p 1The Australian January 5, 2002
A rogue batch of highly toxic chemicals once probably earmarked to make the defoliant Agent Orange has been linked for the first time to a West Australian government herbicide program blamed for deaths, serious illnesses and birth deformities.
It is feared drums of the potentially deadly batch of 245-T might still be in warehouses around the country. Although suspicious shipments of the chemical from Singapore were uncovered 20 years ago, it has only now been revealed the same chemical is suspected of having been used in a controversial weed spraying program in the Kimberley region, that is now the subject of a West Australian parliamentary inquiry.
Concerns are held that some of the hundreds of drums of the fire damaged batches of 245-T remain unaccounted for and may be stored or dumped elsewhere around Australia. The chemical makes up 50 per cent of Agent Orange, a defoliant herbicide used in Vietnam, and its dioxin impurities have been linked to a range of health problems, including birth defects.
The rogue batches were discovered by Australian National University scientists Ben Selinger and Peter Hall, while investigating rumours that a load of Agent Orange had been dumped in Australia after the Vietnam War.
Professor Selinger said 245-T was rendered more toxic by heat exposure and the suspicious batches imported between 1969 and 1971 were listed as fire damaged and shipped in labeled as another chemical.
Professor Selinger said the black sticky substance reported by workers in the northwest town of Derby were disturbingly similar to the sample he and Professor Hall had tested 20 years ago and found to have dioxin levels 200 times the legal limit at that time. Professor Selinger said the rashes, blisters and burns described by the Derby men were similar to symptoms manifested by workers at the Singaporean factory where the rogue batches of 245-T suffered the damage before being dispatched to Perth and Brisbane. “But only an analysis will confirm their similarity,” he said.
The Perth based company that imported the chemical was a supplier of the state’s Agricultural Protection Board, which gave workers in Derby unmarked drums of chemicals – an illegal practice then and now – to use in a weed control program that ran from about 1975 to 1985. The workers complained about rashes and burns suffered when the chemical leaked. Some later developed serious illnesses and died.
Professors Selinger and Hall published their findings in the 1980s calling on Australian authorities to “make available full details of the exact nature of the suspicious imports”. But despite questions being raised in federal parliament in 1981 and evidence heard by a Senate inquiry that the batch was highly toxic, it appears the whereabouts and possible commercial use of the chemicals went unchecked.It is now believed some of those unmarked drums were dumped in Derby.
Professor Selinger, who has also chaired the National Registration Authority for Agricultural and Veterinary Chemicals said he believed the federal Health Department held documented information on the chemical that had not been released. “Governments don’t look for these things unless they are kicked and forced,” he said.
West Australian Agricultural Minister Kim Chance has established a parliamentary inquiry to document the chemical exposures of former Agricultural Protection Board workers who used the chemicals in the Kimberley region. Mr Chance said he also had been told that Agent Orange chemicals were imported into Australia and he fears they may have been used in some form in almost every state and territory. Mr Chance said using 245-T was dangerous even within legal dioxin limits “but if it was outside those speculations as the Senate inquiry evidence indicated, it was suicide’.
P2 The 245-T trail
1969-71: Large import from Singapore of fire damaged chemical listed as KTCP (the starting material used to make 245-T).
1972: Questions raised by competitor about labeling of imports for possible tariff avoidance.
1973: Samples for tariff inquiry believed to confirm fire damage but doesn’t measure dioxins.
1981: Same samples further tested and showed not to contain KTCP but found to be 245-T with illegally high levels of dioxins.
1981: Questions in federal parliament reveal samples did not contain KTCP but 245-T:
1981: Senate Standing Committee told the Department of Primary Industries first reported the chemical conformed to Australian standards but that further tests found it did not. It had dioxin levels 200 times the legal limit.
1982: Weed sprayers for the West Australian Agricultural Protection Board suffering rashes and unexplained illnesses question the safety of the chemical they are using. They are told by government employer it is not dangerous and ‘adverse publicity’ about it (245T) “is not a valid reason for discontinuing use”.
1985: Workers continue to use the unlabelled chemical.
1987: Workers told to dump remaining drums.
2002: State Parliamentary Enquiry called.
P2 Quest to find what killed Carl’s mates
Carl Drysdale kneels by a simple grave in the Derby cemetery and recalls how he lost one of his best mates to a sudden heart attack at the age of 33. The former Agriculture Protection Board worker watched his friend and dozens of others die or suffer unexplained illnesses after working together in a weed spraying program in the remote Kimberley during the 1970s and 80s.
The 56 year-old believes an unusual looking chemical they used is responsible. He’s been fighting 20 years to prove it. “I’m doing this for my mates and their families and kids,” Mr Drysdale said.
Mr Drysdale was a district officer with the board, leading a team of workers spraying weeds across the Kimberley. Many of his men were Aboriginies or itinerant white workers. They suffered side effects from using the chemicals 24-D and the now banned 245T, but it was a batch of unlabelled chemical that has really worried them. They were told it was the usual 245T – but it smelt stronger and looked darker and thicker than previous batches. And that is when their problems really started and people began dying, said Mr Drysdale.
“I asked them if it came from Vietnam” said Mr Drysdale. “I was being off-hand and I dismissed it as I thought noone would do that to people”. But there were other suspicious elements to the arrival of the drums. “There was 20 years supply which is not normal for government supply . . . They usually budget for one year and we got 20 years supply in one go.
And then people started to get sick.” At first, the men suffered rashes, blisters, burns, vomiting, diarrhoea and shocking headaches after using the new batch. Then came unexpected deaths and the workers wives and girlfriends were having multiple miscarriages and giving birth to deformed babies.
Mr Drysdale says he was ‘ as fit as a mallee bull’ before using the chemical, but he has since vomited up blood, lost weight, had his hair fall out in clumps and suffered fainting spells, angina, burns and rashes. One of his collegues was so strong he could throw a full 44 gallon drum on the back of a truck by himself, but he became so debilitated he could not even walk up a flight of stairs to collect his weeks’ pay.