Three-eyed fish might have been funny in The Simpsons, but when two-headed bass were born in their millions in Noosa in 2008, the laugh began to sour. Spray drift from the pesticide Endosulfan was thought to be responsible for the deformed fish.
In October 2010, the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) announced a two-year phase out of Endosulfan. They were a bit late: by that stage it had been banned in over 60 countries and had been linked to birth and developmental deformities in humans as well as animals. Let’s have a look at what pesticides are being used in Australia, and what we can do to avoid the fallout.
What are pesticides
Pesticides are chemicals that are used to kill, repel or prevent pests from eating food crops. The chemicals poison pests, or are biological (which includes genetic modification), or are antibacterial or disinfecting. Pesticides can also be herbicides that kill weeds and other unwanted plants.
What pesticides are used in Australia
Glyphosate is the most widely used herbicide in Australia. Those of you who have read about genetic modification won’t be too surprised to find that glyphosate is the main ingredient in Roundup, which is produced by Monsanto (Monsanto is the world’s biggest producer of genetically modified seed including the Roundup Ready Soybean).
According to government figures, Australia uses 15,000 tonnes of glyphosate each year. The problem with glyphosate is that by itself it’s toxic, but when combined with other ingredients to make herbicides like Roundup, the effects can be fatal. A 2002 study by Swedish oncologists found a link between glyphosate-based herbicides and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Other studies have found links to late-term miscarriages and bone marrow cancer (called myeloma).
Atrazine and Simazine are Australia’s next most used herbicides, and are mainly used to kill weeds. About 3,000 tonnes each of these herbicides are used in Australia every year. The University of Berkeley in California released a study in 2010 that showed the devastating effects of Atrazine. In the study, a whole three quarters of the frogs exposed to the herbicide lost so much testosterone that they became sterile, while one in ten turned into females. With Simazine, the results weren’t much better. A 2010 study of the effects of Simazine on rats found that it delayed puberty.
Atrazine was banned in the EU in 2004 because it contaminated drinking water and because of its links to reproductive disease, including prostate cancer. Simazine has also been banned in the EU since 2004, apart from the UK where farmers can apply to use it if they can prove they can’t grow certain crops (like beans, asparagus, sweet corn and rhubarb).
What are the main concerns
There are many concerns with pesticides, especially the links with disease. But there are many other concerns as well.
Most pesticides leave some residues on food. The Australian Government Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry together with the APVMA have a set limit for the maximum residue limits (MRLs) allowed on our food. You’ll find that if you look at the standards for Australia, compared with the EU, who are much stricter with banning dangerous pesticides, you’ll find that Australia sometimes has as much as 250 times the maximum residue limits that’s allowed in the EU. As we’ve seen in the links between pesticides and diseases like non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, this is a serious health issue.
The Noosa Two-Headed Bass Mystery
In July 2008, over two million bass embryos hatched with deformities on Gwen Gilson’s fish hatchery in Noosa. Nearly all of the embryos had two heads and two hearts. When they hatched, they lived for forty-eight hours then died. Gwen’s hatchery is next door to a macadamia nut farm, where the pesticide Endosulfan is used. When the story hit the news, the Queensland government began a yearlong study. The report was hampered by aggressive litigation by the macadamia nut industry as well as deep divisions within the investigating panel. When it was finally released in July 2011, no real conclusions were published. The only thing the panel did agree on in the report was that more study needed to be done. In the meantime, Gwen and her animals became sicker. On 60 Minutes, she told journalist Liz Hayes that she’d buried three of her horses, and that her dog, ducks and chicken all had problems with their blood, and she herself had liver problems. In October 2011, Gwen and her dog were getting sick again when spraying season began next door, and she was thinking of leaving her hatchery.
Some pesticides are actually more toxic when they breakdown. If you take the example of Diazinon, which is used in sheep dips and some dog flea shampoos, the pesticide becomes acutely toxic when it comes into contact with water. Considering both of its main uses, and the likelihood of it entering our waterways, this is extremely dangerous. Despite drafting reports on its extreme toxicity since 2000, the APVMA still haven’t banned it.
If we think about how some pesticides are more toxic when they’re mixed with other chemicals, it becomes scary to think about what these chemicals are doing when they’re mixed together in our bodies. Think about how we eat pesticide residues in our food (maximum levels or not) and they combine with the residues of other pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers we ingest through our water and air. We are burdening our bodies with a toxic load that it can’t bear. Think about the growing instances of cancers, autoimmune disorders such as coeliac disease and lupus, and allergies—especially in children. What can we do to lesson the toxic load on our increasingly compromised immune systems and ourselves?
How to avoid these pesticides
The way to avoid, as much as possible, the effects of pesticides is to take a multi-pronged attack. First, eat organic food when possible, or shop at farmer’s markets and ask the producer what they use on their crops. Second, filter your water. Third, take omega-3s.
The other important approach is to have a look at anti-inflammation diets. Chronic inflammation works on the principle that our bodies have become overloaded with toxins. This causes our bodies to fight off imaginary invaders and, in the battle, good cells are killed off or damaged. Chronic inflammation is thought to be the base cause of cancers, Alzheimer’s, lupus, asthma, obesity, arthritis and many more conditions. Ridding our bodies of as much toxins as we can by limiting the foods that aggravate chronic inflammation, we free up more space in our bodies to deal with the toxins in our daily lives.
For more information:
- Andre Leu, the Chair of the Organic Federation of Australia has written a comprehensive article called, ‘The Myths of Safe Pesticides’. Go to: www.biodynamics.net.au
- The Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants is an international environmental treaty that aims to limit or ban toxic pesticides. Go to: www.pops.int
- The Australian Government Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities have figures for the total annual amount of pesticide use each year. Go to: www.environment.gov.au
- For a list of all the pesticides banned in the EU, go to: http://www.pan-europe.info/sites/pan-europe.info/files/field/attachment/page/pan-europe-bannedintheeu.pdf
- Many pesticides used in Australia have been longed banned in other countries based on research which has confirmed their risk to health. For such an example, read this ABC article on a pesticide banned worldwide but still used to grow 70% of Australian strawberries: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-03-29/toxic-pesticide-used-on-australian-strawberries/6354488