The media were quick to cry “Wolf” when concerns were raised about the fungicide Benlate.
On 9 December, 1993, the people of Canterbury read an alarming headline in the Christchurch Press: “Herbicide scare after babies born with defects”. Three City Council staff “who worked with herbicides gave birth to babies with defects”. In this first report neither the nature of the defects nor a specific herbicide were mentioned.
Several comments by Council officials and others, intended to soothe public fears, were quoted in the report — “coincidence”, “a link between the defects and herbicides was unlikely”, “the substances … did not absorb well through the skin”. An occupational health expert had been asked to investigate and report urgently; a fourth parks employee of the Council, who had worked in the same area as the other mothers, had given birth to a healthy baby.
During 1993 the office of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Helen Hughes, had been investigating the use and disposal of dangerous chemicals in New Zealand, and the report arising from these enquiries was published only a few days after the story in the Press. The Commissioner was quoted as saying that the controls recommended by her office would have been even stronger had she known of the Christchurch birth defects.
Despite the encouraging noises emerging from the Civic Offices and other official buildings, public anxiety increased almost to the level of hysteria.
Within a week the substance under suspicion had been identified as benomyl (a fungicide, not a herbicide), made by Du Pont and sold under the name “Benlate”. Sales plummeted, TV cameras were taken to garden centres to picture staff sweeping the stuff from the shelves, and only eight days after the first report, Du Pont’s New Zealand Manager was buying whole pages of advertising space in the newspapers to rebut the accusations made against his company’s product.
During the week journalists interviewed some of the people involved, and a few personal and medical details emerged. Two of the three babies were blind; the mother of one, born in 1990, was “in anguish” after slowly rebuilding her life; the parents of the other were in a more belligerent mood, threatening legal action against Du Pont. The Wellington bureaucracy was also quick to act; the Ministry for the Environment’s representative on the Pesticides Board announced she would press the Board to de-register benomyl, and recommend the Department of Health should ban its use.
Further comments intended to lessen public anxiety came from the City Council, including the announcement that Benlate was being withdrawn from use in the Parks Department. Then, less than ten days after the first report, the matter sank from public view while New Zealanders attended to the serious business of the Christmas-New Year summer holiday period. Behind the scenes, however, Dr John Alchin, Occupational Physician, was very busy. Before the issue became public, the City Council had asked him to investigate the birth defects. His report, 74 pages long, was submitted on 15 April, 1994, and reported in the Press the following day. The sub-editor’s summary of Alchin’s summary read, “Report on birth defects finds no pesticide link.”
Alchin’s investigation had been very thorough. He had examined the hospital obstetric and paediatric records, the medical and ante-natal records of the family doctors, and the notes of the obstetricians and paediatricians concerned. He had interviewed the parents at length and scrutinised City Council procedures. He instituted wide searches of two computerised medical databases, and talked to several New Zealand experts in epidemiology, environmental health, medical genetics and toxicology.
Concerning the two babies who were born blind, he noted: (1) one was born in 1990, the other in 1993; (2) their blindness resulted from two quite distinct congenital defects; (3) birth defects are not uncommon, there is roughly a 1 in 1000 chance of any two babies being born with major anomalies; (4) the two mothers had had minimal exposure to pesticides during pregnancy; and (5) other studies show no linkage of human birth defects to pesticide exposure. In view of the emphasis given to Benlate in the media reports, it is odd to note that Alchin could not confirm that either mother had been exposed to this material during pregnancy.
The third baby in the study was said in early reports to have “severe epilepsy”. Dr Alchin found he began having seizures at three or four days old, but from three months at least until nine months, had had none. His mother’s exposure, if any, had been to Roundup (glyphosate), not to Benlate. Alchin considers neonatal seizures to be common, and no evidence links their occurrence to pesticide exposure.
It seems that we have here another case of “chemophobia”, an irrational fear of exposure to chemicals, particularly synthetic, biologically active substances. What was presented initially as almost an epidemic of birth defects associated with horticultural sprays is seen on careful examination to be nothing of the kind.
Those of us who were born more or less whole, and have borne/sired healthy children, can hardly imagine the depth of pain suffered by the parents of these two blind babies, nor appreciate the handicap with which the infants start out in life. To seek some cause for such an affliction, any cause rather than no cause at all (chance), is perhaps natural. Nonetheless, to pin blame on something baselessly can in the long run only be harmful and an impediment to understanding.
Despite the thorough investigation, and Alchin’s exoneration of the pesticides, not everyone was convinced. A spokesman for the Toxins Action Group was quick (too quick even to have read the document) to label it a “whitewash”, and, at last report, the parents of one of the blind babies were continuing their legal action. Before the findings were announced, the Soil & Health Association had decided the eye defects were caused by Benlate, and was demanding its withdrawal.
The City Council emerges creditably from this affair. Its arrangements for proper handling of the wide range of horticultural materials used in our parks and gardens seem to be carefully designed with safety in mind, a thorough investigation was promptly set up as soon as an apparent problem appeared, and Council officials tried, though with little success, to counter the inappropriate public response.
As a Christchurch ratepayer, I feel my contribution to the costs of the enquiry was well worthwhile. It is good to know that this scare was unfounded; one can hope, but not with much optimism, that such scares may not occur again with so little cause.