MARCH 14th 2006 – FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
With one week to go before the People’s Inquiry into the aerial spraying of pesticides gets underway in Waitakere City, the Steering Committee confirmed that five overseas guests would be attending the six day hearings.
Hana Blackmore has collected hundreds of files since the spraying started. Picture / Glenn Jeffrey
The Convenor, Hana Blackmore, said today that the attendance of delegations from India and the Philippines as part of a community exchange programme initiative of Pesticide Action Network Asia & the Pacific (PANAP) was a great honour.
“They will be here to support the people of Waitakere, Auckland and North Shore Cities during the hearings. Their presence will provide a unique opportunity to witness and share each others stories, as they have also experienced the unfortunate effects of misguided aerial spraying”.
Dr Meriel Watts, Co-Convenor of PANAP’s Pesticide Taskforce and Co-ordinator of PAN Aotearoa New Zealand, said that the Inquiry Steering Committee was arranging a special lunchtime session on Friday 24th March, in the Council Chamber, for the people from India and the Philippines to share their experiences.
Painted Apple Moth (male), target of chemical attack
“They will be able to share with us their experiences of the effects of aerial spraying of pesticides over their villages, and also the steps taken by their communities to deal with the situation”.
Dr Watts said the Indian delegation will reveal what has happened to their health, their children and their animals as a result of many years of aerial spraying of the insecticide endosulfan on nearby cashew nut plantations. In the Philippines, ongoing aerial spraying of a number of pesticides on banana plantations has resulted in environmental devastation and chronic health effects.
The Convenor, Hana Blackmore, said she hoped that as many people as possible would attend the special session. Members of the public are welcome.
The aerial spraying of pesticides – an international perspective.
Friday 24th March – 1.00 – 2.00pm
Council Chambers, Waitakere City Council Civic Centre, 6 Waipareira Ave, Lincoln.
Media and members of the public welcome.
West Aucklanders finally have their say about spraying
By Catherine Masters
It’s harmless, MAF said. Don’t worry about it, said the Government. The more they said it, the more people in West Auckland did worry.
The spray which rained down from the low-flying aircraft covering them and their homes stank of cat pee and left a residue on their cars and windows.
Some people began to notice bloody noses, headaches and nausea. Others reported worse complaints: burning rashes, uncontrollable asthma, bad diarrhoea.
As the spraying stretched on for more than two years, some wondered if this mix of secret chemicals brewed to wipe out a little Australian moth with a big appetite for New Zealand trees could be linked with stillbirths in the area, or miscarriages, or cleft palates, or whether they might be a factor in motor neurone disease cases.
MAF and the Government were consistent. The spray was safe, they repeated. But the people were offended and angry at the inference that their health problems were all in their heads.
Now, just as MAF is surely hoping the pesky painted apple moth has been sprayed into oblivion, and with it the controversy and anger, the people are rising up.
Requests for select committee hearings and a public inquiry fell on deaf ears but next month the council chambers at Waitakere City will be thrown open to a commission of inquiry organised by the people, not bureaucrats.
“The people” in the People’s Inquiry come from West Auckland, East Auckland and Hamilton, say the inquiry organisers, the PAM [Painted Apple Moth] Community Network, which comprises various lobby and support groups.
The network says the inquiry will tell the stories of hundreds of people as it looks at the impact of the painted apple moth spray campaign in West Auckland, the earlier white painted tussock moth spray campaign in east Auckland in 1996 and 1997 and the 2003 campaign in Hamilton to eradicate the Asian gypsy moth.
The spray – Foray 48B – contained a bacteria known as Btk and was used in all the campaigns.
Five commissioners at the inquiry who are experts in their fields will hear the evidence.
Some are New Zealanders but two are coming from overseas. One of them, Dr Romy Quijano from the University of the Philippines, is a pesticide activist who was sued in the Philippines for exposing a village whose people and land he said were dying because of the aerial spraying of a nearby banana plantation.
Waitakere City Council is providing its council chambers free.
Councillor Penny Hulse sees the inquiry as a bit like the truth and reconciliation commission in South Africa, where the people were able to stand up and express their pain and anger. Hulse is behind people in West Auckland getting their own chance to explain what the spray campaign meant to them because there “absolutely” were health impacts.
Talk to MAF on the telephone about this People’s Inquiry and you can hear the gritted teeth. MAF has not been invited. Eradication programmes manager Ian Gear does not believe its attendance would add any value to the process.
He says MAF heeded expert advice throughout the campaigns, commissioned studies and knows a lot now about Btk-based sprays and their health impacts.
Health assessments indicated a small number of people with pre-existing conditions might be affected and overseas research has shown there might be mild, short-term problems, such as skin and eye irritations.
“All subsequent studies of reported health impacts tell us the same thing – that the effects of the spray in Auckland were as expected.”
Gear said there was much public support for the eradication programmes, citing a survey where 79 per cent of people agreed with MAF’s biosecurity actions in general.
MAF also pointed the Weekend Herald to a report by Auckland University psychologists in the journal of the American Psychosomatic Society. Based on a survey of West Auckland residents, it found that worries about aspects of modern life affecting health could strongly influence the attribution of symptoms and beliefs about health effects after environmental incidents.
In other words, MAF is hinting again that health concerns may be in people’s heads.
Organiser Hana Blackmore says the network is not saying everyone in West Auckland suffered but it is warning against trying to invalidate, yet again, the many who did suffer and still are.
People who say they were sick from the spray have a lingering bitterness that can quickly escalate to anger. It was just last year that the spraying finally stopped.
Ordinary folk turned into unlikely activists. They set up lobby groups, went on protest marches for the first time, wrote reports and gathered stories of stress, illness and desperation.
Asthmatic Sally Lewis began a support group called Gasp, which ended up with 260 members.
Lewis knows when she says things such as “the spray ruined my life” that some people will sigh and think “get over it”, or write her off as a hypochondriac. But she says the spray campaign destroyed her relationship and ruined her health. She has moved out of her Kelston home because of her health.
During the spraying, MAF would put her up in motels or she would sleep in a tent at a caravan park to try to avoid it. But when she went home it was still there.
A mild asthmatic before the spray, Lewis says since the campaign finished she has been diagnosed with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease – “my lungs have been burned out by the chemical spray”.
All in her mind? What rubbish, says the 59-year-old whose house was sprayed more than 50 times. She remembers the first time the spray was dropped. She thought she was going to die.
Like others, she was curious and had gone out on to the porch to watch. “Within 20 minutes I was just about keeled over. I had this horrific rash on every part of my body that was exposed.”
When she called the health consultants Aer’aqua, the medical service appointed by MAF, she was told to have a shower and wash it off. But you can’t wash off chemical burns, says Lewis.
Sue-Ella Gray says she, too, became ill after the first spraying. After about three months, MAF moved her out during sprayings but the spray was inside the house and when she went home she became ill.
She was eventually moved by MAF to Whangaparaoa. She, too, will not return to West Auckland.
Gray was diagnosed before the spraying with multi-chemical sensitivity and says the health services and MAF knew this. “Because I have multichemical sensitivity when I am subjected to chemicals I get what they call fully blown ME. It affects the digestive system, the respiratory system, the muscular-skeletal system, the whole nervous system.
“I become very sick, [with] chronic fatigue and chronic pain.”
She has a lot of information she plans to expose at the inquiry but the most important aspect she hopes will come out is that the law surrounding the use of chemicals in public areas needs to be readdressed urgently.
Human rights were over-ridden when poisons were dropped on people, she says. “I have been through a lot and I’m trying to get my life together now. You know, for 3 1/2, four years, every day was just like a living nightmare.
“I would like to see Aer’aqua and MAF held accountable for their horrific behaviour and attitude towards me.”
Others not badly affected physically are also angry. Alan Samuels, 54, of Glendene, cannot fathom how a Government can spray citizens against their will.
He can talk about what happened but he, like others, says some in West Auckland are so burned out and emotionally upset that they cannot.
Samuels was initially not concerned when a small area in Glendene was sprayed. When he read in a newspaper that all of West Auckland was to be sprayed he thought, “Hang on, that means I’m going to get sprayed”. He saw red. He is not sure how many times he was sprayed, but it was “way too many times”.
Even when it was not overhead, the spray would drift, and there was always that nasty cat-pee smell.
He became so desperate he emailed Erin Brockovich, the American woman made famous in the Julia Roberts’ movie of the same name for her discovery of a link between pollution of water supplies by a gas company and sickness in residents.
She said she could not help. What does Samuels want from the People’s Inquiry? He wants this Government and subsequent governments to “wake up to the fact that you just can’t spray people with chemicals”.
Over in East Auckland, Hana Blackmore’s house is in a perpetual state of renovation. The new kitchen and carpets have come second to moths for years, she says.
Blackmore is a driving force behind the People’s Inquiry, a tireless bustle of 61-year-old, English-accented energy who sits on her couch, puts her feet up and talks solidly for three hours.
“I can’t drop it. I can’t drop it because of all the people who still ring me, all the people who can’t get over it. In fact, all the people who won’t even be there at the inquiry because they’re so emotionally damaged by it that they can’t bear to bring it all up again.”
Earlier, she waved at a bookcase of files. There are 2.5 sq m of files on the three spray campaigns against the three different moths which have been deemed a threat to New Zealand’s environment and economy.
Blackmore’s house in Kohimarama was in the hot zone for the white spotted tussock moth, which was sprayed in 1996 and 1997. When it was declared wiped out, along came the painted apple moth and the telephone started ringing again.
Both campaigns were similar. There were delays in getting started, then people were told the spray was safe, then the accounts of illness started and were not believed or taken seriously. It was the same for the Hamilton Asian Gypsy Moth campaign, she says.
One of the nasty aspects was the emotional blackmail. “The Government turned against the people along the lines of ‘how dare you put the economics and future of the country at risk’.”
When Kohimarama was sprayed it was scary to be in your home, she says. The plane would roar down and the spray would splatter the windows. Blackmore developed a corneal ulcer after being splashed in the eye.
“I can’t prove it was the spray that caused the corneal ulcer. Now, I’ve learned that even if I produced the contact lens and it came up Btk on the lens, they’d still say there’s no proof that it’s not the spray that caused it.”
Blackmore really got involved when her daughter, Hassanah, became ill. The then 26-year-old had a bad headache, passed out at work and was semi-paralysed.
Eventually, she was referred to hospital where she had every kind of test, including a lumbar puncture.
Everything was negative and there was no proof it was the spray. What clinched it for Blackmore was a conversation with a friend who lived in Glendowie, outside the spray zone.
Her friend’s daughter had the same symptoms as Hassanah and was sent for the same tests. It also turned out that even though they lived outside the spray zone the girl had been sprayed repeatedly at the bus stop on her way to school.
Blackmore speaks of rumours in West Auckland of a cluster of motor neurone disease cases. The Motor Neurone Disease Association, however, says there is not.
“It’s pretty straight forward,” says national executive officer Sue Leader. “There’s no statistical cluster in Auckland for cases.”
She says the spray has no known link to the disease. But there is no known cause for motor neurone disease anyway and no definite link to anything triggering it.
They cannot rule it out – but “we can’t rule out anything in the entire world. It could be water, or television-watching or reading the newspaper. That’s as strong as I can be. The really hard bit is that people are looking for answers because it’s such a devastating disease and at the moment we don’t have any”.
Blackmore still wonders whether they have ever looked for a link with the spray. “The answer is no. They have never sprayed a community anywhere in the world [with Foray 48B] in the same way they have with this one.”
It is all so difficult to prove. Another controversial study last year, carried out by the Wellington School of Medicine for the Ministry of Health, raised concerns about fine bioaerosol particles in the spray which could be inhaled deep into the lungs and had the potential to cause health problems.
The report was quickly challenged by the Government as flawed. But West Auckland doctors wish they had a little more information.
Lannes Johnson, medical director for the West Auckland Public Health Organisation Healthwest, says the small amount of work carried out overseas did not satisfy him the spray could be absolutely safe.
“Scientifically, we know there are some strange auto-immune type reactions that people have to certain bugs so we can’t discount anything.”
He draws the line, though, at claims West Aucklanders were used as guinea pigs. “I think the people of West Auckland were exposed to it because the moth was over here.”
The people, though, might disagree.