Chemical Consequences – Transcript

Some batches of 245-T were made from contaminated ingredients of Agent Orange illegally imported into Queensland and Western Australia during the Vietnam War. This kind of common weedkiller was used until the early 1990s. Now at least one state government is finally confronting the effects.

Sunday 18 April 2004 | Original Source:  "chemical-consequences"


Mark Horstman: There aren’t many herbicides so commonly used that their chemical formulas become household words.

Few weedkillers have enjoyed so many thirsty politicians lining up over the years to cheerfully assure us that they’re safe enough to drink.

But the effect of these chemicals on human health has been hotly debated, since they first sparked controversy as the twin ingredients of the notorious Agent Orange.

245-T, and 24-D. You’ve probably heard of them. They’ve been sprayed from backpacks, tractors and planes, on the golf courses, railways lines, roads and crops of Australia for half a century.

unmarked-drums (Chemical Consequences)

Old unmarked herbicide drums in Derby

Hello, welcome to Background Briefing. I’m Mark Horstman, and you’re listening to ABC Radio National.

This story starts nearly 30 years ago in West Australia’s remote Kimberley region, where a State government’s use of 245-T and 24-D has come back to haunt us.

Not just as an isolated incident a long time ago, but a wake-up call for our protectors of public health and the medical profession, because these herbicides have been used in large amounts in every State.

And today, medicine is under the microscope, as people discover that science is unable to resolve their illnesses when they don’t follow the textbook.

kimberly APB workers (Chemical Consequences)

Kimberley APB workers

Young untrained workers were supplied with drums of weedkiller, many of them contaminated with potent toxins. One of the workers was leading hand Carl Drysdale. He thought something was strange as he looked inside the drums, but had no idea of the hazard as he filled up his backpack sprayer.

Carl Drysdale: Now this stuff that we got was dark brown, it was grainy, it blocked up the nozzles of the spray units, it was very thick and streaky. It definitely wasn’t the regular run-of-the-mill 245-T. We certainly questioned where these drums came from because they were unmarked 44-gallon drums, but unknown to us at that time, we didn’t realise that it had to be a registered chemical. We were ignorant of the fact that this stuff was illegal chemical.

Mark Horstman: At high levels of exposure the 245-T type of chemicals and their toxic payloads can cause cancers and other damage. But more commonly, people like the Kimberley workers suffer a grab-bag of seemingly unrelated, nonspecific illnesses that can’t be neatly labelled.

Dr Andrew Harper has investigated the men’s health complaints. He worries that the medical profession may not be capable of linking chemical cause to health effect.

Andrew Harper: It’s also a real social challenge for medicine to get its head around the fact that we are now in a chemically contaminated environment and that there are people in all sorts of walks of life who are getting ill with nonspecific symptoms which we need to be able to get a handle on and work with. Medicine is strongly based in pathology, in physical pathology, where when you talk about heart disease, you’re shown a bottle with a heart in it, and when you’re unable to produce some physical manifestation of an illness, there is a general degree of suspicion.

Mark Horstman: Now this is a headache for governments and corporations relying on science for clear answers to people claiming harm from chemicals, and those who want to use science to prove their case.

We think we know a lot about chemistry, but in fact we don’t know much about how different individuals are affected by a world filled with a hodge-podge of new chemical mixtures.

Death to Weeds

This is box title
Weeds are our common enemy, plaguing the homeowner, ruining golf courses and our tempers, cursing us with hay fever, piling up work by millions of man hours for railroads and highway maintenance departments. But worst of all is their never-ending warfare against the American farmers. Revolutionary chemical killers are being produced to help rid us of these costly pests.

Mark Horstman: 245-T and 24-D are members of the same family of chemicals, the chlorinated phenoxy acids. They were first produced commercially in the US in the 1940s, a new breed of synthetic chemicals promising a revolution in agriculture and pest control.

They work quickly and selectively because they mimic a plant’s growth hormone. Basically, they make a weed grow itself to death.

Their use in Australia dates back to the 1950s. Over two decades in Victoria alone, one million kilograms of active constituent of 245-T and 24-D were splashed on weeds.

They were popular because they were cheap, effective, and could be made in huge quantities. And they didn’t seem to harm anybody at the time.

Professor Ben Selinger is the former Professor of Chemistry at the Australian National University in Canberra. He traced where our herbicides came from in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.

Ben Selinger: It was coming almost certainly from companies that had a big market in Vietnam, the market suddenly ceased when the Americans stopped using herbicide, and they were looking for places to sell it, so it was being dumped in Australia, from Japan, from the UK, from the USA, and a lot of it was coming through Singapore. It was fascinating looking at the Australian Bureau of Statistics figures, because Singapore was not known for a big manufacturer of herbicides, and nothing came from Singapore before ’69 and nothing came after ’71, so we got this huge big spike of imports via Singapore appearing in our import statistics.

Mark Horstman: It wasn’t the toxicity of 245-T itself that stopped its use in Vietnam, but an invisible contaminant that could be reduced, but not totally removed.

It’s the most toxic of the 210 members of the dioxin family, known as 2378-tetrachloro-dibenzo-para-dioxin, or TCDD for short.

Ben Selinger: Just in the ordinary course of making the chemicals in those days, the levels were fairly high. We know this because there analyses of levels in the UK, in the USA and Japan, because they needed them to get export licences and so on. So yes, the levels were such that there were questions of whether they were commercially safe to use. Material of that same quality almost certainly came into Australia.

Mark Horstman: 245-T has now been banned in Australia, but pinning down exactly when is not that straightforward. Co-ordinator of the National Toxics Network in Australia, Dr Mariann Lloyd-Smith, explains why.

Mariann Lloyd-Smith: It’s a strange one, we don’t actually ban them in quite the same way as other countries do, but 245-T is no longer included in the record of approved active constituents for chemical products, and therefore effectively cannot be used in Australia. So in a way I think that could be called a de facto ban.

Mark Horstman: When did it stop being used around Australia?

Mariann Lloyd-Smith: I knew you would ask that, and it’s an extremely difficult one to answer. The reason being is that prior to the national regulatory agency being established in around ’92 through to ’94, registration of chemicals was dealt with at a State level, and so each State may do things quite differently to another State. Certainly I know 245-T has not been used since ’96, but other than that I can’t really say to you when exactly it was taken off the market.

Mark Horstman: In Western Australia, men who sprayed herbicides for the government have been calling for an inquiry for two decades, and the current State government is now into its third one in three years.

Bird call sounds at Fitzroy River
Fitzroy floodplain studded with boab trees (picture David Morgan)

Derby is a small town perched on the red edge of the vast Kimberley region in the north of Western Australia. During the wet season it often gets marooned, as the wild Fitzroy River spills across the floodplain that’s studded with old boab trees.

Music –

…well, I can see that Fitzroy River in my mind, and I’m thinking about all of those good times…

Many of the men who used to spray weeds along the river for the Agriculture Protection Board still live in Derby, and get together for a yarn.

They remember the glory days of their twenties, when the Agriculture Protection Board, or APB, started a special works program for Aboriginal people.

They sprayed Noogoora Burr and Parkinsonia, woody weeds with thorns and prickly seeds, to kill them off in the dry season before the floods could spread their seeds again.

Paddy Watson had been playing football down south, but the prospect of employment brought him home. Like the others, he felt like he’d scored a job for life.

Paddy Watson: Well, to be out bush and on the river was every man’s dream. To even get a job at the time, ‘Oh jeez, I’ve got a job’, everyone used to say then. ‘With the Ag. Department’. ‘Right, you’re with the government’. You know ? It was good. And we’re going to live off the land. At the time we wanted the job, every one of us. We were only too glad to get back to town, and ‘Jeez, we’ve got a job’, and we were so proud.

Mark Horstman: One of the men supervising the spray gangs was Carl Drysdale, a butcher who came to the Kimberley in 1975 looking for a new life.

Carl Drysdale: Just a bunch of young blokes out in the bush, and very happy to have a job outside, outdoors. Living a dream basically, spraying this stuff, getting paid for doing things that you liked doing. We were told that this stuff was harmless, you could drink it – it was so harmless you could drink it.

Mark Horstman: Another leading hand was Ron Delvin, and the end of a day’s work is still fresh in his mind.

Ron Delvin: Oh yes, it was pretty basic. You got up in the morning, you boiled your billy, rolled your swag, got out and did a decent day’s work. By about 8, 9 o’clock in the morning it’s sweltering, so you strip down probably to just your jeans and boots, and you started spraying diesel and 245-T just walking up and down.

Fitzroy River near Derby (picture David Morgan)

Lunch time would come, you’d knock off, you’d have your lunch, all on the back of the vehicles and stuff like that. Our swags would be – you used to carry them on the same vehicle with the poisons and stuff like that. 

 Then we’d spray through to the afternoon, knock off, go back to camp and have a nice little swim in the icy-cold river, because there was no hot water systems or anything else.

Paddy Watson: See all them rainbow colours come out of the bloody water, floating on top of the water, all that grease and that poison shit there. But every time we come to town after ten days out there, even the sheilas and all that, we walked in the bar, ‘Here they come’, all the stinkpots sort of thing, you know. And we didn’t know we reeked of it until we got that used to the shit.

Mark Horstman: So you were carrying it around in backpacks, and did you get it all over you too?

Paddy Watson: Oh yes, just leaked everywhere. It just went into your skin with your sweat, you farted it, coughed it, you could smell it all the way. Even in the tucker, where we used to carry poison with the tucker and all that. The greens and that, spread right through it, but we didn’t know, we just got used to it.

Mark Horstman: Seeing the effects of the sprays made Carl think that a poison so effective on plants couldn’t be healthy for people.

Carl Drysdale: Within a day or two, it almost died straight away from the minute you hit it with this stuff, it just killed it like boom! – stone dead. The leaves would go yellow, within three days the plant would be completely dead.

Mark Horstman: So when you were working, it was pretty hot, and sticky, and prickly, what was it like to carry this chemical around, and what kind of protective gear were you using?

Carl Drysdale: Yes, well we had no protective gear at all, and we had this stuff on our back or slung over our shoulders, and you were covered in the stuff, from morning till night. The recommendations for the use of this chemical are that it’s so volatile that it should not be used above 24-degrees Celsius. Now there would not be a day that we used this stuff that would be below 34-degrees Celsius. It’s probably more like 40-degrees.

Mark Horstman: And this is what makes the Kimberley case such an intense chemical exposure. Men lived and worked with volatile herbicides for ten days straight each fortnight, some over several years, in the sweltering monsoonal climate.

A range of unexplained symptoms, of nonspecific illnesses, were starting to emerge. And then in 1983, one of their workmates in Derby died suddenly from a heart attack.

Carl Drysdale: This is a 33-year-old leading hand who prior to his employment was as fit as a mallee bull, like one of the fittest people I’ve ever seen. I’ll tell you what it says here on this form filled out by the doctor who attends the death of somebody, and it says, ‘The deceased had a history of hypertension over the past seven years and has suffered from asthma since childhood. He has been exposed to the chemical 245-T over the past seven years. Recent chest x-rays showed no abnormalities. Details of drugs suspected, this is of killing him, 245-T. Signed by Dr Kelly and Dr Wong’, and no-one had any influence on this conclusion whatsoever, apart from these doctors. Nobody knew about it until years later. His family discovered that this is what was written on his death documents, that 245-T had actually killed him. They were outraged, I mean they suspected it, but they were never told it.

Mark Horstman: Other men were getting sick too. They feared something was terribly wrong. They started asking for answers from the State government and the APB. They were especially suspicious about the mysterious unmarked drums of herbicide, containing 245-T that looked like molasses, instead of its usual oily honey colour.

Carl Drysdale: We actually asked if it came from Vietnam and we were laughed at and told it was harmless and just get on and do it and leave the research for the research people.

Mark Horstman: Carl Drysdale in Derby, a small northern town in Western Australia.

Chemical Industries Kwinana (Chemical Consequences)
Chemical Industries Kwinana (courtesy 7.30 Report)

On the other side of the country, in Canberra, Professor Ben Selinger was testing a theory. Selinger suspected that most of the herbicides stockpiled in Australia in the early ‘70s was 245-T derived from war surplus ingredients contaminated with high levels of dioxin. But he didn’t know exactly how high the levels were.

Ben Selinger: We got this message from a deep throat in Canberra that a rogue batch had come into Australia, that’d been fire damaged in Singapore and this stuff was far worse as far as one could tell, than the ordinary bad stuff that had come into the country. So we wrote some of it up, it got some newspaper coverage and we had this rather frantic phone call from a public servant in Canberra saying a sample of that had been submitted to the Tariff Board, as part of the Tariff Board inquiry, and he still had this sample in his garage, and was it dangerous. And I said, ‘Well, I wouldn’t leave it there, particularly if you’ve got small children. Would you like us to take it away and make it safe?’ And he said, ‘Yes please’, and so two of us went out there, took the sample straight to secure storage at the ANU, and then contacted the government analyst and said, ‘We think you should analyse this’. And several months later, we contacted the Tariff Board again, and they gave us the analysis of this sample, which was actually very, very high in dioxin, which is the crucial component that one worries about in 245-T.

Mark Horstman: How high was the dioxin in that sample?

Ben Selinger: Well the official analyst’s result was that it was 200 times the limit that had been set round about that time and about 2,000 times the limit that would now be regarded as safe.

Mark Horstman: It was imported by a company based in Western Australia, called Chemical Industries Kwinana.

CIK also had sister factories in Queensland and Singapore. The company was a major supplier of herbicides to the Agriculture Protection Board.

Drums at the Kwinana plant (Chemical Consequences)
Drums at the Kwinana plant (courtesy 7.30 Report)

When the sample was tested and the dioxin was found to be 260 times over the legal limit, it was ten years after it had been made into 245-T by Chemical Industries Kwinana.

But it took another 20 years before the worsening health of the former APB workers in the Kimberley, and their belief that they’d been poisoned by unregistered herbicide, resulted in the State government launching an investigation.

In 2001, the government asked Dr Andrew Harper, an occupational physician from Perth, to conduct an independent inquiry.

Dr Harper’s primary method was to interview 90 former workers who had direct contact with the herbicides.

Andrew Harper: It turned out to be a very startling learning experience for me to hear what they’d been through. We had a social group here who really haven’t been listened to, and hadn’t been given a fair go, and worked under really adverse work circumstances which were not appropriate. 

APB workers spraying along the Fitzroy (Chemical Consequences)
APB workers spraying along the Fitzroy

The actual training that people had with regard to safe practices either didn’t exist or were very cursory. So they were not prepared to work with chemicals.

Mark Horstman:

The question of how many have died as a direct result of their exposure to the herbicides is yet to be answered, but Dr Harper is in no doubt what caused some of them.

Andrew Harper: There have been about 40 deaths I think it is, of the people who are known to be working there. Some of them have died of cancer, some of them have died of conditions which are known to be related to exposure to dioxin. Yes, there have been deaths, but in terms of analysing them, in terms of attributing given deaths to the exposure, this has not been done on a one-to-one basis. It hasn’t been verified from a medical perspective that yes, this person’s illness definitely caused their death.

Mark Horstman: How far do we need to go to verify this? Do we in fact need to verify this?

Andrew Harper: Yes, well this is a very difficult problem. I think that if we were to say that we will only use the strictest scientific methods to come to any conclusion regarding the cause of illness, we would be definitely excluding a number of illnesses and deaths because of the conservative nature of medical science when it decides that A causes B. And I think that the way to handle this in a fair and social way is to take the more open approach where you say ‘On the balance of probability did this chemical cause illness?’ And that was the basis on which I drew my conclusions when I did my interviews, and it was really detective work in saying: Here are people who report to be perfectly well before they started, and they then work in circumstances which are unsafe, they are exposed to lots of chemicals, mixtures of chemicals, and they then get sick, and some of them continue to be sick. Now when you put all of this information together you then come up with a picture which says: ‘Well it seems probable that some of these people have got ill because of this’. In other words, I think we need to be using the clinical history to make the diagnosis, and I think society ought to be using that to make its conclusion, and I think the government ought to be doing the same.

Mark Horstman: Most of the 90 people Dr Harper interviewed were exposed to the herbicides on a daily basis, many of them for 4 months a year, or longer.

Forty-five former workers reported family reproductive problems soon after they were exposed, most commonly miscarriage, as well as foetal defects, infertility, premature birth and stillborn babies.

The most common illnesses people suffer now are those affecting the nervous system such as headaches, skin disorders, such as rashes, joint pain, and fatigue.

Dr Harper noted these are similar to the symptoms that people remembered having when they first started getting sick.

So the W.A. government responded by answering his inquiry, with another inquiry.

This time it was called an expert medical panel, comprising two epidemiologists, a toxicologist, and two physicians, one from New South Wales WorkCover.

Now there were two very different strategies in play. On one side, Dr Harper had gathered information and clinical histories by talking directly to 90 men. On the other, the new panel’s job was to investigate whether Dr Harper’s conclusions were scientifically accurate.

The panel didn’t speak to the men. It did a desktop analysis of the death records and the cancer registry records of more than 300 former workers. The panel found slightly higher rates of death and cancer amongst the APB workers.

But the former workers, most of them now in their 40s and 50s, were told there is little scientific evidence that the illnesses they reported to Dr Harper were caused by exposure to the herbicides.

The panel was headed up by cancer epidemiologist Professor Bruce Armstrong, Head of the School of Public Health at the University of Sydney.

The panel didn’t attempt to get access to the workers’ medical records.

Bruce Armstrong: I think it would be fair to say that the medical profession in the Kimberley has found it difficult to deal with the problems that these men presented to them. And I think that’s because they were not able to find any easily diagnosable disease, so what you’ve got is a group of people who were sick, they’re feeling very unwell but it defies the normal ‘take a history, do a physical examination, do some tests’ process, and so they were not able to find things and therefore they would be inclined to feel that they’d failed in some way to help this person and thereafter that becomes a little bit embarrassing to them, and not something they particularly want to confront.

Mark Horstman: What’s the relationship between this mixture of chemicals, 245-T, 24-D, their dioxin impurities, and birth defects? Do you think it was adequately considered in the review?

Bruce Armstrong: [pause] Very much a matter of opinion. I think that it is implausible that pregnant wives would have had sufficient exposure to dioxin or to 245-T, to have been able to have a teratogenic effect, and for that reason I personally don’t think it’s an issue that needed extensive investigation. Having said that, I am not party to the extensive information on what people say had been the problem. What I can say is that when those kind of claims are tracked down, it is very commonly the case that it’s very difficult to substantiate what the claims are.

Mark Horstman: This isn’t what many of the former workers wanted to hear. But in terms of cancer, the result is a landmark in occupational health.

Given that 1 in every 3 Australian males develop cancer in their lifetimes, often with a time lag of up to 30 years before they emerge, it’s not often that a link is made, and Professor Armstrong is prepared to make it.

Bruce Armstrong: Someone who was materially exposed to dioxin containing herbicide, and gets cancer, may be considered to have suffered from an occupationally related cancer. If you combine that probable assessment – and that’s in humans, together with the sufficient evidence in animals, there would be some people who would say that’s enough, without specific evidence in this particular exposed group of an increased risk of cancer to consider that a cancer would be an occupationally-caused disease. So I think that our precedent will probably be quite strong in the way in which cancer in other herbicide exposed workers might be treated, but I don’t think it offers any other precedent.

Mark Horstman: Bruce Armstrong.

For the government Minister who set up the inquiries in the first place, the findings from Armstrong’s panel are a lot easier to deal with than those from Dr Harper.

Accepting Harper’s recommendations would need a completely overhauled compensation system and much more money.

But for Kim Chance, the Minister for Agriculture in Western Australia, there was still a lot to apologise for.

After the panel produced their report in February this year, Kim Chance spoke to WA’s Stateline program on ABC Television.

Kim Chance: Well we apologise for our own actions in taking three years in government to get this far. It’s been a long, hard road to travel. We apologise for the failure of successive governments to have the courage to actually lift the lid on this issue, and this has been something that, for those people in the Kimberley who’ve been left to fight this battle themselves, without representation, it’s been a very difficult and frustrating thing, it’s become symbolic of their isolation in many ways. It’s a very sad story. At the very least we’ve broken through that, we’ve accepted responsibility, but I think it’s time to say sorry that we couldn’t have done it earlier.

Mark Horstman: Kim Chance, Minister for Agriculture in Western Australia.

The government has decided that the 17 people who have cancer, and the families or dependents of workers who have died of cancer, are eligible for fast-tracked compensation under the WorkCover scheme.

But there’s little in the outcome that strengthens the hand of people with illnesses other than cancer, that is, the majority of the former workers.

They’re left to apply to the workers’ compensation system in the normal slow way, as a number of them had already done before the inquiries.

Also frustrated about the second inquiry is the man who ran the first one, Dr Harper.

Andrew Harper: The weakness in the whole thing was the question that he was given. It was set up really in such a way that one could predict the outcome. It has in fact set a standard of saying ‘Well we will accept the problems if they’re scientifically substantiated’, but it’s sort of leaving it open to society to make their judgement whether we’ll accept the non-specific symptoms. That’s a cop-out, and the social problem that we have in the Kimberley is that there are people with non-specific symptoms who are unwell, they feel alienated as a result of their experience, and I’m fearful now that the report that I’ve done and subsequently the report that Professor Armstrong’s committee has done, is not really going to pick up and really help the people with the non-specific symptoms. I think it’s socially unjust, and I think that it is an inappropriate use of science. We’ve got to use new paradigms to be able to define what’s going on, and not rest in the security of a scientific method which really is biased against making a diagnosis as opposed to being sensitive to picking up new and upcoming problems.

Mark Horstman: On the phone from his Parliamentary office in Perth, Kim Chance seems to think that he might have a point. But as a senior Minister in the Gallup Government, he rejects any suggestion of a cop-out.

Kim Chance: Well I’m very surprised at that, but Dr Harper has indicated in the past that it is possible to look at the health effect on people in a more holistic way than simply going through the precise question of disease by disease and symptom by symptom. I think it’s a novel view of life that you can do things like that. I think it is unbelievably difficult to establish that in any scientific manner. The fact is we have the workers’ compensation system that requires scientific identification of harm before that harm can be compensable. How you do that is a matter for the workers’ compensation system. I have some sympathy for Dr Harper’s point of view; I think it probably is true that people can be quite unwell and yet it’s hard to point to a specific symptom or a specific disease, but that’s really a matter that needs to be dealt with within the medical fraternity, and within the Workers’ Compensation system. It’s not something that as Minister for Agriculture I can really hold a view on.

Mark Horstman: The dioxin-laced herbicide not only found its way to Western Australia, but to Queensland as well. In fact, ten times as much came in through Brisbane, where a company called Farm Chemicals had a factory in Eagle Farm.

Contaminated site – Paul Davison at the former Farm Chemicals factory

Farm Chemicals was the sister company to Chemical Industries Kwinana. It closed down 20 years ago, leaving behind a contaminated site.

In his early 20s, Paul Davison was a process worker at Farm Chemicals. He made 245-T and 24-D herbicides during the time that surplus chemicals from the Vietnam War were being dumped in Australia.

Now with his grandkids under the raintree in his suburban Brisbane backyard, Paul remembers the day when all the trucks started turning up with the strange drums.

Paul Davison: The plant was going full-bore when the Vietnam war was on. Yes, it was going 24 hours a day. We started getting these semitrailer loads full of all these drums coming in, and they were all different coloured drums. Some were marked, some weren’t. Some were marked 245-T esters, in black drums. Anyway this particular batch, the first lot that came in, they unloaded it with the forklift off the truck, and I went to inspect it to have a look at it. I took a bung out of one of the drums and looked inside, and it was all black, and not a golden colour like it should have been. And it was like a gooey black solid, and it had sort of white crystals growing on the top. And I thought to myself, ‘Hmm, this looks a bit strange.’ And I said, ‘Look, there’s something wrong with this stuff, it’s not the same, there’s something wrong with it.’ And the chemist said, well he’d come out and have a look and he said, ‘Well what we’ll do is, we’ll whack it in the hot water tray and we’ll melt it and we’ll be able to use it that way.’ And we put it in the trough to melt it.

Anyway after a couple of hours, I thought ‘Oh well, I’ll go and have a look, might be able to whack a couple out and start processing it’. I put a face mask on and carefully I was trying to undo the bung out of one of these drums, and as I was opening it, it sort of exploded and went right up in the air and all over me and burnt my testicles and my penis and they had to take me to hospital. I was in terrible pain, they gave me morphine on the way there and all the rest of it.

Mark Horstman: Paul Davison. Since that accident, he suffers a range of illnesses, such as rashes, thyroid problems, stomach pains, headaches, and violent tempers. His case has not yet been before an inquiry.

Farm Chemicals was one of the major Australian companies manufacturing herbicides at the time, supplying Queensland government departments and exporting overseas.

In the ‘70s, forestry workers in Queensland’s state-owned pine plantations sprayed 245-T herbicides to control groundsel weed, and to kill off shrubs or trees competing with the pines.

Alan Spedding was one of them. He’s worked for Forestry in the pine plantations of south-east Queensland for 27 years until a couple of years ago.

Ted Norman in Beerwah (Chemical Consequences)
Former forestry workers Alan Spedding (left) and Ted Norman in Beerwah

We met in the park at Beerwah, a busy hub for the timber district in the shadow of the Glasshouse Mountains. Alan told me he became a union rep, partly because of the way Forestry management at the time enforced the use of herbicide.

Alan Spedding: Anyone who spoke out against poisons was put on what we call the punishment block. They had a cookhouse with a wood stove and if you spoke out against management, you got put on the punishment block, you chopped wood all day. I didn’t believe that it would hurt you, because we had a government medical officer come and tell us that we could drink it, and one of the guys poured some in a glass for him to drink and he said, ‘Statements like that will get you nowhere in life, lad.’ And it was only after I got crook from it, I came out, and as you can see, this acne looking stuff all over my body, and headaches and vomiting. I went to the doctor, and when I walked in the doctor’s office, he said ‘You’ve had enough. No more.’ And gave me a certificate. And when I produced the certificate I was given notice not long after. As the certificate vanished, I don’t know what happened to it, a lot of them sort of things used to happen those days in forestry, I ended up with 3 certificates in the finish stating that I was never ever to spray poisons, and I don’t think any of them exist nowadays. I got on to the union and they said not to worry about it, we’ll have you reinstated, and I was reinstated…

Mark Horstman: The government medical officer that Alan Spedding remembers was toxicologist Dr Manny Rathus. From 1957, he was Director of Industrial Medicine for the Queensland government for nearly 30 years, a period of dramatic change as Queensland grew from country town to world expo.

Dr Rathus is now in his late 80s, and remains a man of his time. At his old family home in Brisbane, he made coffee, and we discussed whether herbicides were also safe to drink.

Manny Rathus: We still say they have a low acute toxicity, 24-D, 245-T. If you swallowed a small amount of the diluted material that you use as a pesticide, your chances of symptoms, they’re very small. If you swallow the concentrate because you’re angry or you want to escape your income tax well you’re a bloody idiot in the first place.

Mark Horstman: What if there’s a level of dioxins, like TCDD in that? Is that going to have a different effect?

Manny Rathus: No, the only thing they do that we know positively, is chloracne, which is a skin condition.

Mark Horstman: What role did your Division of Industrial Medicine have in monitoring the content or the quality of these herbicides?

Manny Rathus: Well I mean in scientific terms, a hell of a lot.

Mark Horstman: You were testing batches, were manufacturers required to submit batches to you for monitoring?

Manny Rathus: If I wanted to at the clinical level, yes. But what Primary Industries did I don’t know, I mean that was their business. But the force of law for anything I suggested applied to the Department of Labour and Industries, and they took it as gospel. I was the prophet.

Mark Horstman: I’m just interested in terms of evidence based medicine, what evidence you had there in that time, to advise the Departments and the workers who were using these chemicals about what the health effects were. Did you advise them about the health impacts of dioxin?

Manny Rathus: I’ve already told you what they were, the only apparent effect is chloracne.

Mark Horstman: Did you advise them about that?

Manny Rathus: Oh, I’m sure I did, I can’t imagine I wouldn’t have.

Mark Horstman: Here’s an example from 1977 of a document that you sent to Department of Primary Industries about forestry and 245-T and 24-D.

Manny Rathus: I’ve got to read this to see what the hell I said.

Mark Horstman: This is a reading of some extracts from the letter.

Subject: Toxicology of 245-T, 24-D, and Tordon
To the Director of Operations, Department of Forestry, 17th March, 1977. Subject: Toxicology of 245-T, 24-D, and Tordon As requested, I am submitting for your information and particularly for your spray mixers and spray operators, a summary of present knowledge and experience with the use of these materials as far as health hazards are concerned. 245-T: This hormone weedicide has been used for many years and has exhibited no problems whatever in men using the material in spray operations. Deliberate swallowing of relatively small quantities by volunteers shows that it is harmless.

Manny Rathus:

…you can read that to them over the bloody interview, just say that there it is, that’s the statement.

Mark Horstman: If you knew that dioxins had health impacts such as chloracne, why didn’t you mention it in this advice?

Manny Rathus: Oh for – I mean you don’t write a bloody encyclopaedia every time. If they wanted to know more, they could then ask me. Primary Industries could then say, what about the other chemicals?

Mark Horstman: But isn’t that the point, that at the time, people didn’t know about dioxins outside the scientific world?

Manny Rathus: No this was in 19 – I could tell you that in 1977 what we said was you could get chloracne.

Mark Horstman: Not in there.

Manny Rathus: No but this is as a weedicide, so you ask them to mix them properly, you don’t get chloracne, and then it’s chloracne, it doesn’t produce a systemic problem, I’ve gone into that.

Mark Horstman: But enough was known in the ‘70s to change the maximum permissible level of TCDD. I mean in 1971 –

Manny Rathus (Chemical Consequences)
Dr Manny Rathus at home in Brisbane

Manny Rathus:

Well I don’t know that. We had a level which was quite reasonable.

I’ve got no sense of avoiding any issues over there.

I mean you have to write a whole book and today you’d have to put out about DNA and genetic damage and God knows what else.

Mark Horstman: Manny Rathus. As the former Director of Industrial Medicine in the Queensland government, he shaped policy on chemical use over four decades. What he says is reflected in the recollections of the forestry workers.

Ted Norman started working for Queensland Forestry in 1972, and was there for 25 years. He recalls what his employer said about the health effects of herbicides.

Ted Norman: Yes, they did make this statement, that was in ’77 when they brought that out that nobody in this department has ever been affected by hormone sprays, and yet I had certificates to say so. There was a number of people being affected by hormone sprays, they had certificates for it, but according to them nobody has.

Mark Horstman: How could they say that? Did they examine anybody?

Ted Norman: No, that’s just the way they put it. They just said nobody had been affected by hormone sprays.

Mark Horstman: Did they see your medical certificate?

Ted Norman: They had them on file. But they didn’t exist as far as they were concerned. I think it was after that, that they disappeared.

Mark Horstman: Did the Forestry Department ever get a doctor or a medical specialist in to talk to workers who were feeling ill and check your health?

Ted Norman: No, not at all.

Mark Horstman: So you had to do all that yourself, and go to doctors to find out for yourself?

Ted Norman: Yes, you went to the doctor yourself and got a certificate and then they just more or less laughed at it, and say ‘nothing wrong with it’.

Mark Horstman: Background Briefing contacted the current DPI Forestry in Queensland. We requested an interview about the incidence of spray-related illness in forestry workers over the last 30 years, particularly in the south-east Queensland pine plantations. Forestry’s senior executives refused to make any comment about herbicides.

In terms of herbicide history, Queensland and Western Australia are linked by 245-T made from the same contaminated ingredients by related companies.

Background Briefing requested an interview with the Queensland Minister for Primary Industries, Henry Palaszczuk, about what the two States might have in common.

The Minister did not respond, but he’s said previously that a search of his Department’s records revealed no evidence of the so-called ‘rogue batch’ of 245-T.

There have been no recent public inquiries into the health issues of 245-T use by the Queensland government.

One of the take-home messages for Queensland from the W.A. inquiries is that it would be folly to understate the impact of the rogue batch of 245-T, but to overstate it, obscures the fact that the levels of TCDD in that class of herbicides in those days were much higher than today’s standards.

Those inquiries lead Professor Bruce Armstrong to blame dioxin as one of the causes of the health problems appearing now, thirty years down the track.

Bruce Armstrong: The known levels of dioxin in the herbicide, the known potency of dioxin as a carcinogen in animals, and the permitted levels of dioxin in the herbicide at that time, were sufficient to allow us to believe that yes, their exposure could have caused their cancers. So we did not depend in any sense on the belief that there was a rogue batch with higher levels of dioxin in it.

Mark Horstman: And while 245-T is no longer a registered chemical, 24-D certainly is. In terms of the amount used each year, 24-D is still among our top 5 herbicides.

Some research shows that the chlorophenoxy class of chemicals can affect our body’s systems by reaching into our cells and changing the way they process energy, detoxify waste, and build DNA.

Dr David Loschke is the principal scientist for our national chemical regulator, the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicine Authority. He says the registration of 24-D in Australia is currently under review.

David Loschke: There have been some questions raised about whether or not it might have the potential to cause cancer and because of that then there were flow-on questions about the safety of agricultural workers who might be using it. There were also some concerns about environmental impacts; it has a mild toxicity to birds and fish, some species.

Mark Horstman: It’s not news that the world is drenched by chemicals. And it’s not news that different people are affected in different ways.

It took decades for tobacco, or lead in petrol, or asbestos to be seen as dangerous hazards that should be removed from society.

Each of these shifts in attitude come at great cost to individuals, corporations and governments.

Often we place our faith in scientific truth to overcome ignorance and vested interests.

But professionals on the cutting edge find the resolution of which chemicals cause which diseases may still be beyond the reach of medical science.

Bruce Armstrong is grappling with a moral dilemma, that people might slip through the cracks if their needs are not met by the scientific method.

Bruce Armstrong: You’re absolutely right in pointing to the weakness of the scientific method. My problem there is that I don’t quite know exactly how the social criterion works. Is it simply saying these guys have really had a tough time, and it does seem in some way to be related to their exposure, therefore we ought to do something for them, because if we can’t be sure that that tough time really related to the particular exposure where you could argue that someone had not properly looked after them, then I think you’re left with wondering how you distinguish them from anybody else that’s had a tough time.

Mark Horstman: Does it shake your confidence in your science? By that I mean do you think epidemiology is properly equipped to be able to investigate and resolve this new range of chemically related diseases?

Bruce Armstrong: [pause] There’s an issue of timing here. And if for example, it had been possible to monitor what was happening to those men when they were first exposed, it may have been possible for example to demonstrate a very clear pattern between onset of symptoms and perhaps even physiological change, and exposure to the herbicides. The big difficulty arises coming at it very late, where all that you’ve got is essentially recollections and the incidence of a few not particularly common chronic diseases, and in that situation the practical limitation is not so much I suppose the tools of epidemiology, but the size of the population exposed.

Mark Horstman: Professor Armstrong is making the point that the science of epidemiology needs large-scale studies of many people using known chemicals over a long time, to be able to find evidence of cause and effect.

Dr Andrew Harper says this approach will have to change to one that’s less conservative, because we may not have the luxury of time.

Andrew Harper: Our chemical environment has changed in the last 50 years dramatically, and it’s continuing to change, and there’s an exponential increase in the number of chemicals in our environment. Now paralleling that, there has not been an exponential increase really in medical understanding of the chemical impact on health, and we’re seeing in the Kimberley, at Alcoa, with the flight attendants for the BAE-146 aircraft, we’re seeing the workers for the F1-11 military aircraft, we’re seeing people becoming sick with nonspecific symptoms without a nice known medical diagnosis. So for medicine, these new illnesses, or this illness that we are now seeing which we are attributing to chemical exposure, is difficult to handle, and a lot of doctors really don’t want to have much to do with it. Now this will change, but I don’t think that the push for this is coming necessarily from within medicine, I think it’s coming from outside medicine, but I think medicine unavoidably will have to catch up with the times.

Mark Horstman: Where’s it coming from if it’s outside medicine?

Andrew Harper: Well it’s coming from the community. I think a perfect example is the Kimberley. I mean there’s been a voice from the Kimberley regarding the APB workers, crying out for help and attention for 20 years.

Former APB workers on the wharf in Derby (courtesy 7.30 Report)

Mark Horstman: Background Briefing’s Co-ordinating Producer is Linda McGinness; Webmaster, Paul Bolger; Technical Production by Jenny Parsonage, and Executive Producer is Kirsten Garrett. I’m Mark Horstman, you’re listening to ABC Radio National.


 Track Fitzroy River
Artist Warumpi Band


Producer Mark Horstman

Sunday 18 April 2004 9:00AM Some batches of 245-T were made from contaminated ingredients of Agent Orange illegally imported into Queensland and Western Australia during the Vietnam War.This kind of common weedkiller was used until the early 1990s.Now at least one state government is finally confronting the effects.

Source: Chemical Consequences – Background Briefing – ABC Radio National (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)


Gary Green

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