Hard News by Russell Brown


What to make of the spray

The Ombudsman's report on complaints arising from the aerial spraying campaigns of 2002-2004 isn't quite the wholesale vindication being hailed by spray opponents -- it's much more measured than that -- but it is an important heads-up for government agencies on the importance of being level with the public from day one.

It is not the case that officials used a product they knew to be dangerous. Indeed, they had a peer-reviewed study conducted for the Auckland District Heath Board that found no significant health effects associated with the use of the Foray 48B spray. But the Ombudsman found fault with the way that information was communicated to the public.

25. In relation to health issues, it is recorded that many stakeholders said MAF made a big error early on in the spray programme by giving the impression that the spray had no health effects. This resulted in a big credibility gap for MAF with the public and stakeholders who saw or heard that the spray was indeed causing health problems in the community. Seeing these reactions and hearing MAF’s denials about it made the public think MAF was not disclosing harmful elements of the spray.

While some of these matters were corrected at later stages and well after the public had experienced allergic reactions, “many people had become unnecessarily suspicious about the health risks posed by the spray and did not believe MAF's assertions to the contrary when the information was provided. MAF's apparent denial regarding the health effects of the spray gave protest groups unnecessary credibility with the public because these groups had maintained all along that the spray was not safe."

I can testify that the spray was not entirely benign. Every time the plane went over in Point Chev, I got a sudden headache and a sharp pain in the back of my throat; neither of which lasted more than a few minutes. We were pretty pleased when the flights ceased. But over the same period I was driven mad by hysterical campaign material from some of the spray opponents.

The Ombudsman most firmly bags MAF for not revealing the contents of the spray, for being slow to acknowledge public concern and playing down new research claims (from Dr Meriel Watts) that did not suit its goals, and for making a claim about the absence of long-term health effects that it could not necessarily sustain; suggesting that "the absence of such evidence was due to two factors, namely that the events had just recently occurred, and secondly, that no research into long-term effects had been conducted."

In a way, this is as much a story about psychology as it is about physiology. This extract is interesting:

28. To this may be added some brief extracts from the document "A Study of Presentations of Householder Concerns to the Painted Apple Moth Health Service and Auckland Summer Symptom Survey" (June 2005),10 part of which is set out fully in Appendix 1. Under the heading “Patterns of Presentation to the PAM Health Service” it is said:

"The complexity of concerns voiced by householders contacting the health service, reflected the spectrum of frustration and anxiety of the general population in perceiving harm and loss of control by a change of environment. This was evident in the subsequent enquiries by householders following every major media release and in reaction to information released by a well organised protest lobby....

"The proportion of householders contacting the health service displaying irritability, frustration, anger and anxiety, outweighed those who suffered pre- existing mental illness...

"Whilst the spray programme caused disruption to the daily life of those relocating, whether on their own accord or with the support of the PAM health service, the effects of relocation varied according to situational and individual differences in adapting to such disruption."

An Auckland University study published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine in 2005 found that the strongest indicator for reporting of symptoms and subsequent health effects from the spray campaigns was the level of individuals' pre-existing "modern health worries". That is, the people who worried most about environmental toxins were the people most likely to get sick from the spray:

In recent years, there has been a rise in media interest in aspects of modernity and environmental issues affecting health. This seems likely to encourage a schema that increases sensitivity to symptoms and the attribution of normal physical complaints to environmental causes.

Evidence shows articles in the media concerning health tend to disproportionately highlight aspects of modernity, toxic and environmental issues, in contrast to more mundane lifestyle factors, such as smoking, that are more closely associated with illness.

Media stories that encourage worries about modern and environmental threats to health may result in an overreporting of symptoms in groups that may have no exposure and undermine an individual’s perceptions of his own health … the study suggests that people’s worries about modern life affecting health can strongly influence the reporting of symptoms after environmental incidents. Interestingly, worries about modernity do not only affect perceptions of personal health; they also affect behaviors in response to environmental threats, as well as perceptions of the health of children and even pets.

I'm in no position to know what to make of the case of Sally Lewis, as reported in the Herald today. She does appear to have suffered very serious health effects, which she believes stem from the day she stood out under the spray, breathed it and let it fall on her skin.

The story reports that she was formerly a "keen yachtswoman and hiker", suggesting she was in good physical condition before the spray, but not that she was a 30-year chronic asthma sufferer, or that MAF notified her ahead of spray runs and relocated her and her husband it its own expense. Nonetheless, the symptoms seemed to escalate alarmingly. Lewis also formed an "anti spray health group" called GASP, which issued statements like this in 2002:

I have two main concerns at the moment - the silent ones who have no say. Yes these are the animals that are getting sick from this spray, what do animals, like cats and dogs do when they are feeling ill? Yes you guessed it, they eat GRASS only to get worse as they are poisoning themselves by ingesting the spray particles that are on the grass - so please keep an eye out on your pets as they are part of your family as well.

My second concern - is a press release from the Herald stating that people who cover their vegetable gardens, fruit trees etc with tarpaulins to protect them from the spray will be prosecuted, (effective from 10th December). If this is the case I will be standing at my gate waiting for the hand cuffs to be applied as I wont have any bureaucratic imbecile telling me what I can or can't do in my own PRIVATE BACK YARD. When is this harassment going to STOP as I take umbrage to threats, are they prepared to pay for all our vegetables and fruit for the next three years? As I would not be prepared to eat them after they have been sprayed on. But oh it washes off so they tell us, does it also wash off any thing that has been absorbed, I think not, so please take care of your food supplies.

Sorry to be so morbid at this time of the year but I am really concerned.

The readiness of some of those who became involved in the spray protests to attribute any medical condition, in human or animal, to the spraying is quite staggering. This newsletter from NoSprayZone attributes cancer cases, motor neurone disease, the death of two white rhinos at on the zoo and -- not joking -- Paul Holmes' urinary tract problems to the spray. Conventional public health surveys have not, as you might have guessed, backed up these claims.

Lewis has given somewhat different accounts of her first spray exposure. In today's paper she describes it as a sort of gentle rain accompanying a free air show. On other occasions she has testified to the "disgusting cat pee smell". I'm not sure what to make of that either, but if there's a lesson here, it's that a chronic asthmatic should not have been standing out letting the spray fall on her skin as if it was nothing. And, whatever her subsequent state of mind, a public health campaign that failed to effectively communicate that to her must be counted a serious failure.

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