There are renewed concerns about a commonly used herbicide so deadly that just one sip could kill you.

Key points:

  • Paraquat is a toxic chemical in herbicides used by Australian farmers under strict regulations
  • The chemical is banned in more than 30 countries around the world including the UK, Europe, and China
  • A BBC investigation has revealed documents that show the product could have been made safer

When Julie Terry’s severely autistic son Damien accidentally drank a herbicide containing the chemical paraquat in 2017, she was told he had 12 hours to live.

“We were told that it’s approximately 10ml that would kill an adult male, which you know is not much more than a sip,” she said.

“So the doctors were pretty convinced that he wouldn’t make it.”

The dangerous chemical was in a coke bottle in the disabled toilet at a local sporting ground. 

By some miracle he survived.

Paraquat hospitalisation

Damien Terry in hospital after swallowing paraquat, where doctors gave him a grim prognosis.(

Supplied: Damien Terry

)

“We kept our hopes up, and after he’d survived the first 24-48 hours, we were then told that paraquat can have a delayed effect where it causes fibrosis of the lungs and the damage could occur anywhere up to eight weeks,” she said.

A man and a woman in a loungeroom.

Damien’s parents Julie and David Terry want paraquat banned in Australia.(

ABC News: Mary-Louise Vince

)

Four years later her son is doing well, but Julie Terry does not know what long term impacts the poisoning might have.

Ms Terry wants to see paraquat phased out in Australia.

“Wouldn’t it be far better not to have to use it at all?” she said.

“I just think that the risks really do outweigh the benefits.”

Vital tool for farmers

But Australian farmers are concerned a ban would have detrimental effects on agriculture. 

For Jake Hamilton, a farmer from Condamine in Queensland’s Western Downs, paraquat is an essential tool for weed control. 

“We’re aware of how toxic it is. We take all of the precautions that we have to be safe with it,” he said.

A man in a green shirt, cap and beard takes a selfie in a sprayer on his farm.

Jake Hamilton said if paraquat was banned he would have to use more expensive alternatives that weren’t as effective.(

Supplied: Jake Hamilton

)

Mr Hamilton received around 130 millimetres of rain overs the last two weeks and said he was keen to get spraying as soon as possible.

“That last rain has brought up a good flush of weeds so we just need to keep all our weeds down and keep the country clean,” he said.

“It would be a huge loss for Australian agriculture in general if we were to lose this product.”

Deadly poisonings

Paraquat poisonings in Australia are relatively rare.

In 2012, a farmer died after the weed killer sprayed in his mouth accidentally. 

But in developing counties, paraquat ingestion has long been a common cause of death by suicide.

A sprayer towed by a tractor.

Paraquat is the active ingredient in commonly used herbicides in Australian agriculture.(

ABC Rural: Clint Jasper

)

And new questions are being raised about the chemical, branded as Gramoxone.

An investigation by the BBC revealed secret company documents that suggested the maker of the chemical had safer, more expensive alternatives.

The documents suggested Syngenta held back the costly alternatives from consumers to protect its profits.

Syngenta rejected the allegations and denied its decisions were motivated by anything other than the desire to make paraquat safer.

In a statement, it said:

“Syngenta Australia’s paraquat products are safe for people and the environment when used for their intended purpose and according to the registered label instructions.”

Decades long review

The outside signage of APVMA offices.

APVMA has been reviewing paraquat since 1997 with a decision expected at the end of this year.(

ABC News: Ian Cutmore

)

In Australia, paraquat has been under review since 1997 by Australia’s chemical regulator, the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA).

In a statement, APVMA said it expected a regulatory decision to be made at the end of 2021.

“Anticipated completion dates for a particular chemical review may change if new scientific information emerges that may require further assessment, or if other chemical reviews are prioritised,” the statement said. 

“In October 2019, the United States Environmental Protection Agency released its draft human health and ecological risk assessments containing new scientific information regarding paraquat.

“These assessments require consideration before the APVMA can finalise its chemical review.”

But Julie Terry does not understand why it was taking so long to assess the chemical that poisoned her son. 

“My husband and I wrote to the APVMA and we got a lovely letter back, but no real reason as to why it’s taking so long,” she said. 

“I have no understanding as to why something would take 24 years.

One sip of this herbicide could kill, but farmers don’t want it banned
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