Mr LYNCH (Liverpool) [5.15 p.m.]: I draw to the attention of the House a matter of great significance to my constituents: the health dangers of imported furniture, which is a particularly significant issue for me because many factories and businesses in south-west Sydney are importing furniture. There is a higher density of such factories in south-west Sydney than anywhere else in the State. The health consequences from such furniture thus has a direct impact on my constituents. Potential problems are well illustrated by the recent case of Jati Outdoor Furniture, which is located at Artarmon. But the problems that I highlight cover a wider area than just that suburb. Jati imported furniture is manufactured in Indonesia. Before the furniture is exported it is sprayed with a pesticide. It is now clear that that pesticide is methyl bromide.
Over a period of about two years workers at the company experienced health difficulties. They unsuccessfully raised their concerns with their employer. To be polite about it, their employer was unresponsive to their concerns. They went to their union, the Furnishing Trades Division of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union, and its current Secretary, Brad Parker. Investigations revealed the seriousness of the situation. Once the pesticide was identified as methyl bromide, the union was horrified. The technical information revealed that the substance was—to use the non-technical description—"real skull and crossbone stuff". It potentially could cause people to fall into a coma. The employer provided no safety gear. After the workers demanded safety gear, it took more than six weeks for some gear to be provided, but that proved to be inadequate. The union then resorted to turning away containers of imported furniture.
WorkCover also became involved. I should add that the union has only praise for the efforts of Peter Robinson, the WorkCover officer involved. A prohibition notice and an improvement notice were served by WorkCover. No doubt it will take whatever action it thinks appropriate in the circumstances. The purpose of my raising this issue tonight is not only because of the incident involving this company or the call for action against the company, as WorkCover seems to have that matter well in hand, but also to raise the broader issue of pesticides on imported furniture all over the State and especially in south-west Sydney. Some of the technical advice that is available about methyl bromide, which is also known as monobromomethane, is quite frightening. That advice, in part, is as follows:
It is a highly toxic agent almost comparable with cyanide with an insidious onset. Symptoms may be delayed for 48 hours. It gains access to the body by inhalation, ingestion and through the skin. Repeated minor exposures may produce symptoms of a serious nature. It principally affects the lungs but also affects the central nervous system.
The Chemwatch material safety data sheet refers to its "acute health effects" as follows:
Depression of the central nervous system is the most outstanding effect of most halogenated aliphatic hydrocarbons. Inebriation, passing into narcosis, is a typical reaction. In severe acute exposures there is always a danger of death from respiratory failure or cardiac arrest due to a tendency to make the heart more susceptible to catecholamines (adrenalin).
The material is considered to be harmful by all exposure routes. Chronic exposure in humans at low concentrations may produce neurological signs, ataxia, hepato and nephrotoscicity and behavioural changes such as malaise, headache and visual disturbance.
Reading the usual symptoms referred to in the technical data, one is struck by how precisely these signs have been detected in the two workers concerned. Some of the symptoms described to me that the workers have suffered included dizziness, nausea and vomiting, skin rashes, headaches, impact on vision and eyesight, and lethargy, both at home and at work. The degree of exposure is such that it has been detected in the workers' blood. The medical professionals who dealt with these workers did not at first expect that it would be detected in the blood, but the fact it has been so detected underlines the fact that these workers are very, very ill. The union's research has found some international examples. In the early 1990s there were reports of deaths in California after a house was sprayed with methylbromide.
A number of broader issues are involved here, well beyond the specific instance that I have quoted. Obviously there is a need for greater vigilance over health and safety conditions for workers in this industry. Indeed, the union fears, as I do, that this one case may well be just the tip of the iceberg. Of course, it is not just the impact of this pesticide on workers, there is also its potential impact on consumers. One suggestion has been to insist on changing the pesticide. However, that proposal apparently involves the use of ethylene oxide. Granted that the technical material I have seen refers to this as a dangerous poison, I am not sure that is much of an improvement! The union seeks what seems to me to be a quite reasonable proposition: that there be an inquiry into the importation of all items exposed to fumigants and pesticides. That inquiry would, of course, involve the Federal quarantine service. Obviously, there should be a prohibition on the importation of furniture that has been treated with such pesticides. Clearly, some people will object to that because they have ideological obsessions about free trade, but in a case like this those sorts of obsessions must be a secondary consideration. In relation to those persons, Frank Stilwell writes in his new book, Changing Track:
There is the familiar assertion that " there is no alternative "—or tina for short. Following the dictates of the capitalist market is said to be both inevitable and desirable, subject to relatively minor qualifications … It is possible to confront these prevailing orthodoxies with an "economics as if people and nature matter".