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Thursday, 2 June 1994
Page: 1269


Senator MARGETTS (7.20 p.m.) —By happy coincidence, the topic of my adjournment speech is also in relation to chemicals in terms of organochlorine insecticides. I would like to briefly comment on Western Australia's cessation of organochlorine imports, which is a matter welcomed by the Greens and, indeed, by the many individuals in the community who are concerned about our continuing reliance on chemical use. The Greens are pleased to recognise that Western Australia has joined other states in supporting the National Registration Authority report and the recommendations of the inquiry into the use of organochlorine insecticides for termite control. The result of these recommendations is that the federal government will not import heptachlor or chlordane from September 1994, except for the Northern Territory's needs.

  The Greens also commend the NRA's improved handling of the inquiry into the organochlorine issue during which it gave the community the opportunity to express its views. I am saying this in the awareness that there has been criticism of the NRA's process to date, and I trust that it takes these comments and criticisms on board. This was the first instance of a successful application of a national approach to these issues. There are many other issues facing the NRA, including the review of pesticides—the use of pesticides and the availability of pesticides on the supermarket shelves that should not be there because they are too toxic for the public to handle.

  One example is thimet, which is a pesticide used to kill aphids and is extremely acutely toxic—more toxic than arsenic. It should, under no circumstances, be available to the public to use so freely. I shudder to think about the potential hazards for the 10 per cent of members of our society who are illiterate and are, therefore, unlikely to know about the toxicity of thimet and the need for careful handling of this pesticide.

  We also have a great concern with old chemicals that continue to be used. Some chemicals were registered a long time ago and the information on them is inadequate, yet we continue to use them. Something needs to be done about a chemical like atrazine which may be contaminating our surface or ground water. Perhaps more attention needs to be given to the environmental effects of these chemicals in Australian conditions.

  All in all, though, if the approach to the serious continuing problems we face with pesticide use is met with openness and efficiency, Australian society can look to making reforms in this area. While I look forward to being able to support the work of the NRA in the future, I also have a complaint that needs airing. In answer to a question by my colleague Senator Christabelle Chamarette—that is, question No. 1104—the Minister for Primary Industries and Energy (Senator Collins) explained on behalf of the NRA that in its opinion the National Health and Medical Research Council report on the organochlorine pesticides was being misquoted because of:

. . . ambiguity in parts and some apparent contradiction between the report and public statements by those who are closely associated with it.

The example the NRA cited was a statement by Dr Duggin, Chairman of the NHMRC working party compiling the report, who said that in respect of organochlorine insecticides `there are major human health concerns'. At the same time, the NHMRC states that organochlorine insecticides `appear to be free of serious health effects in humans at current levels of exposure'. Yet these two statements are not contradictory at all.

  It is of concern to me that the NRA apparently does not understand this point. In many cases, animal studies and other non-human data will cause toxicologists to have serious concern about a pesticide's effect in humans, yet there will be no evidence for serious health effects in humans. Toxicologists suggest withdrawing, restricting or not registering a pesticide only rarely on the basis of demonstrated serious health effects in humans, partly because it is either impossible to get such human data or very difficult.

  Human data is difficult to obtain, for example, when a whole population is exposed to a chemical because there is no unexposed population with which to compare the exposed population. Such is the case with the organochlorines. Yet this does not rule out the possibility that serious health effects, for example cancer, are occurring. Toxicologists may be concerned about the probability of these effects occurring, even when they think the risk of cancer and other effects is small, when the whole population is exposed to a chemical. In other words, the risk of serious effects occurring is only small but because the risk is taken by the whole population, the low

level risk becomes a serious concern to public health officials.

  Finally, the two statements together can be seen to represent the precautionary principle to which the state and federal governments and, I hope, the NRA are committed through the intergovernment agreement on the environment and are, therefore, far from contradictory. The inevitable conclusion from all of this is that the NRA board either should have greater access to public health expertise or that in the future it should avoid making pronouncements on matters of health.