1950’s – 1960’s. Willowtree Road, Ferntree Gully.

The Street that Died Young

Robyn Williams: The classic book, Silent Spring, with its clarion call for the world to do something about the poisons devastating wildlife, was published in 1962. The author was Rachel Carson. So much we know and assume that the world has taken note and moved on; become more prudent about the blunderbuss treatment of crops with sprays so that nature and people can life more safely.

But now a book, published 35 years later, claims we are still reckless with our chemical weaponry, used not in the field of battle but where our crops and salads grow. Gloria Frydman has written The Street That Died Young and says it tells the story of Australia’s own Silent Spring. It’s a startling story, and one which we should perhaps take very seriously.

Gloria Frydman.

Gloria Frydman: The Australian postwar era of the 1950s saw the introduction of new and highly toxic chemicals imported from overseas. Pesticides such as DDT that had been trialled during the Second World War were now being unleashed on an unknowing, innocent and trusting population.

The new postwar immigrants to Australia were freely doused in DDT. The fruit of market garden apple orchards were liberally sprayed with DDT. Vegetable crops were sprayed with other chemicals from the family of organochlorines as dieldrin, now prohibited. They were also sprayed with Phosdrin, the trade name for the organophosphate mevinphos, one of the most deadly pesticides ever concocted. Blackberry bushes grew wild along the borders of unmade roads that were literally carved out of bush to become part of the new postwar housing boom, the new housing estates. Blackberries were sprayed with 245-T (Agent Orange was a mixture of 24-D and 245-T).

In 1952, John and Betty Brennan and their two children (six more followed) moved into their new home in Willowtree Road, Ferntree Gully, an outer Melbourne suburb at the foothills to the Dandenong Ranges. They were among the first residents of a street whose legacy to these newcomers would prove to be an ominous one. The street had only just been created out of a thicket of market gardens. The Brennans’ home was one of nine new houses that had been recently constructed by Betty’s brother, Bill Blundell, who also purchased one of these houses and moved in with his wife and four children.

Kathy Brennan, the second oldest daughter, and her cousin, Lesley Blundell, were of a similar age. The two cousins grew up as neighbours. Their backyard was the market gardens where they roamed freely as companions and playmates. In the years to come, both girls were to suffer a variety of strange medical conditions that have continued throughout their adult lives. Their siblings and their children have also been plagued by numerous health disorders. Each family lost a parent to cancer. Kathy’s mother, Betty Brennan, was the first in the street to die, contracting breast cancer at age 34 and dying in her 30s.

The initial 1950s and ’60s residents of Willowtree Road, Ferntree Gully, people such as the Brennans, their family and neighbours, may well have been the victims of pesticide poisoning. This is not something that can be irrefutably and scientifically proven. Three indisputable facts are: This was a large market garden and orchard area; The crops were sprayed with pesticides, some of which have since been banned for their carcinogenic properties; The residents were undeniably exposed to these substances.

In June 1996, Kathy Alexander (nee Brennan) was operated on for a suspected malignancy, her third brush with cancer. She was 45 years old. Since the age of 25, she has been diagnosed with a malignant melanoma, cervical cancer and now a neurilemmoma, a rare tumour that had twisted itself around the femoral nerve. Throughout her life she has suffered bouts of nausea, migraine, fainting spells, joint pains, severe allergies, eight separate bouts of pneumonia, mood swings, depression, panic attacks and agorophobia. She has been hospitalised several times for nervous breakdowns. During her 20s and 30s, Kathy experienced an ectopic pregnancy, cysts on the ovaries, a hysterectomy, the onset of arthritis, an immune deficiency disease described as a connective tissue disorder, dangerously high and low blood pressure problems, and a vitamin B12 deficiency that has led to chronic pernicious anaemia. Hers is no ordinary medical history. Why would a normal, healthy young woman experience a number of unrelated major health crises, many of them quite rare conditions? Kathy has had her suspicions.

She recalls playing in the cabbage patches as a child. The cabbages were covered with a fine white film. She remembers rubbing this white powder over her face and arms and pretending she was a fairy playing in the fields. She would often eat the cabbages or the brussels sprouts raw and unwashed, fresh from the gardens and covered in poison. As Kathy herself says, after such exposure, how could she possibly expect to have a good immune system?

At different periods of their lives, both Kathy and Lesley began to wonder what common link their families shared which might explain all their mysterious illnesses. What common link might explain all the other young deaths in this street? The only common link seemed to be that they had all lived in a market garden area, and because of this, had been heavily exposed to the new breed of chemical sprays.

Kathy and Lesley are not the only ones who lived in that street whose families have had a long history of fatal and chronic illnesses. Neighbour after neighbour died young. Some suicided. There were deaths from brain tumours, lung cancer, breast cancer, bowel cancer. There were ten cancer deaths that they knew of within a half-mile radius, and all occurring within a few short years. This is a street that died young, a street exposed to the effects of toxic chemical sprays.

There were also social repercussions on so many families, young families who had lost a young parent. This impacted on so many lives, in many cases causing lifelong emotional traumas. Local schoolteacher Pat Merry had several of the children from Willowtree Road in her class. She says, ‘At one time I knew of 35 children from that street who had only one surviving parent. I taught many of these children. I knew many of the men and women who died young.’ Merry and her family lived in an adjoining street to Willowtree Road. They too have suffered a strange medical history. Pat Merry has had no less than 15 surgical procedures in as many years. She has a history of liver problems, a hysterectomy, an ovarian cyst, a duodenal ulcer, a hiatus hernia, food allergies and severe chronic fatigue syndrome. Her three children were extremely hyperactive. One son suffers psoriasis, a daughter is a chronic asthmatic, another son suffers anklyosing spondylitis, a degenerative immune disorder.

It is a scientific fact that exposure to pesticides can and does cross the placenta barrier. Many of the offspring of those exposed to pesticides in the ’50s and ’60s seem to have inherited ongoing health problems that have continued into subsequent generations, who have become the innocent victims of a continuous toxic chemical onslaught, exposed to a barrage of substances that the human body cannot deal with, and was not designed to withstand.

Yvonne Dolman’s story reinforces the Willowtree Road experience. The death of her daughter Annette in 1976 from Hodgkin’s disease led Yvonne to discover that the area around their Melbourne bayside suburb of Beaumaris had been heavily sprayed during the ’60s and ’70s, for blackberries, weeds and termites. The local council sprayed, private contractors sprayed, private individuals sprayed, people with little to no knowledge of the dangers to which they and others were being exposed. The whole Dolman family were exposed to the sprays and all suffered health problems. Subsequent research later identified this as a cancer cluster area.

Shirley Barber’s story reveals another aspect: the health problems faced by the rural sector. Shirley’s severe allergic reactions to various chemicals sprayed on agricultural crops in the Wangaratta area and which invaded and contaminated the town’s water supply, encouraged her to do her own investigations. The results revealed ‘a frighteningly high incidence of allergic illnesses, diabetes, asthma and cancer.’ Her studies also revealed significant levels of dieldrin and DDT in use in the area.

In Mary Holland’s case, her rapid deterioration in health was medically proven by a liver biopsy to be ‘necrosis of the liver caused by exposure to the pesticide Paraquat, an extremely dangerous chemical.’ Although banned in most other countries, Paraquat is still used in Australia. Mary Holland was exposed to the pesticide while playing golf. At her request, her local golf club sent her a list of the chemicals they used on their lawns. The list contained 22 chemicals, including Atrazine, one of the most dangerous chemicals around and one which the World Health Organisation has declared a possible carcinogen. Her club also admitted spraying the ground some 23 times between October and April each year. Off the top of her head, Mary Holland can cite some 27 people from her golf club who either have cancer or have died from cancer in the last ten years, most of them young men and women in their 40s and 50s. Out of the 27, 14 have already died and the rest are either in remission or battling with the disease.’ She says that ‘of the five women with whom I played regularly, one has died of liver cancer, two of the others have breast cancer and I have permanent liver damage.

The dangers of banned pesticides such as dieldrin or DDT have merely given way to even more toxic chemicals that are used on our foodstuffs and spread into the environment. Dr Charles Castle, a consultant in rehabilitation medicine at Victoria’s Hampton Rehabilitation Hospital, admits to ‘some 6,000 chemicals in use throughout Australia for which we don’t have good epidemiological evidence.’ Dr John Pollak, Honorary Research Associate in Anatomy and Histology at the University of Sydney, estimates there are between 50,000 and 100,000 chemicals now in use world wide, with more than 250-million tonnes being produced each year. The Melbourne allergist, Dr Robert Allen, refers to this as ‘that massive uncontrolled experiment in which we are all innocently and unavoidably being obliged to participate.’ The real tragedy is that the chemical hazards to which the population is exposed today are even more prevalent and more toxic than they were in the 1950s.

How many other streets have died young, in suburban Melbourne, in rural Victoria, in Australia nationwide? How many other cancer clusters exist and have never been documented? And what will it take before doctors, scientists, politicians, governments try and ensure that our streets and our suburbs are safe to live in? History is notorious for repeating its mistakes, for not learning its lessons. Yvonne Dolman says that ‘the silence related to human pesticide contamination began with the release of the toxins and has remained until the present day.’ And as Dr John French, former chief research scientist for the CSIRO says, ‘science is not neutral. Everything boils down to who is paying for it, and that is usually a large chemical company.’

Only an ever alert and vigilant public can hope to prevent the power of such forces, as the giant chemical companies continue indiscriminate pesticide usage without providing sufficient safeguards and protection for those who lie in its path.

Robyn Williams: Are the effects described by Gloria Frydman a relic of misuse many years ago, or is the cavalier approach still with us? You can judge for yourself. Her book, The Street That Died Young is published in Melbourne by Five Mile Press.

Transmission Date 30/11/1997