She prefers a low profile but Tauranga's Jodie Bruning just could be our own version of Erin Brockovich.
Brockovich, of course, famously campaigned for justice over drinking-water pollution in Hinkley, California. Her courage in the face of overwhelming odds and the massive clout of corporations won her acclaim and a movie about her battle.
There's no movie - yet - but Bruning is on a mission to have similar injustices heard in New Zealand.
She is this year's recipient of the Robert Anderson Memorial Award by Amnesty International Tauranga Moana for outstanding contributions to human rights, peace and social justice. Bruning's personal crusade is to expose the frailties of pesticide regulation in New Zealand.
The mother-of-two has spent the best part of seven years self-funding research on the risk of environmental chemicals in our fresh water and the flow-on effect to public health. She says the government obscures the issues to make it hard for the little guy to protect themselves.
On the day we meet, Bruning, in her late-40s, is professionally groomed in a business suit. A necklace with red beads hangs from her neck. Next to her are eight fat books in a brown leather satchel, written by leading academics whose work she says has helped her investigations. She is impassioned and meticulous and spouts off involved facts.
Ballsy and no-nonsense, she's calling for a culture shift from those who've worked long-term in public service or the "machinery of government", as she puts it.
She wants national funding so our scientists can study the latest scientific literature around the risks of commonly used chemicals. She wants them to monitor environmental chemical pollutants in our children and fresh water. And she also wants policy conversation around health risks, particularly endocrine disruption ("hormone hackers") and a legal precautionary approach to chemical regulation.
"We have a biodiversity crisis right now because governments cannot understand or accept that the economy is situated inside world ecosystems," she says.
We have a biodiversity crisis right now because governments cannot understand or accept that the economy is situated inside world ecosystems.
Bruning has a degree in agribusiness and is currently doing a masters in sociology at the University of Auckland. She is also a trustee of New Zealand organisation Physicians and Scientists for Global Responsibility.
Dr Manuel Vallee, senior lecturer in the Department of Sociology and Criminology at the University of Auckland, says Bruning's work is important because human health is inextricably intertwined with ecological health.
"The water we drink, the food we eat and the air we breathe are all taken from our ecosystems. If we harm the sources of those human necessities, we are, in turn, poisoning ourselves."
He adds pesticide use undermines biodiversity in our ecosystems and biodiversity is crucial for preserving ecosystem resilience in the face of changing environmental conditions.
"Resilient ecosystems are crucial to preserving the life-support systems that enable humans to exist on this planet."
For example, neither glyphosate nor metsulfuron-methyl are monitored in our fresh water or groundwater - yet they are commonly applied chemicals. Glyphosate is the active ingredient in Roundup.
She's given many presentations and written several papers on the topic, including co-writing a white paper on glyphosate in 2016, with now retired Green MP Steffan Browning. Ten highly respected scientists, including Professor Jane Goodall, supported the publication.
"If we can't review and discuss the published scientific literature when we regulate a new technology, we shouldn't be authorising a risky chemical for use," she says.
She won't back down on going head-to-head with the big boys and learned how to stand up for herself thanks to her resilient upbringing.
A fearless might
BRUNING was raised in the Australian outback by a single father, after her parents split when her mother was pregnant.
Her father Robin became her sole caregiver when she was 9 months old and he was 38 - he had to prove to a nurse that he could take care of her because he lived on an isolated farm.
Throughout her early childhood, they would escape Wangaratta and go bush into the wilderness of Victoria's High Country.
"He would treat me like an only child, like I was a spare. If I was in his way and he was moving a trailer, I'd get knocked over. It was hard but it stopped me being precious," she explains matter-of-factly. "My dad was tough but extremely loving to me."
They were poor and would fill their days driving a Land Cruiser through the Australian bush, or working on her grandparents' beef and sheep farm. She was just 4 when she drove for the first time, taking the wheel of an old Nissan Patrol, while Robin fed-out on the back.
Robin remarried when she was 8 and she gained both a stepmother and a stepbrother. Life at home was difficult and it was, she says, an unhappy marriage.
With so much going on at home, she never quite fitted in at school.
"If I hadn't gone through that, there's no way in hell I could be doing what I'm doing now."
A plucky Bruning begged to go to boarding school. All family savings were lost with the 1987 stock market crash and Robin could only afford two years of school. "He lost everything," she says. Her father and stepmother have both since died of cancer.
She went to boarding school and was a diligent student because she didn't want to be broke. She remembers running down the school corridors "thanking God" for the opportunity. Her life experience simultaneously sparked a life-long compassion towards marginalised communities.
She did an agribusiness degree at Monash University in Melbourne, which included a practical year at Dookie Agricultural College because she wanted to help farmers.
She ended up in the wine industry and later tourism, before being offered a job with the Victoria State Government at the same time that she met her future husband, software engineer Darren Bruning.
Darren's father is Bay of Plenty Regional Councillor Norm Bruning - the couple have two children together and their son is the third generation at Tauranga Boys' College.
In 2012, the family did a house exchange for a year in France's Lot region, which turned out to be a year of revelation in more ways than one for the inquisitive Bruning.
Before going to France she'd bought a bag of coloured grass seeds for her lawn in lower-Kaimai. She knew the colour meant they were an insecticide but she wanted to know what the chemical was. She phoned her brother-in-law, a dairy farmer, but despite using the seeds in bulk, he didn't know either. The chemical names were not displayed on the bags he told her.
"That's insane," she deplored. "How do we not know?"
She knew from what she'd seen in the papers that it was an insecticide that damages the livelihood of bees.
"It was my first political thing to email the Minister of Primary Industries and ask 'Why don't I know the name of this chemical?' Bees are harmed from long-term (chronic) contamination and mixture effects. Farmers need to know this stuff – they grow clover. In 2019, we still don't have fulltime public scientists researching the impact on hormones from long-term chemical mixture effects on our pollinators, our freshwater fish or our Kiwi kids.
"The injustice of it all and the knowledge of what was in the scientific literature is what started me off."
Taking on the big guns
IN France, she jokes that she did "what any housewife does" and began to look at the original studies supplied by the chemical industry for regulatory risk assessment for glyphosate.
She studied the major pesticide regulatory organisations in the world and discovered that there were no literature reviews of the chemicals used and they didn't analyse the toxicity of the retail formulation. Instead the applicant supplied the data. "It was this year where I would be lying awake at night going 'this is insane!'."
"If the scientific evidence is only coming from the industry that wants the approval, it's not the way it should be. It means that the only safely-regulated food scheme is the organic certification scheme. For all those families that can't afford organic, the system is failing them and we need a massive culture change in government."
She also discovered that none of the studies were published for independent scientists to critique. "So the whole system is a wonderful pile of cards."
When she came home to New Zealand, she fought to have her voice heard by regulators.
They ignored her so she started to write about the changes needed based on her research and published them on a website www.rite-demands.org .
"Throughout the world, most people working in pesticides are only looking at their own regulator. And that's where I'm a little bit different because I can see that the same problematic model is used throughout."
If New Zealand were to synchronise with any organisation, she says it should be with the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) as the EU is a premium market for our farmers.
"Their legislation requires they consider the toxicity of the full formulation and they are closer to looking at how toxic chemicals including pesticides impact our hormone (endocrine system) and set the environment for long-term, chronic diseases."
Eastern Bay of Plenty family physician, Dr Paul Butler says Bruning is a "servant leader" working in a vital area with very little professional support.
He says New Zealand has some of the highest rates of environmentally induced physical and mental disease in the world, however, it's a sad fact that little education is given to health professionals in regards to environmental toxicity.
"As a GP [it's] very difficult to get any toxin testing or to find an appropriately qualified toxicologist to refer patients to. The history of New Zealand's toxin regulation system demonstrates that it is more effective at supporting industry than in applying caution on behalf of public safety."
As a GP (it's) very difficult to get any toxin testing or to find an appropriately qualified toxicologist to refer patients to. The history of New Zealand's toxin regulation system demonstrates that it is more effective at supporting industry than in applying caution on behalf of public safety.
Tauranga's Jean Anderson, the widow of social-justice campaigner Dr Robert Anderson, says Bruning's amnesty award reflects that she is devoted, enthusiastic and that her work needs to be in the public's consciousness.
"I'm not a scientist but I've been with enough people to know when there's sincerity and concern and certainly the area she's working in is of concern to the public," Anderson explains.
"I recall a lady at one of Bob's lectures, a small, very frail person who said 'I don't understand the science of what you said, but I know it's wrong' and I think it reflects the public a great deal. While they don't always understand, they do have an intuitive response about what is good and what isn't."
Bruning has dogged persistence and will keep going with her cause, even if like Brockovich, her fight is a long one. She wants to join the speaking circuit and has taken up the mantle because others may be afraid to or don't understand the science.
"To be honest, I would just prefer to be a little researcher and writer in a corner that gets printed," she says. "But the more I research, the more I realise I've actually got to learn how to speak out. I want people to get curious."
Environmental Protection Authority responds
The Bay of Plenty Times approached the Ministry for the Environment for a response to Bruning's statements. The ministry referred us to the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA).
Clark Ehlers, the EPA's general manager – hazardous substances and new organisms group, made the following statement:
The Environmental Protection Authority is one of a number of government agencies which has a part to play in protecting our environment and public health.
The EPA carefully balances environmental, social and economic factors to protect the way of life New Zealanders want now, and in the future.
The EPA regulates pesticides under the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act. We put rules in place, called controls, to manage the risks of hazardous substances and to safeguard people and the environment.
Agrichemicals, timber treatments, vertebrate toxic agents (VTAs) and anti-fouling paints that are hazardous substances require an approval under the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms (HSNO) Act before they can be imported or manufactured in New Zealand.
We require applicants seeking approval for a new substance to provide robust data about its composition and proposed use. We also demand a high level of scientific evidence about its safety and effects before considering whether it can be approved for import into New Zealand, or manufacture.
As well as evaluating and approving substances, we reassess substances and make decisions about whether the controls need to be updated, or whether the substance needs to be banned in light of current data and scientific evidence.
Last year we introduced a priority chemicals list, which identifies the chemicals we believe are most in need of review in New Zealand. We are working on reassessing chemicals on that list.
We consider the risk to bees and other pollinators, such as moths, butterflies, hoverflies, and birds, and set rules around when, how and where insecticides should be used, in order to protect them.
We take our responsibility to protect the environment very seriously. We review international developments and are always on the alert for research that might indicate our rules in New Zealand need to be tightened.