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Australian Regulatory System Stands International Comparison

14 May 2009

In a recent article CHOICE was critical of the Australian chemical regulatory system. It argued that many household insecticide products freely available in Australia contain chemicals that could seriously affect our health. Further, it argued that since many of these are no longer registered in Europe because of safety concerns, the Australian regulatory system is not performing effectively.

All household products registered in Australia have been assessed against health and safety criteria either by the APVMA or a relevant authority prior to the formation of the APVMA. 

Did the European Union Ban Common Chemicals Because of Human Health Concerns?

CHOICE identified a list of eight household chemicals and products it stated were not approved in the European Union because they posed a risk or because they had insufficient information to permit their use. The fact that these chemicals are still available in Australia, it argued, was evidence the Australian regulator was ineffective.

These nominated chemicals are:

  • Chlorpyrifos
  • Malathion/maldison
  • Allethrin
  • Bioallethrin
  • Bioresmethrin
  • Permethrin
  • Fenoxycarb
  • Pyriproxyfen

The nominated chemicals were not banned or de-registered in Europe because of health concerns. The European Union embarked on a process to review all its biocidal products, which include household insecticides. In this review process, each active constituent has to be evaluated as to whether it could be used safely with respect to human health and the environment.

The process requires product manufacturers to provide data that would prove that a particular chemical could be safely used in respect of human health and the environment.

The review process is ongoing. While some chemical products have been submitted for review, a great many were withdrawn from the market by the EU regulators prior to the review because product manufacturers chose not to provide all the data that was required for the assessment to take place. Most commonly, such a decision is made by a manufacturer following a cost benefit analysis that the cost of supplying the data and participating in the process is greater than projected future economic return.

It is therefore important to note that active constituents in this category were not eliminated because of health concerns. No assessments of these products had taken place prior to withdrawal from the market.

Importantly, seven out of the eight products CHOICE claimed were not registered in Europe because of health concerns fall within this category. They were removed from the market not because of safety concerns but because manufacturers chose not to support them. The other chemical, pyriproxyfen, despite being reported by CHOICE as not approved in the EU as a cat flea collar, is in fact approved for that use in the UK in a range of cat and dog flea treatments. The pyriproxyfen product withdrawn in the EU was a veterinary hygiene product that has not been registered in Australia.

Are Insecticide Products Available From Supermarkets a Risk to Human Health?

CHOICE claimed that many Australian insecticides contain active ingredients that can cause adverse health impacts on humans.

This is true. Insecticides are designed to kill insects and thus it is likely that many contain chemicals that indeed have the potential to harm humans.

But this is not the end of the story as CHOICE suggests. It is precisely because pesticides can harm humans that Australia has a regulator whose principal role is to ensure that these potentially dangerous chemicals can be used safely.

How is this done? The APVMA scientifically evaluates the chemical’s inherent toxicity to fully understand the risk it can present. It then considers how the product is to be used and makes an assessment of any potential exposure people might have to the chemical.

Knowing the risks, it then determines if measures can be put in place to manage these risks. If they can, the product is allowed onto the Australian market. If not, market access is refused. 

The range of measures that are used to manage risks to human health is numerous. They include restrictions on use, on who can use the chemical, training that might be required, seasonal limitations, requirements for protective clothing, special warnings where warranted, and first aid instructions.

For example, the only pesticides permitted for household use are those with very low toxicity, are diluted, only come in small pack sizes and are often sold in a ready-to-use form to reduce the risk of exposure to concentrated product. 

Thus for the CHOICE article to simply say that household products that contain chemicals that are potentially harmful to human health, and should be taken off the market in consequence, is to ignore the whole intent, purpose and activity of the Australia regulatory system.

It is akin to saying that we should ban cars because of their inherent danger without considering the investments that take place in vehicle engineering, driver training, road design, road rules and law enforcement designed to reduce those risks.

Those chemicals that the APVMA allows onto the Australian market are safe to use because of the risk management processes that are put in place. Household insecticides can be safely used provided label instructions are followed.

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