Dec 15, 2019 6 minutes
I met my wife Ciaran when we were both teenagers. After living together for two years in Wellington we embarked on the adventure of a lifetime. We were young, carefree and in search of adventure and a more natural lifestyle. We arrived in the Far North – Doubtless Bay: a tranquil seaside community known for its spectacular harbour and fishing.
GROWING FLOWERS FOR EXPORT
In 1992 Ciaran was offered a job through a WINZ placement with a local flower grower, who was cultivating Zantedeschia calla lilies for the export market. Six months later I also took up employment there.
Our duties covered all aspects of flower growing, from planting tubers to harvesting and packing flowers. We paid little attention to the various chemicals used, and followed the example of our employer who worked in shorts and T-shirt, with no protective equipment.
Our jobs were low-paid but we were inspired by the industry, so we decided to invest in our own tubers, and leased land and packing facilities from our employer. We continued to work full-time while building up our business in our spare time.
EXPOSURE TO MULTIPLE CHEMICALS
We were exposed to many agricultural chemicals. The most common was an insecticide containing organophosphates (OP), specifically pirimiphos methyl, monocrotophos, chlorpyriphos and parathion methyl.
We also used synthetic pyrethroids, fungicides, glyphosate-based herbicide, plant growth regulators, pulsing solutions (to extend the vase life of flowers; these solutions contained heavy metals) and an insecticide gas.
For seven months a year one of my jobs was to take a bunch of calla lilies, dip them in a bucket of insecticide, then put the dripping flowers into a bucket of pulsing solution. This took up to five hours a day, during which my hands were wet with chemicals. I did the most dangerous job in the operation and was totally unaware of any risk.
The coolstore was also used as a gassing chamber for the flowers. Ciaran and I both entered shortly after insecticide gassing had taken place, and felt strange.
We were young, fit and in the best physical shape of our lives, but health problems were starting to build. It became normal for me to wake up feeling nausea, a permanent slight stomach cramp, an increase of migraines and light sensitivity, regular night sweats and sleeping problems.
JOINING THE DOTS
It seems strange looking back that we didn’t join the dots at that stage, however as a chemical poisoning advocate I find that very few people link the slow onset of symptoms with their exposure to toxic compounds.
We didn’t suspect chemical poisoning to be the cause of our health concerns until my father (a fireman) came to visit. Firefighters are regularly exposed to toxic environments, and he warned us that we should take precautions.
After this conversation we read some labels on the chemicals we were using and got quite a shock to find out that full protective equipment should be worn at all times: gas mask, gloves and spray suit.
OUT IN THE COLD
By this time we had been working for around two years. We approached our employer with our concerns about protective equipment and our health, and were fired that day.
We informed OSH, now Worksafe NZ, they did not believe us and made this clear. They told us this was an employment dispute and they would not become involved. After much research it became apparent to us that this was a fairly common approach taken globally to deny harm.
THE JOURNEY TO HEALTH
This is where we can bring some positivity into the story. When faced with adversity we need to adapt, and adapt we did!
We managed to purchase a cheap rural block where we found our spiritual healing, living in a small cabin with no running water. Showering outside was amazing. We felt truly rich surrounded by native bush and I began to heal. This place of security gave us strength to fight the government while developing an alternative system for producing our flowers without the use of synthetic pesticides.
We learnt about organics and permaculture, and developed a model of growing that purified the water leaving our property through a series of dams (so we would not contribute to increasing national water quality problems). We incorporated predator control through companion planting, and used only organic insecticide – never spraying predator breeding areas. Our system worked and we continued exporting flowers for another four years.
PROVING OUR CASE
Our battle with the government escalated. For two years we submitted continual complaints until finally ACC sent us to an occupational scientist.
Photos of our workplace showed our coffee cups sitting next to boxes full of different chemicals. We were able to show how the coolstore/gas chamber was attached to our smoko room, and we had a medical report documenting bladder damage. This evidence helped meet the scientific criteria of cause and effect, and we became the third and fourth people accepted by ACC for long-term chemical poisoning symptoms.
Symptoms of poisoning alone will not meet the burden of proof, which is why thousands of harmed Kiwis will not get a diagnosis under the current system. Our diagnosis was organophosphate poisoning. Worksafe established serious harm, but never prosecuted the employer. ACC accepted our claim but discontinued compensation after six years.
INFERTILITY AND CHILDREN
We couldn’t have children, and we will never really know how much impact chemical poisoning had on this, but we do know that we follow a pattern consistent with a known OP reproductive syndrome.
Pesticides affect children differently from adults; for example, OPs have been shown to interfere with normal child brain development. The latest meta-research from all known international studies has concluded there is no safe level of OP exposure in children, yet the EPA sets ‘safe’ maximum residue levels of OPs in our produce – including baby foods.
Now, 25 years post exposure, I am still experiencing symptoms. My body is numb; I burn myself often and hardly feel it. I have a chronic pain condition at a musculoskeletal level and have chronic fatigue. I experience peripheral neuropathy and sometime wake up not able to move an arm.
I haven’t been able to work full-time for 25 years, but if you meet me on the street you cannot tell I’m sick. This is the nature of chemical poisoning: it is hidden from society and difficult to diagnose. It is a contested illness.
LINKS WITH MULTIPLE HEALTH CONDITIONS
I love my life and am an upbeat person. Getting poisoned has made me strong and this experience needs to be used to help others. When I first got sick finding information and support was difficult. It felt like half the population believed pesticides can’t hurt you, the other half said you would die of cancer. Both sides were extremely unhelpful so I have been sharing my knowledge.
There’s a wealth of international research now showing pesticide exposure is linked with many physical health problems, from allergies through to cancer. Diabetes is strongly associated, and epidemiological studies have shown significantly increased risk of multiple sclerosis, and of Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and motor neurone disease. Research shows an increased risk for the children of those poisoned developing ADHD and autism.
PESTICIDES AND MENTAL HEALTH
One subject not often discussed is how neurotoxic pesticides interfere with our brain chemicals, contributing to mental health problems. New Zealand research into farmer suicide rates showed them disproportionately high compared to the general population, but failed to consider high exposure rates to pesticides as a factor. Our health professionals are also not considering pesticide neurotoxicity when taking histories of patients who are reporting mental health disturbances.
Anxiety and depression have been on the rise, as have our alarming suicide rates. Exposure to neurotoxic substances – including pesticides – has been proven to cause changes in mood and behaviour, and is often linked with suicidal thoughts and actions.
My experiences with this leave me with no doubt that chemical poisoning is a major factor in this growing health epidemic. I have an anxiety condition that developed after my poisoning, and have first-hand experience of how a damaged sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system changes emotional responses.
MEDICINE, TREATMENT AND DIET
Conventional medicine is lacking for those with long-term poisoning symptoms. Doctors sometimes give huge vitamin dosages intravenously and tend to prescribe anti-inflammatory drugs for muscle pain; these work well but can cause kidney damage if taken too often. Amitriptyline can help with neuropathic pain, and Valium-type drugs can help anxiety and calm the nervous system, but are addictive.
Our experiences with alternative medicine, including homeopathy and naturopathy, helped us. We found a chiropractor who assisted us to detoxify. Ciaran gets regular acupuncture and swears by this. Others we know have benefited from being treated in a decompression chamber. The research on medicinal cannabis shows it has potential; it has been reported to relieve muscle pain and calm the nervous system in countries where its access is legal.
Many poisoned people choose an organic diet and try to avoid all contact with harmful chemicals. I try to eat fairly healthy, avoiding foods with high pesticide levels and including as many homegrown veges as possible.
MESSAGE FROM THE RURU
My quest was shown to me when I was visited by a ruru (morepork), which I came across one day in the cabin I used to live in. She sat where my dog who died from chemical poisoning complications used to sit. I looked her in the eyes and knew that the forest, the people, the animals and insects all need protecting from those who feel poison is harmless. The ruru, a magnificent forest predator, delivered a strong omen. Will you answer the call?
Stephen Torrington would like to make contact with other people who have experienced chemical poisoning, or are having any pesticide issues, to build a community of support. Contact: email@example.com or visit morewisdom.org, and More Wisdom on Facebook.