environment

Forty chemicals on EPA hit list

A priority list of chemicals used in New Zealand that need their safety reviewed was released by the Environmental Protection Agency yesterday.

The 40 chemicalswhich will be reassessed include herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, fire retardants, chemicals used in industrial processes, animal toxins, and a chemical-used to treat timber. Some of the chemicals on the list are banned in other countries.

“The chemicals we have now, I have to say quite frankly, we don’t want to continue to bring in chemicals of the same type,” said Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) chief executive Dr Allan Freeth.

He said the announcement flagged a change in the way chemicals were managed under the constraints of the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act. The priority list was a move away from a reactive system based on goodwill which Freeth said had worked “sort of okay”.

Certain chemicals in use in New Zealand were approved under an old regime with little scrutiny.

The priority list has been created using a screening tool based on risk to people and the country's environment.

Substances dominating public discussion, such as 1080, glyphosate, triclosan and neonicotinoids are not among the 40 chemicals being reassessed as their risk rating fell below the threshold of risk from the evidence-based screening tool the EPA has developed. Firefighting chemicals containing PFOS or PFOA were banned from import in 2006.

A deciding factor in including animal toxins such as brodifacoum, an ingredient in the over-the-counter rat poison, was the availability of the substance for domestic use.

Other factors considered by the screening tool included human health risks such as toxicity, and environmental risks. These included assessing whether the chemical broke down, or stayed in the environment, how it affected groundwater and whether it was an endocrine disruptor.

Reassessments could result in the banning of a chemical or changing the rules around the use of the chemical, for example, revoking the domestic use of it. During the reassessment risks are weighed against benefits. Chemicals may be added to the 'living list' or drop down in priority based on new information coming to hand. 

Industry spokespeople gave a measured response to the announcement.

Horticulture New Zealand chief executive Mike Chapman saw it as business as usual for the EPA and industry. He said growers were used to meeting market demand.

“Often without any real basis in science, or ignoring the science that exists, there is a groundswell against a particular chemical used in the production of food. Growers understand that when that happens, use of that chemical may no longer be viable and they will have to look for alternatives.”

“My weeks are defined by, is this a glyphosate week, a 1080 week, a neonicitinoid week or triclosan week?"

The Foundation for Arable Research’s research manager Richard Chynoweth supported the EPA’s evidence-based approach.

He said diazinon, an organophosphate used to combat grass grub, is already being phased out but said he would be disappointed if the industry lost access to other substances on the list such as alachlor, which the EPA listed as a concern due to its risk to human health and persistence in the environment.

Chynoweth said alachlor was effective and cost-effective for use against grass weeds in many crops.

Paraquat, a highly toxic herbicide sometimes referred to as the widow maker - and already part-way through a reassessment process - was important for red clover and plantain said Chynoweth. Better rules around storage and use could counter the chemical’s danger to human health.

EPA’s Freeth, who has been pushing the creation of a chemical map of New Zealand’s landscape, took the opportunity yesterday to stress the importance of industry taking a proactive approach to public acceptance.

Unless the industry voluntarily provides the EPA with information of the volumes of different chemicals used, there’s little hope the map Freeth hopes to create will provide much insight.

“I have to say your industry is losing social licence for a lot of these chemicals.”

He gave the message to the industry to get on board with voluntary help or risk losing battles.

“My weeks are defined by, is this a glyphosate week, a 1080 week, a noenicitinoid week or triclosan week?

“Unless I have help from the industry, unless we have an approach to social licence I’m going to lose some of those battles. Very effective and safe chemicals that are used within controls are going to be taken off the shelves regardless of the scientific evidence and regardless of the risk profiles.”

Freeth said the agency is pressing ministers for more sway on these matters. 

"We do want greater powers .. and the ability to take substances we regard as dangerous off the shelves"

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