Hazardous pesticides freely available

Many chemicals available in Australia are no longer registered in Europe.
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  • Updated:17 Jun 2011

01 .CHOICE responds to criticism from CropLife and AUSVEG

CHOICE has been criticised by agricultural industry bodies CropLife and AUSVEG for its support of a campaign for better regulation of agricultural pesticides in Australia.

Both industry groups have issued media releases accusing CHOICE of unscientific conduct in our stance on the need for better pesticide regulation.

The people’s watchdog is proud of its independence and reliance on science as the basis of our work and campaigns. Many of our employees have worked at the CSIRO and other evidence-based organisations.

CHOICE is not opposed to chemical based agriculture. Indeed, we recognise the necessity of these products in primary production so that growing populations can be fed.

CHOICE is arguing for modernisation of our regulatory system to bring Australia up to the same standard as Europe and the United States. This will put the onus on chemical manufacturers to use best-practice scientific standards to prove their products are safe. As a result, CHOICE supports a risk based framework that requires regular reviews of high-risk chemicals, with greater safety data.

CHOICE has not sought to undermine confidence in the safety of fruit and vegetables. A search of our website will show that we encourage higher consumption of these food groups. We will continue to add its voice to the campaign for better regulation of pesticides in Australia.

The people’s watchdog has nothing to apologise for, withdraw or correct. Our scientific stance may be at odds with CropLife and AUSVEG but it is CHOICE’s role to defend the consumer interest, in the same way as it is the role of CropLife and AUSVEG to defend industry interests.

For more information:
Christopher Zinn – Director of Campaigns and Communications - 0425 296 442


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02.Hazardous pesticides

hand spraying aerosol can

In brief

  • Synthetic pyrethroids have long been hailed a safer option to organophosphate pesticides, but several studies show they can adversely affect the health of future generations.
  • The Australian regulator’s permissive, wait-and-see approach to pesticide regulation is out of step with global best practice.

Cockroach baits, termite and ant treatments, household surface sprays, flea shampoos and head lice treatments are just some of the products we regularly use in our battle against household pests – but many contain ingredients that could seriously affect our health and that of our children.

The downside of keeping your home pest-free is that chemical residues can linger in the air and soil, and on floors, carpets and indoor surfaces, where we can breathe them in or absorb them through the skin. Some chemicals can have immediate and acute poisoning effects, while others can accumulate and remain in our bodies for years, adding to our chemical load every time we give the kitchen surface a spray or the ant nest a dusting.

CHOICE found many chemicals no longer registered in the European Union (EU) or soon to be removed – either because they were deemed to pose a risk or insufficient information was provided to permit their use – are widely used in household insecticides in Australia. See below.  

Chemical Class / family Approved for use in EU?Registered for use in Australia?Examples of household products containing chemical as active ingredient
Chlorpyrifos Organophosphate No Yes Cockroach baits, ant killer
Malathion/maldison Organophosphate No Yes Insect killer
Allethrin Synthetic pyrethroid No Yes Mosquito zappers and coils
Bioallethrin Synthetic pyrethroid No Yes Insect surface sprays
Bioresmethrin Synthetic pyrethroid No Yes Insect surface sprays
Permethrin Synthetic pyrethroid No (A) Yes - marked for review Fly/mosquito surface sprays, flea killers, pet shampoos and flea collars
Fenoxycarb Carbamate No Yes Flea and cockroach bombs
Pyriproxyfen Pyridine No Yes Cat flea collar

CHOICE verdict

Even if the scientific evidence is not yet comprehensive, enough information is available to make us question our assumption that there are “safe” exposure levels of toxic chemicals. Rather than managing hazardous chemicals merely by restricting where and how they’re applied, CHOICE believes Australian regulators should broaden their focus and investigate a chemical’s endocrine disruption potential when assessing its toxicity.

We urge the Australian government to apply the precautionary principle to all chemicals and place the burden of proof on manufacturers and importers that a chemical is safe, rather than simply giving them the benefit of the doubt.

03.It must be safe...right?


Simply because a pesticide is available for sale doesn’t automatically mean it’s safe. “Numerous now-banned pesticides were once thought to be safe to use, but have since been implicated in many cases of cancer and other health issues,” says environmentalist and author Tanya Ha in the CHOICE book The Australian Green Consumer Guide.

However, currently registered pesticides still include substances known or suspected to cause cancer, neurological and reproductive problems, whether individually or as combination of compounds. For example, the pesticide endosulfan is banned in more than 50 countries but still permitted for use in Australia on various fruits and vegetables.

The products pictured below all contain chemicals that are no longer registered in the EU, and while we cannot state with certainty the reason why, even the fact there’s insufficient data for that chemical should surely be reason enough to avoid it. Some Australian insecticides contain suspected endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs), a particularly nasty group of compounds, see Endocrine-disrupting chemicals, below. The problem in Australia is that our regulatory authorities regularly fail to adopt the precautionary principle when it comes to approving chemicals for use here.


Endocrine-disrupting chemicals

Endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) disrupt the network of glands and organs in the human body that secrete hormones which regulate growth, metabolism, reproduction and physiological functions. EDCs can mimic or block a hormone, which is of particular concern for unborn babies as their development depends on availablility of certain hormones at certain times.

EDCs have been linked to health problems ranging from acute childhood leukaemia and other cancers to neurobehavioural effects, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), as well as effects on the reproductive and immune systems.

Speaking at the 2007 Consumers International World Congress in Sydney, Dr Michael Hansen, a US ecologist and expert on pesticides, named 57 pesticides of concern as endocrine disruptors, including allethrin, permethrin, bioallethrin, chlorpyrifos and malathion. “New studies show adverse effects at very low levels of exposure,” he said.

Conclusions of studies

  • Various types of insecticide exposure (during pregnancy and early childhood) may be a risk factor for childhood acute leukaemia. Insecticidal shampoo treatment for head lice was also associated with childhood acute leukaemia.
  • Detectable levels of chlorpyrifos were present in about two-thirds of blood samples taken from mothers and newborns at delivery in households where this organophosphate pesticide was used during pregnancy. At age three, highly exposed children scored lower on psychomotor and mental development indices; previous experimental work had shown links between chlorpyrifos exposure and neurocognitive developments in rats.
  • Residential use of pyrethroid pesticides represents the most important risk factor for children’s exposure to pyrethroid insecticides.
  • Ingestion of permethrin in house dust contributes to children’s exposure to this pyrethroid.

04.Europe leads the way


Deregistered there, permitted here

The EU is widely recognised as the world leader in chemical regulation, employing a systematic approach to reappraising chemicals to ensure public health. For this investigation, CHOICE collaborated with Jo Immig, environmental scientist, author and coordinator of the National Toxics Network, who waded through pages of lists of chemicals to find which are no longer registered in the EU. “The EU information is almost impenetrable,” she says, “as if it were deliberately obscured so ordinary people can’t make sense of it easily.”

The European Union has no list as such of deregistered products, only a “non-inclusion” list, buried in annexes and very difficult to find. For the purposes of this investigation, we focused only on chemicals the EU has not approved for use in biocidal products. This includes pest control products such as insecticides.

Combing through this list, it is not easy to find out whether a chemical has been deregistered due to its potential effects on human health or the environment, as the list also includes chemicals for which no complete dossier is available. This is probably to avoid creating a list of banned products.

Europe leads the way

In 2006 the newly created REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and restriction of CHemicals) legislation created a single system for both new and existing chemicals, replacing 40 pieces of legislation that existed within the EU member countries. This system requires chemical manufacturers and importers to submit to the regulator a registration dossier that includes technical and safety data for each substance, new or existing (unless it’s specifically exempted).

“No data, no market” is a key principle of the European legislation, which means if a manufacturer or importer opts not to provide all the required toxicological assessments for a certain substance, it will no longer be included on the list of registered chemicals.

Australia lags behind

Australia’s approach to chemical regulation is very different from Europe’s and involves a multitude of authorities at various levels of government. The Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) is responsible for regulating pesticides. On its website, APVMA assures consumers that new products are subject to “a rigorous scientific assessment” process before they are registered.

Older, registered chemicals undergo a review, but only if new information suggests there’s a risk. And the review process can drag on for years. For example, oganophosphates diazinon, chlorpyrifos and malathion/maldison have been under review for 10 years or more, despite suspicions about their safety.

Permethrin has just made it onto the list of chemicals for review in household chemicals, which could take years. Meanwhile, veterinary products and insect repellents containing permethrin will no longer be permitted in the EU from October this year. Befenthrin and bioresmethrin were reviewed by APVMA and a decision made to continue to allow their use in Australia. Neither are registered in Europe.

Questioned about the slowness of its review process, APVMA told us it had, as an interim measure, “significantly dealt with concerns” that led to the review of chlorpyrifos and malathion/maldison. In 2000, the concentration and package size of chlorpyrifos-containing products was restricted for household use, and the concerns that led to the review of malathion/maldison (toxicity of its breakdown products) had been “substantially addressed” and the number of registered products reduced. Neither review, however, has been finalised and products containing these chemicals, such as cockroach baits and insect killers, are still on the shelves. Why not err on the safe side and ban these chemicals altogether in products for household use?

Experts CHOICE contacted agree our regulatory approach needs to change. “Current regulatory practices give chemical manufacturers the benefit of the doubt,” says Dr Alison Bleaney, a Tasmanian GP and environmental campaigner. “Substances can be removed from the market only if their health impacts can be demonstrated with scientific certainty. This burden of proof needs to be shifted as products should not be on the market until they can be proven to be safe.”

Dr Liz Hanna from the Public Health Association Australia agrees: “When several high quality methodology studies indicate there are health hazards, and chemicals have consequently been withdrawn in other countries, we can’t understand why Australia is so slow in responding.”

05.Classes of chemicals


Classes of chemicals


Organophosphates inhibit an enzyme, cholinesterase, required for normal nerve function in their target pests. They are more toxic than pyrethrins, pyrethroids and carbamates. Organophosphates such as chlorpyrifos and malathion/maldison are used in domestic pest control products in Australia. Chlorpyrifos has been banned in the US for domestic use since 2000, after authorities found unacceptable risks to children’s neurological and behavioural development. In 2007, under its Biocidal Products Directive, the EU decided to remove from the market pest control products containing chlopyrifos.


Pyrethrins and their synthetic derivatives, pyrethroids, also interfere with the nerve function of their target pests. Because of their low toxicity to humans and other mammals, synthetic pyrethroids such as allethrin, bioresmethrin and permethrin have long been hailed as safer alternatives to organophosphate pesticides. However, recent studies have highlighted problems with their long-term safety and endocrine disruptive effects.


Carbamate pesticides also work by inhibiting cholinesterase. Various carbamates are used in domestic pest control. In Australia, fenoxycarb is commonly found in ant killer and roach bombs. However, in the EU, insecticides containing fenoxycarb have not been approved for use in such products since September 2006.

Which is the least hazardous to humans?

PesticidesAt the very top of any label, the signal heading with a hazard warning indicates how poisonous a product is.

  • No signal heading indicates the lowest hazard.
  • CAUTION means it’s a low hazard with some potential for causing harm.
  • POISON is the strongest warning, implying it’s a moderate hazard with a strong potential for causing harm.

The Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) recently added a section to its website designed to assist consumers to choose a product that’s right for them.

06.The most vulnerable


Children the most vulnerable

The most common way people are exposed to pesticides is most likely ingestion from residues on fruit and vegetables – but exposure from household pesticide use is increasingly coming under the spotlight and may well have a greater effect, especially on the most vulnerable in the community: the very young and unborn children.

As environmental scientist Jo Immig points out in Working Together to Clear the Air, indoor air pollution is among the top five environmental risks to public health, and in particular one of the major threats to children’s health.

There are many reasons why young children are most at risk from exposure to hazardous chemicals, not just because they’re closer to the ground or because they tend to put things in their mouths. Children have a lifetime of exposure still in front of them and for some it can start long before birth, as some chemicals that can accumulate in our bodies are passed on to the next generation via the placenta or breast milk.

A baby’s skin and gastrointestinal tract is also more permeable, allowing easier absorption of chemicals in breast milk and water. And in proportion to their body weight, children take in more air, food and water – all potentially contaminated with chemical residues – than adults.

Pesticides are not the only problem

Phthalates are chemicals added to certain plastics to make them more pliable; they’re in a large range of household products ranging from tablecloths, floor tiles and furniture upholstery to rainwear, baby pants and toys. Studies have shown that phthalates can accumulate in the body and, in a pregnant or breastfeeding woman, even very small quantities can adversely affect the gender development of her offspring.

Herbicides are also risky. Glyphosate, the active chemical in Roundup, has been implicated as a potential endocrine disruptor in concentrations 100 times lower than those used in agriculture. However, it’s highly promoted for use in the garden; our quarantine laws even require imported flowers to be dipped in a glyphosate herbicide.