1080 poison: science and facts
By Dr Jo Pollard (BSc (Hons, PhD)
Any true scientist would be intensely annoyed to see wishful thinking and casual observations (rather than properly
replicated experiments with appropriate controls) masquerading as science, especially when lots of people actually
believed in it. Quinn Whiting-O’Keefe is a true scientist. In the film Poisoning Paradise he is so incensed at the lack
of science and fact underlying 1080 poison use in NZ his words are like steam escaping. The same feelings led me to 2
years of reading and tapping furiously away at a keyboard to expose the facts on 1080 poison, as given to our
Environmental Risk Management Authority (ERMA) for their review in 2007. Here they are:
1080 is toxic to species of all forms of life from microbes to plants, insects, birds and humans. In mammals, it causes
birth defects, reduced fertility, damage to reproductive organs and other organs including the brain and heart.
Anecdotal reports indicate there may also be a link with cancer but there has been no research at all on this. Claims
that 1080 poison does not cause mutations arise from a study on mice, that ERMA was unable to get a full copy of.
1080 has an amazing ability to spread. Again and again in research, “control” samples have become accidentally
contaminated. Because 1080 poison is highly soluble it spreads very fast in water and also up food chains. For example,
researchers found 100% mortality of aphids on broad bean plants grown in 0.00005% 1080 solution. Likewise, 1080 has been
shown to pass readily into milk and meat.
When 1080 poisoned cereal pellets are dropped from the air, the poison in cereal dust is found over the entire treated
area and beyond. Very little is known about the spread of this toxic dust but it was found 1 km beyond the application
zone 5 days after an aerial 1080 drop (sampling for dust further away, and later after the drop, was not carried out).
There has been no research into how long 1080 poison persists in treated areas. In the ERMA documents it was recognised
that it might persist indefinitely at low concentrations. It has been found to persist in many varied situations
including dry places, cool water, water lacking aquatic plants, some types of soil and in carcasses. The rate of
breakdown of 1080 poison in New Zealand forests and streams is unknown, but it is extremely slow at around 5oC. Thus
ERMA’s Agency warned that “No studies have been conducted using standard international guidelines to assess the route
and rate of degradation of 1080 in soil. The rate of such degradation under New Zealand conditions is uncertain.” And
regarding water: ”Overall, the relevance of the aquatic plant/water studies to the degradation of 1080 in water in NZ is
In the ERMA review, there was no consideration of effects of breakdown products which include highly toxic
The ERMA review also brought to light that, among several unexpected properties of 1080 poison, degradation occurred in
biological samples stored at -20oC, meaning that most results from water and soil sampling to date are useless because
storage conditions were either not reported or were not adequate.
Birds reported killed by 1080 poisoned cereal baits include morepork, weka, tomtits and grey warbler and animals known
to eat cereal bait include kea, kaka, little spotted kiwi, kokako, saddleback, kakariki, pukeko, insects, koura and
lizards. DoC’s reporting on bird deaths cannot be relied upon. Their usual method of assessing bird numbers, 5 minute
counts, were acknowledged as useless by ERMA’s Agency who reported that "Five-minute counts have been identified as not
reliable for assessing population impacts after 1080 operations unless high mortality occurs..and not reliable for rarer
It was recognised in the ERMA review that certain species (survivors that are fastest to breed and disperse within the
vacant habitat) will be most likely to recover after aerial 1080 poisoning. This will apply not just to birds but all
organisms including invertebrates ("1080 is highly toxic to terrestrial invertebrates" - ERMA’s Agency) which are an
integral part of food chains and nutrient recycling. Thus ecological effects of the poisoning will be far-reaching and
favour rapidly colonising species.
Not surprisingly then, 1080 poison is now clearly associated with plagues of pests including stoats, rats and mice, that
have devastating effects on native species. For example, a DoC employee reported in 2002: “Four months after an
effective possum and rat knock-down by a 20,000-ha aerial 1080 operation over Tongariro Forest, stoats reappeared in the
centre of the forest and began killing kiwi chicks. So far five of the 11 chicks have been predated, and all in the
centre of the treatment area.” Closer to home, a West Coast DoC employee reported on kaka in 2003 “A dramatic increase
in fledgling mortality has been noted coinciding with a change to the pest control regime. Seventeen female chicks were
monitored since the breeding season and excluding missing birds, eleven of fourteen fledglings have died. Nine of these
were probably (some certainly) killed by stoats..The pest control regime was an aerial 1080 pollard operation in October
.” Going on to report on rowi: ”The current rowi breeding season has been very disappointing. All 14 of the
monitored chicks were dead by early January, with stoat predation being the major cause..a huge irruption of rats and
stoats, coincided with the height of the rowi breeding season.. Stoats completely saturated the core area during
December and January..Similarly, rat numbers were 5-10 times higher this season compared with the same time last
season.” (West Coast, April 2003).
Our remaining native species need all the genetic diversity they have if they are to survive forthcoming challenges such
as drought, storms, disease and habitat modification, therefore they should be managed with extreme care. New, unique
species are still being discovered regularly, making nonsense of claims that DoC knows what its doing with aerially
spread poisons. DoC’s legal duty under the Conservation Act is to manage natural resources for conservation purposes so
their willingness to allow the killing of massive numbers of native animals is nothing short of criminal.
Contrary to DoC’s scaremongering about possums preying on birds, numerous studies have shown that possums are
principally herbivores. Where possums are currently invading new areas and decimating favoured plants such as mistletoe,
it would make sense to target them there, using humane, safe techniques such as hunting, live traps, and well-designed
kill traps. I have operated a natural pet food business for the last 6 years and the demand for the raw product has been
escalating as the world becomes increasingly short of animal protein, and as Asian pet ownership increases dramatically.
The Asian markets for natural NZ pet food are insatiable and it makes sense to employ hunters and use pests as a
resource rather than squander our 200 million-year-old natural heritage.
Like DoC, the Animal Health Board has no rational basis for using aerial 1080 poison to kill possums. Its arguments were
left in tatters in the ERMA review. Firstly, the RTCI, the possum catch index that underlies the AHB’s strategy, was
deemed unreliable (Agency, Appendix F). Then both economic experts got stuck in. Professor Ross Cullen, regarding market
perceptions of NZ’s Tb status: "No research is cited in the Application that studies the dollar losses occurring from
the loss of one or more export markets..Clough & Nixon (2000) conclude...a trade ban would be difficult to sustain under current international trade rules, the risk is
very small and the expected value of an avoided trade ban is modest" and "The Application...fails to demonstrate
evidence or understanding of economic research on use of 1080, pest control or Tb...this section of the application is
unsophisticated, uses crude approaches to estimate even the largest benefits and costs associated with the use of 1080,
lacks awareness of many pertinent economic research techniques, seems unaware of almost all relevant economic research."
And from NZ health experts: "around 3% of all human Tb cases are M. bovis...The Ministry of Health attributes these low
rates to herd testing and the widespread pasteurisation of milk"...“even if bovine Tb were prevalent in cattle it would
not present a real risk to human health”...”We recommend that in making its decisions, ERMA de-emphasise the importance
of bovine Tb". Then from ERMA’s Agency: “the applicants have provided little factual support to demonstrate efficacy of
aerial compared with ground application of 1080 as it relates to possums and Tb control”..."the relative contributions
of possums and other wildlife (particularly ferrets) to Tb infection of cattle and deer herds are not clearly defined at
this time." And finally, from the ERMA Committee itself: "there is no evidence to support the suggestion that trade is
significantly reduced by not having bovine Tb-free status.”
Since there are now relatively few Tb-infected farms (due to amalgamation of farms, herd testing and movement control) a
relatively cheap, harmless and effective approach to prevent livestock becoming infected by wildlife would be to control
pests only around farm boundaries. In this way Tb-infected wildlife (which may include pigs, cats, hedgehogs, ferrets,
stoats, weasels, rats, deer and feral stock) could be identified, the livestock would be protected, and the vacant
habitat created as pests were eliminated would draw further potential Tb vectors out of wild areas for elimination.
Additionally, livestock can be vaccinated against Tb.
If stupidity prevails and another aerial 1080 poison operation goes ahead, some minimum controls are imperative. An
untreated buffer zone of at least 1 km should be allowed around any catchment used for human or stock drinking water,
taking care that all tributaries are identified. In addition, environmental effects must be monitored. Last year, our
Conservation Authority recommended that the Government require the Animal Health Board to begin monitoring for changes
in forest health. Any such monitoring must be comprehensive, competent and independent. History tells us that left to
DoC or the AHB, the results would be frustratingly inadequate.