Pesticide Report

Organic NZ Magazine: September/October 2000
Author: Meriel Watts


Four years ago the Soil & Health Association called a national meeting to resolve the spray drift problem. Out of that meeting arose the Chemical Trespass Coalition and the Agricultural Chemical Trespass Bill. Labour MP Jill White sponsored the Bill into the parliamentary ballot system. Then when she left Parliament to become Mayor of Palmerston North, Nanaia Mahuta took it over. Now, after three years in the ballot system the Bill has been drawn and was to be introduced into Parliament sometime in September. But Labour caved in to the nozzleheads. Pressure exerted by ERMA and Steve Vaughan from MfE caused Environment Minister Marion Hobbs to “persuade” Nanaia Mahuta to withdraw the Bill, on the promise of a full review of spray drift (how many does that make in the last ten years?). But the Greens are not influenced by nozzle pressure and the Bill is now back in the ballot system under their sponsorship, carrying Ian Ewen-Street’s name this time. Congratulations to the Greens for their integrity. We wait again on the vagaries of the ballot system.

……and the legal system tries to bury the Newman spray drift case.



One of the main stimuli for the drafting of the Agricultural Chemical Trespass Bill was the horrific incident in Northland in 1995, in which farmer Lawrie Newman, his family and farm were doused with the herbicide 2,4-D by a helicopter missing its target. It was one of the most clear-cut pesticide trespass cases this country has ever seen. It is also one of the most shocking examples of what pesticides can do to innocent people.

Yet the full evidence has never been allowed to be put before a court. The Pesticide Board recommended to MAF that the Crown take a case against the helicopter pilot under the Pesticide Act, Regulation 10. The Crown agreed to, then last year dropped the case. There has been no public explanation of this action, nor explanation to the Pesticides Board. Lawrie mounted his own private case at immense personal cost. In August the High Court decided it wouldn’t hear the case: the damage was not bad enough, and it could not rule on health effects, as that is ACC’s jurisdiction. The judge even went so far as to say, “The defendants have been put to continual time, trouble and expense by the pursuit of untenable claims, relatively minor claims, non compliance and undue prolixity [protraction]. This litigation must end.”

So Lawrie has been denied his day in court and accused by the judge of causing trouble for the spray drifters. But we will tell his story, at least part of his story, and you can judge for yourself who has been caused trouble. The other part of the story, which may be told at a later date, relates to tactics used by the defence and their supporters that have been described by agrichemical consultant Pat Clarke as “making me ashamed to be a citizen of this country”. Pat added, “It is sad that New Zealanders still believe that agrichemicals need to be used in such a fashion, if only they knew the truth.”

As we reported in the last issue of Soil & Health the OSH medical panel found that Lawrie had indeed been made ill by the 2,4-D in this incident, but it would only recognise the acute, transitory effects, not the chronic effects. Thus, with Lawrie’s permission, we reprint here extracts from a recent medical report from a highly experienced and reputable Australian doctor, regarding Lawrie’s on-going health problems as a result of that exposure to 2,4-D.

Mr Newman was very fit and healthy until exposed to 2,4-D butyl ester in 1995. He has never recovered his health since that exposure incident, initially suffering acute symptoms affecting the respiratory tract, skin, neurological function, heart and gastrointestinal tract, lasting some weeks and later developing into chronic and debilitating health problems.

The acute symptoms included:
* burning sensation of mucous membranes (throat, nose, eyes, ears) which blistered and increased in pain over the next few days);
* skin irritation and itchiness starting with eyelids and progressing to a rash on face, neck, and upper chest; there were also some different blotchy lumpy areas that may have been chloracne lesions;
* dizziness and feeling of being about to black-out, lasting for days after the exposure;
* severe headache in left temporal region within an hour of the exposure;
* nausea without vomiting;
* heart palpitations;
* marked and debilitating emotional lability, confusion, memory lapses, associated with panic attacks and sleeplessness, continuing for weeks after the exposure;
* shortness of breath and an inflamed feeling in the chest, mainly on the left, associated with cough.

As some of these acute symptoms abated, they were replaced with chronic symptoms, many of which continue. Lawrie has never returned to his former state of excellent health in the five years since the exposure incident. Since that exposure he has suffered:
* cardiac problems;
* psychological alterations, personality changes, emotional lability;
* pigmentation of the skin associated with severe facial photosensitivity;
* skin irritation and inflammation;
* more generalised sensory hypersensitivity.

On-going neurological and psychological problems include reduced attention and short term memory, difficulty responding to complex or multi-part questions, slow poorly balanced gait, and reduced standing balance. In the doctor’s view Lawrie now has multiple chemical sensitivity, clear signs of parkinsonism with resting tremor, cogwheel rigidity, and reduced arm swing, and mild damage to cerebellar function related to balance problems and intention tremor. (Parkinsonism is a neurological syndrome caused by chemicals, antipsychotic drugs, and some diseases; it is characterised by many of the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease and may progress to the later chronic affliction. Both parkinsonism and Parkinson’s disease are increasingly being linked to exposure to herbicides.)

He now suffers exacerbation of his symptoms after exposure to common petrochemicals and aromatic solvents, volatile organic compounds, and pesticides. His worse reactions appear to be caused by exposure to 2,4-D.

The doctor excluded any possibility of psychotic or neurotic symptoms or of any psychiatric disorder (which is what symptoms of pesticide poisoning are often blamed on) as causes of Lawrie’s symptoms, stating that in his view they were neurotoxic sequelae of his exposure to 2,4-D.

He has been exposed to a known clastogenic chemical (2,4-D), one that causes chromosomal damage leading to an increased risk of benign or malignant tumours in the future.

Lawrie’s prognosis is poor in all areas of his health problems. His multiple chemical sensitivity will persist for some time and may be among his most disabling and isolating problems in the future. Recovery rate of this is approximately three to five per cent per year, meaning that he is likely to be disabled for ten years or more. His neurological deficit is widespread, serious, and disabling. His personality changes, memory problems and other higher function losses will remain a major source of disability. The doctor expects that his parkinsonism will progress to Parkinson’s disease in the future. His cerebellar degeneration, leading to clumsiness, wide gait and balance problems, may progress hand in hand with the parkinsonism.

Lawrie Newman is now sensitive to very small amounts of pesticides and other chemicals. Nobody knows just how small an amount will trigger a worsening of his symptoms. No scientist on this planet can determine that. If Labour insist on legalising spray drift via the HSNO regulations instead of outlawing it under the Agricultural Chemical Trespass Act, they will be condemning Lawrie, possibly to an early death, certainly to a life of even worse hell than that already delivered to him by the 2,4-D. How can a seemingly civilised nation let this sort of thing happen to its citizens?