The start of the pesticide era began shortly before WWII when both sides had been investing considerable time and money into the development of chemical warfare agents.
The main purpose of these chemicals was to kill humans efficiently and silently. They were designed to have little smell and to be almost unnoticeable in the battlefield, until it was too late.
Many of these chemical compounds also had neurotoxic properties. Those who were not killed initially would then suffer from the neurotoxic symptoms, which fall into 3 categories; motor, behavioural and emotional. Whether by accident or design the outcome was that those who did not die would often experience long-term symptoms that were not only physically problematic, for soldiers exposed, but also a raft of emotional symptoms. These included anxiety, fear, anger, panic attack, and generalised emotional and behavioural changes.
Many veterans of WWII, and future conflicts, report poor ongoing health; both physical and mental , post war. At the time this was referred to as “shell-shocked” but now we call it PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). There have been many who believe this was also due to neurotoxic effects from the nerve gasses and PTSD combined. This seems a reasonable assumption considering the known neurotoxic effects many of the chemical warfare agents had (for example, the organophosphates which were available to both sides).
Post WWII there was a surplus of these chemical warfare agents and the factories and science labs needed to produce them. As usual, industry takes over where war leaves off… and the idea forms that we can keep manufacturing these nerve agents and market them as pesticides. The fact that they were designed to be particularly toxic to mammal species, in particular humans, now seems “irrelevant” as industry packages and sells these specifically for killing insects, rodents and plants.
Strangely the very substances designed to kill people, now repackaged, have limited human health consequences, according to governments around the world. Due to their origins in the military these substances are historically hard to detect in the body, and seem to be purposely engineered to be so, to prevent the enemy from knowing what chemical agents were deployed against them.
New Zealand, being traditionally an agricultural economy, has embraced post-war pesticide use with a passion. The age old farming adage of “she’ll be right” seems to sum it up.
New Zealand farmers loved the new tools that post-war technology provided; being able to spray weeds plants and trees with DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane)-type defoliants became a very useful tool for agriculture and horticulture. With populations on the rise the need to farm and feed the people was growing.
So we embraced DDT without too many questions. Scientists studied the effects on pasture growth and saw no immediate problems. Animals-per-acre was up, with more useable pasture, with less weeds; the animals seemed healthy and happy and all was well.
Unfortunately DDT like other organochlorines has long-term residues which showed to leave dioxins in the soil, and to be very harmful on human health with long term illnesses and reproductive problems common.
DDT was banned, then a raft of other organochlorine-type substances were later outlawed by Stockholm Convention, mid 1990s, as persistent organic pollutants. Now, 25 years later, they are leaching into the oceans, with the South Pacific testing the highest levels in the world, and thousands of acres of land now contaminated with toxic chemical residues.
The hard battling kiwi farmer employed 245T (2,4,5 trichlorophenoxy acetic acid), for the job. A new wonder chemical, apparently not harmful at all, except to plants… The farmers loved it, spraying it around the countryside with reckless abandon, in their shorts and t-shirts. The scientists were also impressed; safe proven performance and no detrimental human health problems.
Sadly 245T also contained dioxins and was later banned.
We are now using herbicides like 2,4-D (2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid) and glyphosate, which have many claims of harm against them.
Organophosphates (also a nerve agent) have been very popular in NZ since post-war. These are most commonly used and marketed as insecticides. They have shown a multitude of health effects on humans and animals.
This class of pesticide (organophosphates) is very widespread in NZ and is commonly found in tests on most raw foods; meat, dairy, wheat, and also shows up in most processed foods. These types of insecticides have been identified by the Stockholm Convention as needing to be banned due to their persistent residues and harmful effects on humans.
1080 (sodium fluoroacetate), a powerful rodenticide, also neurotoxic to mammals, has been used in NZ to control pest species in our forests since the 1950s. We use over 80% of the world’s 1080 and have done little research into non-lethal exposures, in both humans and animals, and little monitoring of health effects on humans.
There are many types of pesticides currently employed in NZ; many of which are causing major health concerns. The prevailing attitude has been “safe until scientifically disproven”, which rarely happens, because the vast majority of research is either directly or indirectly funded by the pesticide manufacturers. This is very similar to how the tobacco companies kept the fact that nicotine was addictive from being proven, for so long – despite a few billion of us who knew we were hopelessly addicted.
There has been very little study on the neurotoxic properties of these substances with very little research or monitoring of human health. In many cases a complaint of human exposure will not even be investigated, and no testing will be done, so there are no surprises that human exposure and symptoms are not recorded or recognised. The NZ government is quick to point out a lack of human poisonings, however.
Now we have over 7000 known toxic sites scattered around NZ. Who knows how many there are, that are unknown, as the government and local councils do not undertake testing of private land for dioxin or any other long-term persistent chemicals.
It is clear we need to take personal responsibility for this mess to protect future generations from our toxic legacy, and apply the simple rule MORE WISDOM, PEOPLE…