since the early 1990s.

The pesticide was on a list of organophosphates (OPs)
which APVMA’s predecessor, the National Registration Authority, said in 1999
it was investigating. The regulator was reacting to a report released in
the United Kingdom on the “effects of organophosphate pesticide in
sheep farmers and dippers”.

The British had identified eight dangerous OPs of which
three were already banned in Australia, one was not used on sheep
and the use of the fifth on livestock stopped in 1997. The remaining three were
under review. The authority proudly stated in its press release that
in many respects, Australia leads the world in reviewing the use of
OP pesticides as the NRA has been aware of health and safety concerns relating
to the use of OP pesticides for a number of years.

“Australia is unique”, said then Deputy Chief
Executive Officer, Greg Hooper, “and it is often all too easy to translate
what happens elsewhere in the world into our own environment. However, when you
are dealing with issues of health and safety, we must be not only proactive but
also vigilant.”

Not too proactive or vigilant mind you. Background
information in that press release said the chemical zinphos-methyl was
“currently being reviewed by the NRA” under its “dynamic” and “world’s best
practice” processes using “very conservative health standards to protect public
health and occupational health and safety”.

Last Friday in the US, the
Environmental Protection Agency announced the phasing out of zinphos-methyl as a
pesticide because “AZM raises a concern for agricultural workers, water quality
and aquatic ecosystems”.

Back in Australia the APVMA website, which
contains valuable information on all things pesticide, did not mention the
outcome of the 1990s review or list it as still being under review. The press
officer politely offered to enquire about the status. Yesterday he told me he did not know why it was not
listed with the other items being reviewed but the review was certainly taking
place. The authority was looking at occupational health and safety, toxicology,
residues and environmental impacts. And no, he did not know how long the
pro-active and vigilant review using dynamic world’s best practice would

In the US the banning of AZM took not just
time but legal action on behalf of farm workers. In 2001, the EPA had found that
AZM poses unacceptable risks to workers, but it allowed the pesticide to
continue to be used for four more years because less toxic alternatives might
cost a bit more to use. That decision was challenged in the
Seattle federal court because the EPA failed to account for the
costs of poisoning workers, exposing children, and polluting rivers and
streams. In settling the lawsuit, the EPA committed to reconsider whether to
ban AZM, which led to Friday’s decision to phase out AZM use over four years.

The draft decision of the EPA – it is open for public
comment for two months – would phase out all uses of AZM by 2010 with some uses
phased out by 2007. The decision would eliminate aerial spraying, require 100
foot buffers around water bodies, reduce application rates, require buffers
around buildings and occupied dwellings, and require medical monitoring of
workers entering fields sprayed by AZM.

Patti Goldman, an attorney for Earthjustice which acted
for the farm workers, described it as “outrageous that EPA allowed continued use
of this pesticide knowing that it would expose farm workers to unacceptable
risks of pesticide poisoning.” The Earthjustice
describes the insecticide as “a highly toxic organophosphate
neurotoxins” and says “organophosphate pesticides, derived from nerve agents
used during World War II, attack the human nervous system. Exposure can cause
dizziness, vomiting, seizures, paralysis, loss of mental function, and death.
Farmworker families and communities are exposed to organophosphates through
“take-home” exposures on clothing, cars, and skin.”

Goodness knows what Earthjustice would think of our
APVMA which is still allowing the extensive use of AZM in vineyards and orchards
throughout Australia. True, there are warning labels about its use
on containers but they are a long way short of the restrictions to be imposed in
the USA until its eventual removal from the market.

PS Yesterday afternoon azinphos-methyl appeared on the website
list of items under review.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey