Frying pan on open fire

From the frying pan into the fire – chemical pesticides and food irradiation

In Community and Relationship, Diet, Nutrition and Recipes by LivingNow

When I read the Organic Federation of Australia’s newsletter on 31st January this year, I was blown away by the ill effects that most of us expose ourselves to by eating commercially produced fruit and veg. In particular, unborn and newborn children, having such a small body, are getting a much higher dose per gram.

The good news – no, the absolutely wonderful news – is that studies have shown that children who change to an organic diet excrete some of the toxins within just five days!

While it is important for you to read this article, you can, like me, simply skim over terms and names of chemicals that are unknown to you. The article still makes sense – perfect sense – and arms you with information you may want to utilise – even if all you can do at this stage is to grow silver beet from your flowerpots! -Ed.


The APVMA (Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority), the main regulatory authority for pesticides, has put a temporary ban on treating some fruits with dimethoate, a highly toxic pesticide used as a control measure for fruit flies. Most fruits are still treated with this and other toxic chemicals.

The concern over the loss of dimethoate has resulted in pressure on the regulators to allow more foods to be treated with ionising radiation from gamma rays sourced using radioactive cobalt. This is a classic case of out of the frying pan and into the fire.

There are numerous non chemical, non-toxic methods to treat fruit to stop the spread of fruit flies.


Dimethoate is used to control fruit flies in fruits. It is a systemic poison. This means that all of the flesh inside the fruit will contain the poison. It cannot be washed or peeled off. In the case of fruit flies, the poison has to be strong enough to last at least 14 days so that if any eggs hatch inside the fruit, there is enough active poison to kill the larvae.

Dimethoate is an organophosphate pesticide. This class of toxins were first developed as nerve poisons for warfare on humans. They act on the nervous system by destroying a key ensyme needed for the orderly functioning of the nervous system. They are highly reactive and also damage a range of other structures including the lining of nerve cells and DNA.

Organophosphates are touted as quickly biodegradable and therefore much better than organochlorines such as DDT and Dieldrin. This misinformation needs to be corrected.

Most organophosphates degrade by oxidation, and this usually results in greater toxicity. In the case of dimethoate it degrades into omethoate which, according to the US EPA, is 12 times more toxic.


is used in Australia to treat foods. However it is not allowed to be used in the USA.

The USA EPA has classed dimethoate as a probable human carcinogen based on a mix of studies, several of which found cancers in the test animals. Similarly some of the long-term tests have found evidence of ‘teratogenicity’ (birth defects) and ‘mutagenicity’, which is regarded as the precursor to causing cancers and birth defects and other damage to cell structures.

The main concerns are long-term exposure to small amounts especially for children, the newborn and for the foetus. The review of dimethoate conducted by the USA EPA found that the: “Risk from aggregate dietary exposure on an acute basis occupies 460% of the aPAD [Acute Population Adjusted Dose] for the most highly exposed subgroup, infants less than one year of age.” This means infants are exposed to levels that are more than four and a half times higher than the dose that is considered unsafe.

The Australian review of dimethoate is based on the toxicology methodologies used by the World Health Organization (WHO). These methodologies are constantly criticised as being out of date and no longer valid. They do not adequately factor in the large body of peer-reviewed science around constant exposure to low doses, the cocktails of chemicals found in foods, endocrine disruption and most importantly the levels of exposure for the sensitive sections of the population such as children, the elderly and the chronically ill.

These deficiencies in the standard methodologies for testing the safety of pesticides were clearly stated in the US President’s Cancer Panel Report in 2010.

The majority of people get most of their exposure to pesticides from foods, especially fresh fruits and vegetables. The good news is that organophosphates are excreted from the urine in about four to five days. Two studies show that children who start eating organic fruits and vegetable have no urinary traces of organophosphates after five days, compared to constant exposure to these residues if they eat conventional fruits and vegetables every day.

Food irradiation

The issue of losing chemical treatments for the trade in fresh fruits and vegetables is resulting in a push by countries like the USA and Australia to allow our food supply to be treated with ionising radiation.

Ionising radiation (x-rays, gamma rays, etc.) is different from the radiation from sunlight, radio waves, and microwaves. Ionising radiation is characterised by its ability to change the sub-atomic structure of atoms by displacing electrons. The electrons are literally blown out of the atoms.

These dramatic changes to the electronic stability of atoms affect the stability of molecules in irradiated food, resulting in numerous new, largely untested, compounds. Many of these compounds such as 2-ACBs do not occur naturally. Studies in 1990 have linked these compounds to colon cancer promotion and genetic damage in rats and genetic damage in human cells.

The proponents of food irradiation state that it is safer than using preservatives or pesticides to kill pests and diseases in food.

This not true as the unique radiolytic compounds, benzenes, ketones and free radicals created by food irradiation adversely affect significant areas of the human body.

These effects are similar to those caused by pesticides and preservatives in our food. Research is showing that these reactive compounds damage amino acids, DNA, proteins and hormones in the bodies of people who consume it and are linked to:

  • Cancer
  • Birth defects
  • Auto-immune disease (asthma, diabetes arthritis etc)
  • Hormone imbalances
  • Immune system weaknesses
  • Nervous system disorders (Parkinson’s, epilepsy, ADD, depression, etc.)

Currently many of the herbs and dried fruits imported into Australia are irradiated. These are supposed to be labelled. However our regulatory authorities are not rigorously enforcing this. Recently Food Standard Australia and New Zealand approved the use of irradiation for tropical fruits. Several years ago approval was given for the importation irradiated genetically modified papayas from Hawaii into Australia. So far none have arrived.

Another major concern is that most of the irradiation treatment factories use radioactive isotopes that cannot be disposed of safely. These ‘spent nuclear wastes’ could fall into the wrong hands and could be used by terrorists to make dirty bombs that would make areas uninhabitable for generations.

We need to actively oppose any industry that tries to legitimise the use of the highly dangerous products of the world’s nuclear industry. After 50 years of promises of cheap unlimited energy, this industry has failed to deliver any unique benefits to human society and instead is leaving a disastrous toxic legacy for millions of years. Fukushima is the latest example.

The benefits and safety claims of food irradiation seem to be of the same deceptive quality as the claims of unlimited cheap energy and the safe disposal of nuclear wastes.

There is no need for food irradiation. Hygienic food handling and a variety of non-toxic pest disinfestation techniques can be used in every instance to replace this dangerous technology.

Organic Federation of Australia,

Non-toxic alternatives

There is no need treat fruits with toxic chemicals or irradiation because numerous non-chemical alternatives exist.

While processes vary depending on product, region, and desired outcome, some of the technologies currently in use include :

Whole of systems approach

This requires an orchard management system that involves fruit fly baits, traps, removal of all fallen and over-ripe fruit, as well as having a harvest maturity index from fruits. Many fruits such as bananas and papaya can be picked at a green stage when they are not hosts for fruit flies. They will ripen at the market.

Non chemical de-contamination methods (sub-subhead)

These include heat/steam vapour treatment, cold treatment, exclusion sones, modified atmospheres and vacuum packs.

Some examples of these

  • Australia exports steam vapour treated mangos to Japan as that country does not permit irradiated or chemically treated fruits. Australia sends chemically treated mangos to our domestic markets and irradiated mangos to New Zealand.
  • New Zealand accepts steam vapour treated papayas from several Pacific countries but not from Australia. Australian papayas sent to Victoria and South Australia are treated with chemicals.
  • Australian lychees have to be irradiated to be sent to New Zealand. Israeli lychees are cold treated to be sent to the USA, while USA lychees do not need any treatments to be sent to Mexico and other countries after their testing showed that they were not a host for their fruit flies.

Currently the systems for dealing with pests are an inconsistent mess.

The key issue is that there are safe and effective non-chemical treatments for pests including fruit flies.


Andre Leu is Chair of the Organic Federation of Australia. This article was first published in the OFA newsletter, Organic Update, 31/1/12, and is reproduced with permission of the author.

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