Introduction

1080 has never contaminated New Zealand’s drinking water supplies. In natural waterways, it dilutes to harmless levels within 24 hours and breaks down into non-toxic products.

There’s a wealth of research, regulation and testing around 1080 and water confirming 1080 operations do not adversely affect your local water supply, natural waterways or aquatic life. Let’s look at the facts.

Drinking water supplies

Is your drinking water safe if supply flows from an aerial 1080 operation area?

Yes it is. No drinking water supply has ever been contaminated by 1080.

Between 1990 and September 2018, 1,380 water samples were taken from New Zealand drinking water supplies, including streams with water intake points. The samples were tested by Landcare Research.

  • The tests used are incredibly sensitive. They can detect the toxin at 100,000th of a gram per litre – a dilution 35 times weaker than the Ministry of Health allows in drinking water (3.5 parts per billion).

Five of the 1,380 tested samples showed harmless traces of 1080, which were all well below the Ministry of Health’s contamination standards for drinking water. The levels would have diluted further within hours. The other 1,375 samples showed no trace of 1080.

When and where are the tests done?

Drinking water supplies are tested about 12–24 hours after aerial 1080 operations – when the chance of toxin detection is highest considering distances and flow rates. The sample sites are usually chosen by a local public health officer to meet the legal requirements for pesticide operations. Territorial local authorities and regional councils collect the samples on behalf of the public health office, then Landcare Research test them.

Water intakes are often shut down before an operation until tests confirm there is no contamination.

What about long-term exposure to undetectable 1080 in water?

Did you know that each time you drink black tea, you’re exposed to detectable levels of the 1080 toxin, fluoroacetate? We all consume small quantities of toxins every day without being harmed.

Even if you consumed a harmless trace amount of 1080 before it biodegraded, your body would quickly excrete it. 1080 can’t bioaccumulate in the body. Tests have indicated it is highly unlikely to be carcinogenic, and it doesn’t have the properties of endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs).

Natural waterways

Is stream water safe to drink in areas where there was a recent aerial 1080 operation?

Stream water is exceedingly unlikely to contain levels of 1080 higher than that allowed in drinking water by the Ministry of Health.

During an aerial 1080 operation, 3– 6 baits are sown over each tennis court-sized area. Major watercourses are avoided. Baits sometimes fall into streams, where they quickly dilute and biodegrade. Here’s how that happens:

What happens to 1080 baits in streams?

The 1080 leaches out and dilutes to harmless levels within 24 hours:
  1. A 6-g bait contains 0.009 g of 1080 (99.85% of the bait is non-toxic material).
  2. If the bait goes in water, the 1080 starts to leach out and dilute immediately – because it’s a salt.
  3. The effect of dilution is so strong that water samples taken near baits within 24 hours of an operation rarely show levels above that allowed in drinking water by the Ministry of Health. The further downstream you are from the bait, the more diluted the 1080 will be.
  4. After 24 hours, it’s unusual to detect any 1080 in the water – tests have been performed at many operation sites, occasionally with baits in view. The few exceptions were still at harmless levels.
Then the 1080 starts to break down:

The fluoroacetate toxin used in 1080 bait is found in poisonous plants in Australia, Africa and South America. It breaks down in the natural environment through biodegradation:

  • Microorganisms start to separate chemicals in the 1080, changing it into harmless products.
  • The breakdown speed is affected by the temperature of the water and the types of microorganisms living in it. Laboratory studies have shown 1080 falling below detectable levels within 2–6 days.

This means 1080 doesn’t accumulate in the environment, making it safer to carry out successive aerial 1080 operations if needed.

Crayfish/kōura, fish and 1080

Crayfish are tolerant to 1080, and fish (including eels) are highly resistant. None are adversely affected by aerial 1080 operations:

  • Studies of aquatic life in streams containing bait pellets have found no effects on crayfish, trout or eels.
  • Longfin eels that were fed on possum meat containing 1080 residue suffered no adverse effects.

Aquatic life is highly unlikely to come across toxic levels of 1080 in bait pellets. Bait pellets that appear intact in the water 36 hours after an operation are most likely non-toxic – that’s because 1080 rapidly leaches out of bait, then dilutes and biodegrades. 

Are they safe to eat?

The Environmental Protection Authority and the New Zealand Food Safety Authority consider the consumption of wild-caught fish and crayfish from 1080 operation areas unlikely to pose a food safety risk to humans.

To minimise food safety concerns, the Ministry for Primary Industries advises anglers to wait 7 days after an aerial 1080 operation. Make sure you are fishing legally.

References and further reading

Eason, C.; Miller, A.; Ogilvie, S.; Fairweather, A. 2010. An updated review of the toxicology and ecotoxicology of sodium fluoroacetate (1080) in relation to its use as a pest control tool in New Zealand. New Zealand Journal of Ecology 35(1): 1–20.

Eason, C.; Wickstrom, M.; Turck, P.; Wright, G. 1999: A review of recent regulatory and environmental toxicology studies on 1080: results and implications. New Zealand Journal of Ecology 23(2): 129–137.

Landcare Research water sample testing results (unpublished).

Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment. 2011. Evaluating the use of 1080: predators, poisons and silent forests.

Suren, A.M.; Bonnett, M.L. 2006: Consumption of baits containing sodium fluoroacetate (1080) by the New Zealand freshwater crayfish (Paranephrops planifrons). New Zealand Journal of Marine and Freshwater Research 40:1, 169-178.

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