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Sydney Morning Herald Statements on Endosulfan Factually Incorrect

30 October 2009

The decision in mid October of an expert committee of the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants to progress the listing of the insecticide endosulfan as a persistent organic pollutant prompted media discussion within Australia.

This discussion was featured in two articles in the Sydney Morning Herald written by consumer affairs writer Kelly Burke.

In these articles, on September 21 (external site) and October 25 (external site), Burke made a number of statements suggesting that the Australian risk assessment for endosulfan was based on a flawed methodology.

The first statement was that the 2005 Australian risk assessment for endosulfan carried out by the APVMA as part of its comprehensive review of the chemical was based on the assessment carried out by the United States Environmental Protection Agency in 2002.

The second was that ‘new research from the University of Pittsburgh (external site) has found serious flaws in the methodology the US regulator used to test endosulfan’s safety risk.’

The third statement brought the first and second together stating that ‘research from the University of Pittsburgh found serious flaws in the American methodology used by Australia’s regulators to assess endosulfan’s safety risk.’

These statements are incorrect.

The APVMA does not make its decisions on the basis of risk assessments developed by other national regulators. While there is almost always a common understanding among regulators of the hazards of each chemical, national regulators must assess risk according to the unique features of their own climate, geography, crops grown and agricultural practices.

In making risk assessments about chemicals, regulators use information generated from a range of internationally accepted scientific tests. The University of Pittsburgh study published in September 2009, quoted by Burke, was critical of one of these, a standard four-day aquatic toxicity test using tadpoles. The researchers found that many of the tadpoles died from exposure to endosulfan even after they were returned to fresh water. The paper’s conclusion was that if the US EPA had relied on this study and not understood this lag effect, it might have understated endosulfan’s environmental impact.

The APVMA did its major environmental assessment of endosulfan (PDF, 392kb) in 1998. That assessment highlighted the fact that research had pointed out as early as 1975 the lag effect of the toxicity of endosulfan on aquatic species. Accordingly, in addition to the four-day acute studies, the Australian assessment also included a seven-day acute study and several chronic studies that continuously exposed fish to endosulfan for 21 days, 28 days and 60 days. The results from these longer term studies were taken into account in the conclusions of the Australian review of endosulfan.

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