Monday, 23 August 2021
[by video link] Two weeks ago I spoke here about the disturbing history of chemical regulation in this country and why we need to pay close attention to what is going on. For too long this has been a subject many of us have ignored. It's dry and technical, not something that naturally holds our interest. But chemical regulation is also vitally important—important for the health of our loved ones and for the quality of our natural environment. When we don't pay close attention, special interests take advantage and tweak the rules in their favour—tweaks that enable them to profit, at a cost to everybody else.
Just last week the US Environmental Protection Agency made an important decision that throws this issue into stark relief. They chose to ban the use of chlorpyrifos in the United States. This chemical was patented by Dow Chemical in the 1960s and has been used around the world, including Australia, as a pesticide. It is highly toxic and damages the nervous system of insects such as beetles, fruit flies and locusts and worms. This has made it particularly useful as an agricultural pesticide. The Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority allows its use in Australia, and the Australian New Zealand Food Standards Code implicitly accepts its use as a pesticide by allowing food to be sold even with chlorpyrifos residue. While it is particularly useful in agriculture, it also has residential uses as a way of controlling cockroaches, fleas and termites.
But the problem with chlorpyrifos is the same thing that makes it useful: it is unbelievably toxic. It doesn't just interfere with the nervous system of pests and other insects; it does the same thing with humans and especially children. Chlorpyrifos exposure is associated with lower birth weights, slower motor development and attention problems. The risks and the harms are now well established, built on an evidence base that has accumulated over many decades. The science is clear: chlorpyrifos is harmful, and it is very, very dangerous. But chlorpyrifos is not just harmful on its own. It interacts with the other chemicals in our environments and our bodies and, importantly, it is not just toxic in isolation; chlorpyrifos can interact with other chemicals and become even more toxic and even more harmful.
Concerns over the safety of chlorpyrifos have been raised by scientists and medical experts for decades. Initially, those concerns were linked to the accidental poisoning of children and side effects suffered by those applying the chemical. But, over time, it has become clear that chlorpyrifos is a developmental neurotoxin, a chemical that affects the development of a baby's brain. That is why the US EPA chose to ban the residential use of chlorpyrifos back in 2000. It is also why the Australian regulator banned the chemical from household use.
But, in regard to banning household use, it took Australia an unbelievable 19 years longer than the US to do so, almost two decades after the scientific evidence of harm became overwhelming and forced overseas regulators to act—two decades in which the evidence continued to pile up; two decades in which the regulator failed to act; two decades in which a number of ministers and a number of governments failed to act; and two decades in which Australians continued to be exposed to this dangerous chemical. How many children were born in those two decades? How many were exposed to chlorpyrifos and now suffer from learning and developmental disabilities? How much pain and suffering could have been avoid if our government acted to protect our health and wellbeing sooner? We will never know.
Last week's EPA decision was welcomed by many who have seen firsthand the devastating effects of chlorpyrifos. The US EPA has done the right thing, which is more than we can say for Australia's regulators. It should be noted that this outcome was in spite of considerable political and corporate pressure. Fifteen years ago, the weight of scientific evidence showed that chlorpyrifos was harmful at much lower concentrations than expected. Those expectations had been set by data produced by Dow Chemical, which held the chlorpyrifos patent back in the 1960s. Regulators around the world, including Australia, relied on this data to determine how the chemical could be used and they continue to do so. By the mid-2000s, the science was telling us this data was wrong. The US EPA was aware of the new evidence at that time, but they refused to act. The decision was ultimately one for their administrator who is, in the US, a political appointee.
The Obama administration only began the process of phasing out chlorpyrifos in 2015, in the last months of that presidency. The process was, not surprisingly, abandoned under the Trump administration, and the Biden administration has done very little. It took a court to force the US Environmental Protection Agency to make a science based decision. Their ruling was scathing about the EPA's conduct, stating, 'The EPA's delay exposed a generation of American children to unsafe levels of chlorpyrifos.'
This ruling ultimately led to the chemical being banned in the US, but it's interesting that the political leaders, both in the US and here in Australia, are often so reluctant to take action that protects public health. There can be no doubt that delays and inaction benefit industry players. Fourteen years of delay in the US, and who knows how many in Australia, must be worth a lot of money to Dow and its industry colleagues. Clearly, it's worth more to them than the health and wellbeing of Australians.
The question we must ask is: When will Australia follow the lead of the American and European regulators and finally ban this dangerous and harmful chemical? If the regulators won't take action, will the minister step in and force them to take action? I'm certain the minister would point to the reviews, the consultations and the engagements that have been undertaken and claim that the appropriate processes are being followed, but the fact is that farmers can still use chlorpyrifos. The regulator has 37 permitted uses listed on its website and more than 90 different products which use the chemical. It is legal for them to use these products on our food, food that can be consumed by pregnant mothers and will affect their children. It is well and truly time for that to change.
It is also time for us to change how we approach chemical regulation in Australia. How many other chemicals like chlorpyrifos are out there—chemicals known to be harmful but legal for use on farms and in homes, chemicals that would be banned if regulators followed the science and were free from corporate and political interference? How many chemicals that are just not safe are out there?
As I've said in previous weeks, we must adopt a precautionary principle in chemical regulation and assume a product is unsafe until it can be proven otherwise, and we need to do this immediately—immediately—for our own health, for our children's health and for our environment's health.
Senate adjourned at 19:38