Last week, during Dr Karl’s segment on 720 ABC radio in Perth, he had a guest by the name of Julian Cribb, who has recently written a book entitled “poison planet”. This book follows up other books with such cheery titles as “The Coming Famine” and “White Death.”
I had never heard of him before last Thursday, but he apparently passes himself off as a “science writer.” When I looked into it, all I could come up with is that he is a journalist, with no mention of any scientific qualifications.
I sent him an email to find out what his qualifications were, but have not as yet received a reply.
Anyhow, over the space of a few minutes on 720 last Thursday he managed to imply that anyone who breastfed babies was giving them “a mouthful of pesticides” and that we shouldn’t use plastic baby bottles as they contain toxic chemicals.
By the end of the show panicked mothers were texting in to ask whether they could use stainless steel bottles to feed their babies, and one mother said “thanks for making me feel like I’m poisoning my baby.”
Let’s look at these two claims and see what the science says.
The use of pesticides in Australia is controlled by the APVMA (Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicine Association). Essentially, it is impossible to use a pesticide in Australia without a licence from the APVMA.
This applies to the cans of fly sprays that you buy from the supermarket, commercial pest controllers, and also fruit growers.
Most people don’t know this – they think that fruit growers have open slather to spray whatever the hell they want onto their crops as often as they want, just so long as the fruit gets to market intact. But the very opposite is the case.
They must apply to the APVMA for a licence for any pesticide they wish to use. And this licence does not just refer to the particular chemical, but to every aspect of the procedure. That is, they must specify the exact concentration of chemical used, the coverage rate (litres sprayed per acre), spraying frequency, and withholding period. The withholding period refers to the time period between the last spray and the arrival of the fruit on the supermarket shelves.
Growers must keep a log of their spraying schedule, as it is subject to inspection at any time. And on top of all this, inspectors go to the markets where they take fruit directly off the trucks, and take them to a lab for testing. Any occasions where the level of pesticides on fruit is above the guidelines results in hefty fines.
So can the APVMA be trusted?
Well, it depends who you talk to. Fruit growers see them as the Gestapo, because their extremely conservative approach places a great burden, both practically and in terms of the regulatory requirements on them.
And they are certainly conservative. The amount of pesticide that they allow to be sprayed, or to remain on fruits, has safety factors upon safety factors upon safety factors. For for example, one of the measurements they use is the NOEL (No Observable Effect Limit).
This is a clinical number which tells you what level of a chemical you can have in your bloodstream before any effect whatsoever is observed, no matter how minor. To give you an idea of how conservative the APVMA is, they take this number and divide it by 10. This is a bit like saying that the best way to make sure you don’t get a speeding ticket in a 60 km/h zone is to go no faster than 6 km/h.
And there are other safety factors as well. But from the consumer’s point of view, you can have absolute confidence that none of the fruit that you get off the shelves has anywhere near enough insecticide to remotely approach a level where it could have any possible tiny effect on your health. As a matter of fact when they take the fruit for testing, most results come back as being below the level of detection of the extremely sophisticated insensitive analytical instruments that are used.
And part of this is the actual chemicals that are used. Years ago, chemicals like DDT were popular for the simple reason that they were stable – that is, they didn’t degrade in the environment. The shoe he is now completely on the other foot, and all pesticides used these days are biodegradable – that is, they degrade quickly when exposed to air or sunlight.
So the bottom line is this – Julian Cribb is completely wrong. Under the present regulations, there is just no possible way that any person could ingest pesticides off fruit that they eat to harm either themselves or their children.
The other claim he made was about plastics, and that they are unsafe for children. The implication, I suppose, is that being petrochemical products, these products are inherently evil, as we all know that oil companies are evil.
Again, this does not stack up. The only chemical that has been raised as a concern in plastic bottles or plates is bisphenol A (BPA). In sufficiently high levels, this chemical can act as an artificial hormone, which is similar to the mechanism of DDT.
Many studies buy both American and European food safety authorities, however, have determined that in the levels that BPA finds its way into food, there is simply no argument to suggest that it is a health hazard.
This, however, does not stop people who market baby products selling plastics that are “BPA free”, so if you want to be really, really, really sure, you simply buy these.
The other thing you can do is to look on the bottom of the item, where there will be a little triangle with a number in it. This is a recycling code that recyclers use to sort products into the right categories. The only classes of plastics that could even possibly contain BPA are those in categories 3 (PVC) and 7 (polycarbonate), so if you just avoid these, then you have eliminated even the possibility of your children consuming any BPA.
So if you threw out all your plastic bottles after listening to the show last Thursday, rush out to the SULO and retrieve them. Actually, don’t – buy new ones.
One warning about plastics, however – make sure they are microwave safe before you blast them. If in doubt, put the empty vessel into the microwave and zap it. If it gets hot, it’s not microwave safe.