Spray Day

REPORTER: Edwina Throsby

It’s five o’clock on a freezing winter morning in West Auckland and the Sciarone family are getting up much earlier than usual.

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NATHAN SCIARONE: Why are you spraying?

When the sun comes up in a couple of hours, the Sciarones will have been evacuated to a government provided refuge on the other side of town.

Vicki Sciarone fears that if her children remain at home today, they’ll become sick.

REPORTER: What are the symptoms?

VICKI SCIARONE, AUCKLAND RESIDENT: Coughing, headache, soar throat, stomach ache, vomiting, diarrhoea. Nathan gets horrendous blood noses, nausea and extremely tired.

REPORTER: How’s that for you?

VICKI: It’s awful having tired, sick children, especially because I’m affected myself so it’s really hard.

At least once a month in summer, less often in winter, up to 1,000 Aucklanders flee their homes to escape a threat from above.

For the past 18 months, and at a cost exceeding $90 million, the New Zealand Government has been using Fokker Friendships, helicopters and air tractors to coat the western suburbs of Auckland with a pesticide called Foray 48 B.

Residents say that such a prolonged aerial spray campaign over such a large urban population is unprecedented in the world.

VICKI: When they come over and they’re spraying, we feel violated. We’re stuck in our houses. We know we’re going to get sick from the spray. It’s like we have no rights any more. We have not consented to this.

JIM SUTTON, MINISTER FOR AGRICULTURE AND FORESTRY: It is necessary to endure some discomfort and inconvenience in order to avoid the greater risks and greater problems of introducing this potentially very serious new pest to our environment.

This is the story of an unusual war. A small country fending off a threat from an alien invader and a civilian population caught in the firing line. The unlikely setting is West Auckland and is this is the enemy.

The Painted Apple Moth is an illegal immigrant, which snuck in from Australia around four years ago.

DOCTOR JOHN CLEARWATER, ENTOMOLOGIST: The biggest concern is the threat to our planted pinus radiata forests. These forests represent a very substantial investment by New Zealand, about $4 billion a year produced from them so they are a major asset. We know, for example, that Tasmania, this species of insect has defoliated pine trees.

Entomologist Dr John Clearwater was involved in a successful campaign to eradicate another Australian invader, the White Spotted Tussock Moth back in 1996, and is now self-funding research into the Painted Apple Moth.

DOCTOR JOHN CLEARWATER: I think it’s a very serious threat. The biggest problem, of course, is that you never know exactly what a new species is going to do.

New Zealand has some of the strictest border control measures in the world. Every single item of mail entering the country is screened by humans and by dogs.

DOG HANDLER: Um, usually around wintertime it averages five or six seizures a day. Around the summertime, especially Christmas, it can be up to 30 seizures a day, and that varies from plant material, seeds, meat.

As an isolated island country dependent on primary industry, New Zealanders are acutely aware that anything introduced from outside can wreak environmental and economic havoc. But despite the best efforts of these hard working beagles, alien species like the Painted Apple Moth still slip through, often through the less well-protected seaports.

When the moth was first found in a small area of West Auckland, the authorities assumed that because the female is flightless it would not spread too far. However one vital fact had been overlooked.

DOCTOR JOHN CLEARWATER: The young caterpillars have the ability to balloon. They produce a thread of silk and that gives them the ability to float on the wind, much like young spiderlings.

Within a couple of years, it had infested 10,000 hectares of West Auckland. At this late stage, the Government decided it had no choice left but to attack the moth with blanket aerial spraying.

It’s the day before spray day and Sally Lewis is sealing her house against the pesticide drop.

SALLY LEWIS: I have been dumped on approximately 46 to 50 times. The first spray drop that they did was on Trahune Island and like an idiot, I saw them spraying – you know, went out like everybody else would’ve done to see this so-called ‘spraying’ and within a couple of hours I was at my doctors. I had breathed it in and was really, really sick and it just burnt my lungs instantly. She could actually smell the spray in my mouth and this is just being progressively getting worse ever since then.

Sally’s been examined by government-appointed doctors. They’ve determined her reaction to the spray is severe enough to justify paying for her relocation to a motel during spray periods. 26 times over the last 18 months, Sally has packed up and moved out at government expense for one week at a time.

SALLY LEWIS: My life has just – well, it doesn’t exist any more. It revolves around the spray. I can’t make appointments in case it’s a spray day, I can’t go to barbecues or birthday parties or weddings if they’re in the spray zone after they’ve sprayed because I would be on the floor gasping for breath, bleeding from the bowels, bleeding from the nose – can you imagine that at a wedding?

Sally’s reaction to the spray is not an isolated case. There are about 150 others with reactions severe enough that the government pays for their relocations during spray periods.

Of the 150,000 West Aucklanders exposed to the spray, many have reported experiencing coughing, nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea. Those with asthma, eczema or pre-existing allergies can find their conditions worsen.

KINDERGARTEN TEACHER: Put your hand up if you can tell me why we have to stay inside?

Don’t call out, don’t call out!

Jake, why do we need to stay inside?

JAKE: Because it’s spray day.

TEACHER: It’s spray day.

Robyn Bornville and Linda Durbin from the Glen Eden Kindergarten in West Auckland have developed a special routine for spray day.

LINDA DURBIN: The children arrive and we actually leave them inside until after normally an hour, isn’t it, until after they’ve sprayed. We stay indoors. We keep the windows closed.

Despite all the precautions, some children, like Maia Aparahama, do appear to suffer because of the spray.

LINDA: It’s got to the stage like it’s hard to wash her hands. This has actually got…and that today. But it will probably get worse now that they’ve sprayed again today.

ROBYN: I think it certainly was a threat to our, you know, forest and I can understand the economic situation of the country is very important, but you can’t help but feel the dollar value overrides what, you know, the importance for the people and their health.

The community backlash to the spray program has sometimes been extreme.

HANA BLACKMORE, HEALTH RESEARCHER: All the apocryphal stories of people threatening to shoot aircraft down or take Painted Apple Moth out of the area, all of these things are just a symptom of the absolute frustration of a community not being involved in an eradication program.

Hana Blackmore is a community health researcher. She’s published a report into the moth eradication program in which she’s highly critical of the government’s handling of the whole affair.

HANA BLACKMORE: It wasn’t until three months after spraying had commenced that people suddenly started talking on the streets and outside schools, and “Hey, you know, I’ve been really sick and headaches and skin rashes,” and “hey, all the kids have had blood noses – what’s going on here?” Suddenly they’re saying to the Government “Hey, hold on a minute. What are you doing to us?”

CROWD PROTEST: No spray, no way, no spray.

The first protests were held after spraying started in 2002. Activists were angry the government had commenced aerial spraying, despite their concerns. But Jim Sutton, Minister for Agriculture and Forestries and for Biosecurity believes aerial spraying should have started sooner.

JIM SUTTON: If there was a mistake made it was taking too much notice of people who started mounting such a campaign before it was even under way and, as a result, delaying for some time what, with the benefit of hindsight we can see was the inevitable decision to undertake widespread blanket spraying.

At the age of 57, Sally’s life has become consumed with campaigning against the spraying.

SALLY LEWIS: I was this little old lady that would step back if somebody barged in a queue and say “Look, go for it, I’ve got all day, it’s not a problem.” Unfortunately now, I don’t know if I trust myself as an activist or not, but I am so angry that the anger that you have is just, it’s scary at times because you, nobody wants to listen and it’s like wanting to put your hands around their necks and choking them and saying – and shaking, “Would somebody please listen to us?”

JIM SUTTON: What I would say is that we take people’s concerns about health impacts seriously and we treat people with respect. But I have not seen evidence that the spray itself has – causes any serious health affects.

It does seem paradoxical that the minister can say this, while at the same time his Department pays for the relocation of people like Sally on the advice of government-appointed doctor.

JIM SUTTON: It’s not for me to say whether their symptoms are caused by the spray or caused by something else or simply psychosomatic. If they’re symptoms, they’re symptoms.

REPORTER: They’re making it up?

JIM SUTTON: No, no, I don’t believe people are making it up. But people who hear a helicopter and perhaps see a little spray drift on their windows, who then associate that with a headache, you know – that doesn’t actually prove that that was the spray that caused the headache.

REPORTER: Is there any chance it could be psychosomatic?

SALLY LEWIS: No, and I underline that word ‘no’. I was, well – as I say, I used to play badminton, squash, tennis. My job was on a farm teaching young agricultural students farming. I had to do the hay bailing, I had to sheer sheep, I had to dag sheep, I had to milk cows. Now, if I was as fit as that and now I can walk up a flight of stairs and nearly collapse gasping for breath at the top of the stairs, I really don’t think the choice that I would prefer would be the one walking up the stairs and gasping for breath.

SUE-ELLA GREY: They have acknowledged “It is clear that you have a significant difficulty in relation to the chemical exposure.”

Sue-Ella Grey has folders full of medical documents that show her reaction to the spray is considerably more severe than a headache. She has a condition called multichemical sensitivity, which makes her reaction to the pesticide especially severe.

SUE-ELLA GREY: On a bad day, it would be very difficult for me to walk as far as the letter box and collect the mail and get back up the stairs.

Sue-Ella and Sally are members of a support group for those affected by the spray.

SALLY LEWIS: This is the one beauty of this Painted Apple Moth program, isn’t it?

SUE-ELLA GREY: It’s one of the higher points.

SALLY LEWIS: That we have a met a lot of really nice people.

Because her reaction is so severe, the government has relocated Sue-Ella to a suburb far away from the spray zone. The former senior health bureaucrat is now on an invalid’s pension and says she misses her work terribly.

SUE-ELLA GREY: It was an amazing job and I felt very worthwhile – and for me that’s important – and I’ve put 35 years into building my career to what it was before they started to spray. It may sound rather dramatic but the truth is it has robbed me of my life. Really, it has.

Part of the problem for those with negative reactions to the spray is that the government has never made public the spray’s contents, saying they are a trade secret. After some sleuthing by anti-spray activists, a list of ingredients has been obtained. A New Zealand television program recently asked moth eradication chief Ian Gear whether this list is accurate.

CHIEF IAN GEAR, APPLE MOTH ERADICATION PROGRAMME: That is a list that has been prepared by some of the opponents to the program. I can’t comment on that and nor will I.

TVNZ SUNDAY PROGRAMME: They say there’s Benzoic acid, a preservative found in food, which can cause asthma, diarrhoea, weakness, and tremors.

IAN GEAR: Again, on a list that has been prepared.

TVNZ SUNDAY PROGRAMME: They say there’s Propylene Glycol, a chemical used in anti-freeze and cosmetics. It can aggravate kidney disorders, cause possible liver damage and reproductive problems.

IAN GEAR: Again, on that same list.

TVNZ SUNDAY PROGRAMME: They say there’s Potassium Sorbate, Sorbitol and Hydrochloric Acid.

IAN GEAR: And so we go on.

REPORTER:You’d be happy for your family to be sprayed?

IAN GEAR: I would be happy for my children to be sprayed, I would be happy if this product was being applied over my own residence, yes.

HANA BLACKMORE: We still cannot have any assessment of the impact of these sprays and particularly inhaling these sprays because to do so, you know, it’s catch 22 – they can neither confirm nor deny that these are ingredients in there.

Nobody I spoke to disputed the fact that the Painted Apple Moth needs to be eradicated, or that the government faces a real dilemma.

But many feel the situation was mishandled so severely in the early days, that the problem could now be unsolvable.

Alternatives to aerial spraying are currently being investigated but none of them are viable at this stage.

HANA BLACKMORE: I think the government’s now got themselves into a huge fix because they’ve said “This will be eradicated at all cost,” and at 90 million, minimum, it is a huge cost. But at the beginning of all of this, somehow it’s lost that the question of the principle, that you don’t spray people.

It’s two days after the most recent spray and Sally was staying in a government-provided motel.

REPORTER: Sally, what are you doing here?

SALLY LEWIS: Well, they aren’t re-locating me longer than 48 hours any more and I daren’t go back home because of the reaction I have. So when they do this to me, I have to come and live in a tent.

I am seriously thinking I will have to move right out of Auckland. This is what upsets me is the fact that I’ve got family in Auckland, I’ve got all my friends in Auckland. I’m not a young chick any more.

You know, at my age it’s very, very difficult. But it would be difficult for anybody. I mean, why should we be shunted out of our homes that this is not our choice. We have having this dumped on us without our consent.

Sally has become another victim in New Zealand’s war against the Painted Apple Moth.

REPORTER: So getting rid of it is worth the human collateral?

JIM SUTTON: Yes, it is, and I think that for the overwhelming majority of West Aucklanders, they accept this. I’m grateful for their patience and forbearance and I think that the inconvenience and the occasional discomfort that they’ve endured is, on behalf of all New Zealanders, is well worthwhile.

SALLY LEWIS: I don’t personally want compensation, no. I think if I sat 25 of the people in a row and said “Do you want compensation?” there might be three that would say “Yes, I do.” The others just say “No, we want this just to stop”.