Chemical Time Bomb – Transcript


KERRY O’BRIEN, PRESENTER: It was one of the most toxic weed killers ever used.

EUGENE MCMAHON, NIGEL’S UNCLE: Their swags and everything used to get soaked with the poison.

KERRY O’BRIEN: Twenty years ago it was banned.

JANINE COHEN, REPORTER: How many of those men are still alive?

SUE SINCLAIR, NIGEL’S MOTHER: Not very many, and if any, they’re sick.

KERRY O’BRIEN: But are deadly dioxins still in use today?

ASSOC. PROF. CAROLINE GAUS, ENTOX, UNIVERSITY OF QUEENSLAND: We actually didn’t believe the results, we said “there must have been a cross contamination because these levels are not possible any more today.”

KERRY O’BRIEN: The chemical weapon we turned on ourselves. Welcome to Four Corners. The Vietnam War generation will remember Agent Orange, a chemical cocktail that became notorious as a defoliant, used in aerial bombardments against the Vietcong. Its legacy of death and deformity is well documented. It was made up of the chemicals 245T and 24D. Subsequently it was found that these chemicals contained dioxin, a dangerous cancer agent or caseinogen. These same chemicals were also widely used throughout Australia in the 1970s and 80s for weed control, with results that will shock you when we detail them tonight. 245T was banned in the 90s after links with cancer and other side effects were revealed. The high presence of dioxin was blamed. 24D was regarded as more benign, because it was thought to contain no more than trace elements of dioxin. Weeds are a curse across the nation, a major threat to biodiversity and a crippling cost to land owners, an estimated $4 billion a year. As a result, 24D is still used widely.

Tonight’s program will show evidence that 24D can contain levels of dioxin that could be harmful, particularly if its imported from countries like China and India. It includes data the government regulator was not aware of. The reporter is Janine Cohen, and you may find some of the images in the story disturbing.

(Nigel lying in bed)

JANINE COHEN: Thirty one year old Nigel Sinclair is in the last stage of terminal cancer.

SUE SINCLAIR: Do you want more drink?


JANINE COHEN: Nigel and his family believe he’s soon to be the latest legacy from a chemical exposure, which they say has killed his father, his uncle and many of their mates.

SUE SINCLAIR: Hopefully they will get it all out.

JANINE COHEN: Before Nigel died, he wants to know how a tragedy like this could happen.

(To Nigel Sinclair): At this very late stage, what would be the very best outcome for you?

NIGEL SINCLAIR: Knows, like and like answers really just to, so my nanna can rest, and, you know, I can rest and me and my family can rest, and put it to rest.

SUE SINCLAIR: I’m lucky that he is still with us and still going. He has his moments where he’d like to have his closure.

JANINE COHEN: Back in the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of men were employed by the various state governments around the country to spray noxious weeds. Today many are sick and many are dead.

EUGENE MCMAHON: A lot of the boys end up being the same, fading away near enough to nothing. Doctors turn around and just, yeah, feed you medication, kill the pain. “You’re right, you’ll be right.” And next thing you know they know they’re dead.

JANINE COHEN: Nigel’s father was one of about 320 men in the West Australian Kimberley who sprayed herbicides for the state’s Agriculture Protection Board or APB. Now there are reports of the sprayers’ partners and children getting sick.

DR RANDOLPH SPARGO, FORMER KIMBERLEY GP: I think they should have a close look epidemiologically and clinically at the children of those APB workers. I think that they should suspect that they’ll have huge problems to deal with.

JANINE COHEN: Mr Hunter, Nigel’s father, was one of many indigenous men who joined the government spraying teams.

EUGENE MCMAHON: They used to work from sun up to sun down for what pay they got, little knowing that they’re going to die later on, in later years.

JANINE COHEN: What the men didn’t know was the herbicides they were spraying from backpacks were the same chemicals used to make Agent Orange in the Vietnam War: 245T and 24D which were contaminated with dangerous dioxins.

EUGENE MCMAHON: The poison was carried on the same vehicle as their water drums and their swags and everything, used to get soaked with the poison. They slept in it, worked in it, for 10 days at a time. And all their clothes would get washed at home.

DR RANDOLPH SPARGO: It wasn’t an accidental spill on any work day. Their bodies were exposed to the herbicide all day, and I’m not talking about eight hours in the day, but 24 hours a day, every day, every week, for months and years. I can’t conceive of anywhere where the exposure has been so intense and at such a level, and for so long.

JANINE COHEN: One of the workers, Carl Drysdale, said they would cart the drums of chemicals in the back of a four wheel drive like this one. The sprayers would go into the bush for 10 days at a time. For the first few years the men were given no protective clothing.

CARL DRYSDALE, FORMER SPRAYER: Most of the people would be wearing what was appropriate for the heat, which would be shorts and thongs and t-shirts, you know.

JANINE COHEN: A few years after spraying the chemicals, many of the men began to get sick.

(To Carl Drysdale): Now in the beginning what were you told about the chemicals. How safe were they?

CARL DRYSDALE: Harmless. So harmless you could drink it.

JANINE COHEN: That’s what they told you?

CARL DRYSDALE: That’s right.

JANINE COHEN: Who told you that?

CARL DRYSDALE: Oh all the bosses, all the head sherangs.

JANINE COHEN: But Carl Drysdale, who was the foreman, felt responsible for his men and he was getting worried.

CARL DRYSDALE: They all got rashes, everybody got rashes, headaches, and I guess internal bleeding was another pretty universal thing, like they were vomiting blood and passing blood.

JANINE COHEN: Carl wrote to his superiors in June 1982 about his concerns. A manager from the West Australian Agriculture Protection Board wrote back saying that 245T was not considered dangerous if used as recommended, and that he did not support staff undertaking their own research.

CARL DRYSDALE: You’re told that the stuff’s harmless so you think well, you know, I’m probably wrong, so you give them the benefit of the doubt, you know. And that was a mistake to trust, to trust the government you know.

SUE SINCLAIR, MR HUNTER’S FORMER PARTNER: The job was a perfect job for them and they loved that kind of environment. Maybe if there’d been a white person they most probably would have stood up and said, “Well look I’m not spraying this. This doesn’t smell nice. I’m getting a rash. I’m getting sores. I’m not touching this anymore.” Whereas they wouldn’t, they didn’t want to lose their job.

JANINE COHEN: After years of spraying, Mr Hunter became so ill that he could no longer work and was often bedridden. He had sores all over his body, respiratory problems, dramatic weight loss and extreme fatigue.

CARL DRYSDALE: His black arms were dyed white, or bleached white, where the poison came in contact. He had great big lumps under his jaw from his glands, under his arms and he told me in his groin. Um his general health was so bad that he couldn’t get up the stairs at work to get his pay.

JANINE COHEN: At 33 Mr Hunter died in his sleep. He was the first of the Kimberley men to die but others soon followed.

(To Sue Sinclair): How many of those men are still alive?

SUE SINCLAIR: Ah not very many, and if any they’re sick, sick today.

(Carl and Marian Drysdale’s kitchen)

CARL DRYSDALE: Mainly headaches at the moment, yeah.

JANINE COHEN: For more than 30 years Carl Drysdale has been fighting to get workers’ compensation for the surviving men.

CARL DRYSDALE: It kept me awake all night last night.

MARIAN DRYSDALE, CARL’S WIFE: When are you going to see the doctor then?

CARL DRYSDALE: I’ve seen the doctor, I’ve told the doctor.

JANINE COHEN: Carl himself has not been able to work since 1985 because of a range of illnesses he believes were linked to the spraying. His wife Marian has had to support him and their four children.

DR RANDOLPH SPARGO: Carl has suffered from just about everything you can suffer from, and I’ve seen the, the physical decline in this powerful, energetic man since he finished with the APB.

CARL (to Marian): Ah just one big enough for this lot will do.

CARL DRYSDALE: I had like constant heart attacks, unconscious, or they told my wife I was going to die over and over again. Five black spots on my lungs. I’ve used cortisone cream for rashes that’s ruined my bones.

DR RANDOLPH SPARGO: OK. And you just hold it level with your heart there.

JANINE COHEN: Dr Randolph Spargo was a local GP and saw many of the sprayers including Carl Drysdale.

DR RANDOLPH SPARGO: So it’s definitely abnormal Carl but much better than it used to be.

JANINE COHEN: Have you got any doubt all these years later that it was the chemical that made a lot of these men sick and in some cases killed them?

DR RANDOLPH SPARGO: No doubt about it. I wouldn’t go near the herbicide.

JANINE COHEN: The herbicides were contaminated with dangerous dioxins. Chemical Industries Kwinana in Perth imported some of these chemicals, which were supplied to the West Australian Agriculture Protection Board.

(Footage from Chemical Industries Kwinana, Perth 1978)

ROBERT TELFORD (1978): According to the normal toxicity rating…

JANINE COHEN: In 1978, Four Corners reporter Andrew Olle interviewed the owner, the late Robert Telford.

ROBERT TELFORD: It’s not a commercial problem.

ANDREW OLLE: What do you mean it’s not a commercial problem?

ROBERT TELFORD: Because it’s not possible for a person using commercial 245T containing these minute, infinitesimal quantities of dioxin to be poisoned by them.

ANDREW OLLE: How do you know that?

ROBERT TELFORD: Because the toxicity becomes meaningless in the dilution.

JANINE COHEN: A few years later, Professor Ben Selinger, a former head of chemistry at the Australian National University, traced some of the chemicals to Singapore, where one batch had been fire damaged.

EMERITUS PROF. BEN SELINGER, ANU CANBERRA: The normal herbicide would have been light in colour and fairly fluid. The sample we had from the Tariff Board was gunky and black so it would appear that there was a good chance they were using the stuff that we also looked at.

CARL DRYSDALE: All of a sudden at least thirty 44 gallon drums of concentrate arrived and it was completely different to the stuff in the 20 litre drums. The stuff in the 20 litre drums was like engine oil and or honey you know colour? And the next lot came it was black and thick and it blocked up all the nozzles. And 30 drums was enough for at least 20 years.

JANINE COHEN: Tests on a sample of the fire damaged chemical later revealed it had 200 times the allowable level of dioxin then, and more than 2,000 times the levels permitted in later years.

PROF. BEN SELINGER: Well I think it would have been very dangerous. It was much higher than what was used in Vietnam and at those levels I think they were really exposed to a high level of risk.

JANINE COHEN: The men continued to die.

CARL DRYSDALE: And they die with that sort of, I don’t know, that lingering question mark hanging over “why, why has this happened to me,” you know? And to see that is terrible.

JANINE COHEN: In 2001 occupational work specialist Dr Andrew Harper was asked to investigate if the men’s illnesses were linked to chemical exposure.

JANINE COHEN: Dr Harper says the government’s Agriculture Protection Board repeatedly failed in its duty of care.

DR ANDREW HARPER, OCCUPATIONAL WORK SPECIALIST: One, they were not trained. Two, there wasn’t an induction program. The information about the risk was not given to them, the supervision was not there and they were not given, in the main, safety equipment. So they simply went out in shorts and shirts and thongs, and that was it. And there wasn’t any systematic washing after exposure. So they were just completely exposed. And the authorities didn’t take a responsible stand to in fact correct the situation.

JANINE COHEN: Dr Harper recommended all those who were sick be considered for compensation.

DR ANDREW HARPER: I recommended that compensation be considered as I felt there had been a disservice done to these people and it wasn’t only manifest in a specific illness, which was difficult to define. It was manifest through the way they were treated and through the impact that that had on their lives and on their feelings of alienation.

JANINE COHEN: But the Western Australian Labor Government responded to Dr Harper’s recommendation by calling for another report.

DR ANDREW HARPER: Asking for a scientific study created a distraction from the content of my report.

JANINE COHEN: That the men be compensated?

DR ANDREW HARPER: That the men be compensated. It diverted attention away from all of the injustices of the whole program. It diverted attention away from the suffering that these people had and it diverted attention away from the moral issues that the whole thing exemplifies.

JANINE COHEN: Former Agriculture Minister Kim Chance commissioned the new report.

KIM CHANCE, FORMER WA AGRICULTURE MINISTER: Harper’s report took us a long way because we began from a situation where we were trying to uncover the results of an event that occurred 20 years before. Harper’s report allowed us to tie those events together. He, he said “look, it looks like there’s a cause and effect issue here.”

JANINE COHEN: He was a lot stronger than that. He recommended that you consider compensation for all those men.


JANINE COHEN: He found a failure of duty of care…


JANINE COHEN: By various governments.


JANINE COHEN: He found that there was no protective clothing, that these…


JANINE COHEN: Chemicals were suspected of being incredibly toxic…


JANINE COHEN: And no training. Why did you need statistics to compensate the men when you had all that before you?

KIM CHANCE: Oh because our means of compensation, ah, is, is the WorkSafe principles or the WorkCover principles, that’s the only means we have of compensating a former government worker.

EUGENE MCMAHON, MR HUNTER’S BROTHER: I’d like to get a jar of that poison and pour it down some of those politician’s mouths. Let them see how they feel about it.

JANINE COHEN: The new report recommended only men with cancer be eligible for compensation. Ten years later only eight men have received workers compensation.

KIM CHANCE: To effect what Dr Harper wanted us to do required a change in the law.

JANINE COHEN: Well why didn’t you change the law?

KIM CHANCE: Well that that’s a matter for the whole of government to deal with, that’s way beyond the authority of the Minister for Agriculture.

JANINE COHEN: Dr Randolph Spargo said the men were actually poisoned.

KIM CHANCE: Yes they were, they were. And they were told that the chemical that they were using couldn’t possibly hurt them.

JANINE COHEN: In fact they were told it was so safe they could drink it…

KIM CHANCE: They could drink it.

JANINE COHEN: I mean given all that, do you now, all these years, later find it hard to reconcile that they were never compensated, the great bulk of those men who got sick?

KIM CHANCE: Yes. Yes. And, and indeed, ah, I’ll go further than that. I think Dr Harper’s recommendation was the right recommendation.

SUE SINCLAIR: You’re getting a rash on there too. It’s all red on that side.

JANINE COHEN: Despite this admission, nothing is likely to change for the children and partners of the sprayers who believe they are now affected. Three years ago, Nigel Sinclair was diagnosed with Leiomyosarcoma which is growing on a muscle at the back of his liver. Studies have linked soft tissue sarcoma with toxic exposure from Agent Orange, which was equal parts 245T and 24D.

NIGEL SINCLAIR: Just battling to get up and walk around now. Just finding it hard to get out of bed and that, and I had to get a new bed now so, and more confined to a wheelchair.

NIGEL SINCLAIR: You can pull my shirt down now.

SUE SINCLAIR: No mother wants to watch their son deteriorate like this and its something that you can’t fix, you know, can’t kiss it better, can’t put a bandaid on it and I’ve just got to watch him and I don’t, I don’t like to. I’ve got to try and keep strong.

JANINE COHEN: More than three decades ago when Sue Sinclair was pregnant with Nigel she used to wash his father’s chemical drenched clothes. After Nigel was born, she would put his nappies in the wash with his father’s work gear and Nigel would crawl all over his father and his swag.

SUE SINCLAIR: Horrible to think that I might have passed something onto my son. I’d take that away from him any day and put it on myself. It’s hard.

DR ANDREW HARPER: If dioxin was present, the residual level of dioxin in the clothes need not be very high to be potentially harmful. And these chemicals have got the potential to damage genes and produce an adverse effect in the next generation, and this is a real concern.

JANINE COHEN: Of the 77 workers Dr Harper interviewed, 58 per cent reported having fertility problems, still births and premature births. There were 12 reports of birth defects.

CARL DRYSDALE: Some of the blokes have described what their children look like and I won’t, I won’t even say what they’ve said about their own children, what they looked like. And ah…

JANINE COHEN: Why, what was wrong?

CARL DRYSDALE: They looked like monsters, you know, like because of the deformities that they had.

JANINE COHEN: Back in 1976 on the other side of the country, in the small rural town of Yarram in Victoria’s Gippsland, a cluster of birth defects was found by a local GP. Dr Rod Guy told Four Corners he believed the deformities might be linked to heavy spraying of 245T and 24D.

(Footage from 1976)

DR ROD GUY (1976): Well we made a list of the abnormalities, the problems we’d had…

DR ROD GUY, FORMER YARRAM GP: I’d had some really awful things happen which were really unusual. A baby born without a brain, a baby born without kidneys. Ah, in general practice it’s um, unusual to have serious birth defects.

JANINE COHEN: The Victorian Government held an inquiry in 1978.

DR ROD GUY: The disappointing thing was that I thought that the inquiry was really very superficial and I think to be honest, rushed to get a political answer.

JANINE COHEN: The inquiry dismissed concerns that the chemicals were potentially dangerous and found that the cluster of birth defects in Yarram could have happened by chance. Two years later, Professors Ben Selinger and Peter Hall found that there were serious statistical errors with that finding.

PROF. BEN SELINGER: Peter Hall is probably one of Australia’s best statisticians and he did that work and showed that the way they did their comparisons would have minimised anything showing up. And when he redid the work, using their data, he showed a very high and strong correlation.

JANINE COHEN: So in other words they were saying that there wasn’t a disproportionate number of birth abnormalities.

PROF. BEN SELINGER: That’s right, yep and his results showed that there were a very high proportion of, of birth abnormalities.

(Molly Dunne’s lounge room)

JANINE COHEN: Molly Dunne believes she knows more than most in Yarram about the toxic aftermath of spraying 245T and 24D. She had a stillborn baby five months into a pregnancy. At the time her husband Percy Dunne was a sprayer for the Victorian lands department at Yarram.

ROBERT DUNNE, PERCY’S SON: They didn’t actually have protective clothing back then. No ah clothes, no masks, no um nothing much you know?

JANINE COHEN: Percy Dunne died of cancer in 1980. The 60 year old had been ill for many years after spraying the herbicides in paddocks and along creeks to kill blackberries and ragwort weed infestations. Two years after he died, Molly took the Victorian Government to court and was awarded $17,500 in worker’s compensation. But no liability was admitted. All these years later she is still grieving his death.

MOLLY DUNNE: Oh I miss him a lot. Especially at first there, when it first happened. I still think of him and everything.

ROBERT DUNNE: Yeah it was hard back then, it was.

JANINE COHEN: Percy Dunne’s family believed to be the only one in Yarram to have received government compensation.

(To Robert): Do you think it’s wrong that families like yours only get compensation when they’re prepared to go to court?

ROBERT DUNNE: Yeah well that’s the government, isn’t it? They don’t want to pay out anything unless they have to.

ALBERT LITTLER: And there’d be surpluses in those drums too…

ALBERT LITTLER, CFMEU: It’s very similar to the asbestos cases that I’ve been involved in, ah, the denial, ah, is put forward. The worker’s got to battle, ah, to prove beyond reasonable doubt and it’s very hard to do in chemical cases.

JANINE COHEN: In Yarram many of the sprayers have died.

PAT REED, FORMER SPRAYER: Very short breaths though.


JANINE COHEN: Tony Cassidy and Pat Reed are the lucky ones, sick but still alive.

TONY CASSIDY: Anyway, here’s looking at you duck.

PAT REED: Righto.

TONY CASSIDY: I’ve got cancer of the bladder, in fact I’ve got to go tomorrow for more exploratory surgery.

JANINE COHEN: How many of your mates that used to spray with have been sick or have died?

TONY CASSIDY: Oh, well all of them are sick, some are, probably not as sick as me, but they’re all sick and I’d say probably 75 per cent of them have, have died.

(Walking through bush land)

PAT REED: Any breeze well you got it all over you. You were wet through some bloody days.

JANINE COHEN: What, just covered in the stuff?


JANINE COHEN: Sprayer Pat Reed thinks he was unwittingly dragged into a cover up when he was told by his boss to bury about 80 of the drums on crown land just outside of Yarram.

PAT REED: About there?

JANINE COHEN: About there?


JANINE COHEN: Pat took us to the site of where he buried them more than 30 years ago.

PAT REED: This is where the driver of the truck put the truck there, and I dug the hole in around here somewhere. We’ll try just here.


PAT REED: They put the axe, three of them up on the truck, and threw them into the hole and I crunched them up with the dozer and then filled it all in.

(To Janine Cohen): Nothing there.

PAT REED: We knew there was something going on. Digging a hole out here to put drums in, so, something funny.

JANINE COHEN: Out in the middle of nowhere.


(To Janine Cohen): That’s it.

JANINE COHEN: That’s the barrels Pat?

PAT REED: Yes, it’s the barrels.

JANINE COHEN: Why do you think the lands department asked the men to bury the drums?

TONY CASSIDY: ‘Cause the heat was on, ah get rid of them. “We don’t want them on the premises cause people were starting to sniff around and ask questions.”

ALBERT LITTLER: It should never have been used for manual spraying or aerial spraying. It was a poison that you couldn’t contain.

JANINE COHEN: It wasn’t until the 1990’s that 245T which was thought to be more toxic that 24D, was banned by all states in Australia. This was some years after the United States took it off its market. What made 245T so toxic was the heating of the reaction mixture during manufacture, which created dangerous dioxins.

ASSOC. PROF. CAROLINE GAUS: You cannot ensure that dioxins are not being formed even, even if you employ the best production processes. I think this is one of the reasons why 245T was banned because um, what you require is an additional step, which is a purification step, and that is relatively costly.

PROMOTIONAL VIDEO: 24D kills the entire weed, roots and all.

JANINE COHEN: What many people don’t realise is that the second chemical in Agent Orange 24D, which was developed in the 1940s, is still widely used.

PROMOTIONAL VIDEO: A plane dusts a field of young wheat with 24D.

JANINE COHEN: 24D is a cheap and effective weed killer.

VIDEO: The destruction of many weeds is complete.

JANINE COHEN: There are more than 200 24D products registered in Australia.

LEE BELL, SENIOR RESEARCHER, NATIONAL TOXICS NETWORK: It’s used in many agricultural applications. It’s used in pastures and crop land for broadleaf control. It’s also used in areas that people wouldn’t expect, such as turf spraying for sporting fields, for councils in their cosmetic applications for verges and those sort of things.

JANINE COHEN: Many of the major chemical companies are represented by a peak body, Croplife Australia.

MATTHEW COSSEY, CEO, CROPLIFE AUSTRALIA: Weeds are a massive cost. If you had to manage them in other ways, we’re talking, you know, just for a normal farm, thousands of work hours.

JANINE COHEN: It’s generally assumed that there’s no dangerous dioxins in 24D due to today’s improved manufacturing standards. But three years ago a team of Queensland scientists set out to prove there were no dioxins in pesticides and were amazed at what they discovered.

(Footage from laboratory)

ASSOC. PROF. CAROLINE GAUS: We actually didn’t believe the results. We said “there must have been a cross contamination because these levels are not possible anymore today.” They were, for some of the pesticides, similar to what was known for 245T, which was banned in the 80s, 90s.

JANINE COHEN: Associate Professor Caroline Gaus sent her researchers back to the laboratory to repeat the tests and when they returned positive she expanded the study to include other pesticides including 24D. Tests on one 24D product came back showing moderate levels of dioxins. This product was made by a Brisbane company but it may have had its active ingredient imported. There’s no way of knowing as the regulator classifies this as commercial in confidence. Many Australian companies today import their active ingredients from countries like China and India.

ASSOC. PROF. CAROLINE GAUS: What that really means is that it depends on the manufacturer, as well as the year of manufacture, as well as the batch or the country of manufacture, on how much dioxin you actually produce or have left as an impurity in a 24D formulation.

LEE BELL: We’ve been told many, many times over the years that industry has cleaned up its act, that they have new processing equipment, new techniques, new technology that will ah eliminate dioxin from their herbicides and therefore from our environment. But ah I think the latest studies that are showing these contaminant levels ah indicate that that’s not the case, that industry hasn’t come clean about the nature, ah the contaminants of dioxin in 24D. And the government really needs to take a close look at this.

JANINE COHEN: Despite the low to moderate levels found in 24D, its widespread use rang alarm bells.

ASSOC. PROF. CAROLINE GAUS: So if you have a moderate toxicity but you use very high volumes, then the risk is, could be the same as having very high toxicity but very low volume of use.

KAREENA ARTHY, CEO, APVMA: 24D was tested and the level of dioxins that were found were lower than elsewhere in the world, so that gave us some comfort.

JANINE COHEN: That gave you some comfort?

KAREENA ARTHY: Some comfort…

JANINE COHEN: That they had found moderate levels of dioxin in 24D.

KAREENA ARTHY: That it was low to moderate.

JANINE COHEN: The regulator, the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority decided to see for itself if dioxins were present. It repeated the Queensland tests.

KAREENA ARTHY: The APVMA came in and also tested for dioxins in a range of chemicals and we worked with the health department as well in assessing the outcomes of that. And…

JANINE COHEN: When you tested, did you find dioxins as well?

KAREENA ARTHY: Um, from – I understand that when the testing was done we did find some levels of dioxins and that’s when it’s been referred to the health department.

JANINE COHEN: Did you find it in 24D?

KAREENA ARTHY: I would have to – I don’t know the answer to that question.

DR CHARLES BENBROOK, WASHINGTON STATE UNIVERSITY: Exposure to dioxin is consistent with this pattern of adverse health effects and I think that there’s solid scientific reasons to be concerned about dioxin exposures following 24D use.

JANINE COHEN: Four Corners decided to test for dioxin contamination in one of the many imported products. We purchased 24D weedkiller from this warehouse in Sunshine just outside of Melbourne and sent it to government laboratories for testing. The 24D weedkiller Aminoz 625 was imported from China by an Australian company Sanonda, based in an office in Melbourne. We purchased the 24D weedkiller, which is often sold direct to farmers, no questions asked. It’s almost three weeks on and we have just received our results from the government laboratory. Alarmingly, our sample of 24D weedkiller came back with dioxin levels almost seven times higher than those found by the Queensland scientists. And what’s even more disturbing is we don’t know how many contaminated 24D products are out there in the community because authorities are not routinely testing. Four Corners gave the results to Associate Professor Caroline Gaus to analyse.

ASSOC. PROF. CAROLINE GAUS: I was actually surprised because you only analysed one formulation and to actually return such a high result, I thought it was unlikely today but again that is a reality check. When you think back to our previous study, when we actually didn’t expect any contamination in the pesticides, it just demonstrates again that what we are seeing today is equally or even worse than 10 to 20 years ago, and that is of concern of course.

JANINE COHEN: Each year more than $100 million worth of 24D products are sold in Australia. And we don’t know which ones contain imported ingredients.

MATTHEW COSSEY: We have seen a new scenario develop in Australia, with the high Australian dollar, a massive production increase in places like China, and fairly free trade between the two countries, that a large amount of the product is now coming in. The country of origin, as I suggested, doesn’t automatically imply good or bad. What we do need to ensure is that we deal with reliable suppliers.

JANINE COHEN: But it’s not just about having a reliable supplier. Scientists say we should be monitoring for dioxins in all pesticides. And that’s the job of the regulator.

ASSOC. PROF. CAROLINE GAUS: Without monitoring each of the batches or regular monitoring, we pretty much don’t have any chance to really realise what is being on market and how much of the dioxin is being released with pesticide use.

KAREENA ARTHY: The APVMA hasn’t found any evidence of high levels of dioxin in imported chemicals.

JANINE COHEN: Are you testing for it?

KAREENA ARTHY: We, the APVMA doesn’t do independent testing however it is, concerns about potential quality of imported goods is often referred to us from many different sources…

JANINE COHEN: But how do you know if they’ve got dangerous dioxins in them?

KAREENA ARTHY: If there were high level of dioxins it would affect the final chemical and we would be seeing – we would expect to see in the public use concerns about the, the efficacy or the um chemical itself, and we’re not seeing that.

JANINE COHEN: Who should test for dioxin in these imports, the companies or the regulator?

MATTHEW COSSEY: Well I would suggest that any regulatory system should have an independent testing regime to it.

JANINE COHEN: We also don’t know how much 24D is being sprayed around Australia.

JENNI MACK, APVMA ADVISORY BOARD, 2007-12: The lack of volume data makes it really hard to make any kind of sensible risk management decisions. If you’ve got a chemical where there is an identified problem you don’t know how much is being used or where it is used or in what circumstances it is being used, it’s very difficult to develop sensible regulatory, ah to make sensible regulatory decisions.

MATTHEW COSSEY, CROPLIFE AUSTRALIA: I would suggest those who are advocating the need for it don’t realise that it is actually not necessary, or in fact you are just going to bury the regulator in data and they’re not able to make a good decision.

JANINE COHEN: Regardless of how much is sprayed, it’s too much for David Bruer, an organic wine producer in South Australia’s Riverland. Last year at Loxton he lost his entire harvest because 24D sprayed on another property drifted on to his grapes. David Bruer used to lecture in chemistry at Roseworthy Agricultural College in South Australia.

(Footage of David Bruer’s vineyard)

DAVID BRUER, ORGANIC WINE PRODUCER: It’s a foreign chemical, it’s something that we would have no part of and yet it’s on our grapes. It’s on our sultanas and it can only have come from somebody else’s property. It’s a trespass.

JANINE COHEN: Tests found that David Bruer’s table grapes had very small residues of 24D. But he’s concerned it could have been one of the cheaper, generic, imported products.

(To David Bruer): What is it about these imported 24D products that are so attractive?

DAVID BRUER: Well A, they’re cheap, they’re cheaper to start with. And B, they go further, so they’re more efficient if you like in killing weeds.

JANINE COHEN: But more effective in contaminating other properties as well?

DAVID BRUER: Absolutely yeah, that’s a real problem. Once it’s finished at their place, it comes over here and has a go at ours.

JANINE COHEN: There was a ban on spraying 24D esters, the most prone to drift, at the time David Bruer’s grapes were contaminated. It’s almost impossible to trace the origins of vapour drift as it can travel up to 100 kilometres.

KAREENA ARTHY: Well most cases of spray drift are usually because people aren’t obeying the, what’s on the label or it could be accidental.

JANINE COHEN: 24D drift has damaged thousands of hectares of cotton, market gardens and vineyards around the country. This South Australian market gardener, who does not want to be named for fear of losing customers, says he’s constantly losing produce from drift from farms as far as 10 kilometres away.

(Footage of vegetable farm)

VEGETABLE PRODUCER: The bottom line is they can’t use a chemical that does damage to other people. There’s no compensation for anybody that gets damaged. So it should really be eliminated.

(To Janine Cohen): Again you can see the weird growth deformations. It’s got these protruding growths, sticking out from the side of the tomato.”

JANINE COHEN: This grower says the drift is causing many deformities in his vegetables.

VEGETABLE PRODUCER: You’ve got female where they are supposed to be male. So they’re mixed up with the pollen. And you also do get corn deformities where you will get multiple cobs on a single cob.

DR CHARLES BENBROOK: The mysterious part of it is that 24D can render significant damage to a vineyard, a cherry orchard, a tomato field at levels that can’t be measured in the air. It’s that toxic to plants, particularly if the drift and exposure episode occurs when the plant is going though the fruiting stage. In other words the plant’s flowering, beginning to form fruit.

JANINE COHEN: Seven years ago the Australian regulator put restrictions on when and how 24D high volatile esters could be sprayed. But the complaints of drift continued. Curiously, the day Four Corners was to interview the regulator it announced a proposed ban on high volatile esters.

KAREENA ARTHY: We are going through a show cause process to ask industry to come back to us with why these chemicals should still be available and from then we will make the decision about the future of the chemicals in Australia.

JANINE COHEN: But some believe a ban will not go far enough as there are other forms of 24D that may drift that are still on the market. The APVMA started a review of 24D in 1995, because of concerns about its potential harmful effects on humans, animals and the environment. It’s yet to finish that review.

(To Kareena Arthy): Why do you announce that you’re going to review a chemical in 1995 but you don’t do anything until 2006?

KAREENA ARTHY: I can’t comment on what was behind that announcement. Typically when you um typically when you come to chemical review, ah if you’re concerned about a chemical you do announce to the public that you are looking at such a chemical…

JANINE COHEN: Eleven years ahead of time?

KAREENA ARTHY: That sort of timeframe is perhaps unusual.

JANINE COHEN: Australia’s regulator must walk a fine line between arming farmers with the best tools and protecting the community from potentially dangerous chemicals. Today there’s almost 10,000 agricultural chemicals used in Australia. Some like 24D have been around for generations.

JENNI MACK: It is not acceptable that chemicals take ten or fifteen years for review when there have been identified problems with them.

JANINE COHEN: What are the risks?

JENNI MACK: Well the risks are that unsafe chemicals are being continually put in the environment, being used in farming communities and we are eating those in the food that we eat.

JANINE COHEN: Some would say the time to take a risk with these old chemicals is over. Certainly Nigel Sinclair and his family believe this. Tragically, Nigel never got the answers he was seeking. He died shortly after our interview.

KERRY O’BRIEN: To borrow a saying, the more things change, the more they stay the same, in this case depressing. A response from the regulator, the APVMA to the dioxin results we obtained, is available on our website, as is the response from Sanonda Australia. Last month, new legislation was passed by the Federal Parliament to make it mandatory for agricultural chemicals to be reviewed every seven to 15 years.

Next week on Four Corners the astounding rise and fall of Australia’s youngest billionaire, Nathan Tinkler, and the people he trampled along the way. Until then, good night.



By Janine Cohen and Karen Michelmore | Updated July 23, 2013 10:47:00 |

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