By ANDREA CARSONCyanide bait trial idiotic, says union
Saturday 15 April 2000
One of Australia's biggest unions has condemned the Victorian Government for exposing staff to cyanide in a controversial baiting program to kill wild dogs in the La Trobe Valley.
The Australian Workers Union yesterday imposed bans on the handling and use of the toxic chemical by Department of Natural Resources and Environment workers.
The RSPCA also criticised the department for using a method that would cause trapped animals pain and suffering and failed to discriminate between its target of wild dogs and foxes, and other wild animals.
Workcover Minister Bob Cameron said last night he had ordered an investigation into allegations that department workers were exposed to cyanide.
The union's national occupational health and safety officer, Yossi Berger, blasted the department for allowing "inexperienced staff" to handle sodium cyanide. He said staff were given protective clothing and breathing apparatus but given very little knowledge of the chemical's dangers.
"This kind of program is idiotic and uses one of the most dangerous substances you can use ... it is a cruel hoax played on workers," Dr Berger said.
Dr Berger said sodium cyanide could kill a human within minutes if it was absorbed or inhaled. He said the department was using cyanide in an experimental baiting trail that involved spring-loaded traps laced with the chemical to kill wild dogs and foxes. When an animal approached the trap, the chemical was released and the animal was killed within seconds.
A department spokeswoman confirmed that the experimental trials used sodium cyanide, but she said the research was "carefully controlled", complied with all relevant regulations and had been approved by an animal ethics committee. It had been approved by the National Registration Authority for Agricultural and Veterinary Chemicals.
She said the number of staff who were exposed to the chemical was less than a dozen and they were all "highly trained" to use cyanide. Clinical trials had used cyanide since 1993, she said.
Dr Berger said the Kennett Government was uncooperative with the union and the union had been unable to act until now when he had evidence that workers were exposed to cyanide.
He said when he audited four department depots in the La Trobe Valley this week, many workers had told him they were anxious about using the chemical.
A researcher at the department's Keith Turnball Institute, which supervised the baiting trials, said cyanide was chosen as the agent of death because it was speedy and allowed researchers to find the animal's body to study wild dog and fox populations in the area.
RSPCA president Hugh Wirth said he was unaware of the cyanide baiting trials and was alarmed to learn an ethical committee would approve such trials.
"There is no question that using cyanide is cruel and that factor has been known for a long time," Dr Wirth said.
He said oxygen in the body binds with cyanide instead of the red blood cell and causes a quick death because the body is deprived of oxygen. Dr Wirth said that although death was quick, the animal would suffer pain and would remain conscious until death.
He said cyanide also caused environmental problems as in Hungary recently when a mine, part-owned by an Australian company, leaked cyanide into the local river system, destroying the complex ecosystem.