Lands Department workers across Victoria exposed to dangerous chemicals
Nov 13 2015
Lands Department workers in the region were exposed to more than double today’s standard tolerable intake of dangerous chemicals which a Victorian government independent inquiry found could be linked to cancer.
The findings from the inquiry were handed to the Minister for Environment Lisa Neville on Wednesday with the government now expected to respond to the findings.
The report also found that despite a number of “excellent” research pieces and reviews into worker’s health and chemical safety which were completed, findings and recommendations were mostly not implemented.
The Ballarat Courier first revealed concerns surrounding the region’s former Lands Department spray programs and practices back in September 2014, and has pushed strongly for further action by government ever since, with its Toxic Legacy campaign.
Dozens of ex-workers and families of deceased workers from depots in Ballarat, Maryborough, Daylesford, Linton and other central Victoria locations came forward with concerns.
In a statement, the inquiry’s chair Greg Tweedly said weed sprayers working for the department between 1965 and 1981 were exposed to double the tolerable monthly intake of a contaminant of 2,4,5-T called TCDD.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified TCDD as ‘carcinogenic to humans’ since 1997 and ‘possibly carcinogenic to humans’ since 1982.
Mr Tweedly said a study of the department’s sprayers in the 1980s found no abnormal incidence of cancer.
“However, we found consensus throughout academic papers, since then, regarding a link between exposure to TCDD and the incidence of soft tissue sarcomas and non-Hodgkin lymphoma.”
Mr Tweedly said that through the time period examined safety messages were inconsistent and the availability and uptake of protective equipment was poor.
“Formal training in the safe use of pesticides was introduced in the mid 1970s, but was not always compulsory or suited to employees’ training needs.”
More than 100,000 document pages were analysed as part of the process. Mr Tweedly said the inquiry had yielded unexpectedly large volumes of information.
“The community’s contributions … were vital to understanding the full picture of historic chemical use and storage practices within the former department and I thank them for their willingness to speak with us about this sensitive topic,” he said.
Over the past week, The Courier has heard dozens of stories from ex-workers and families of deceased workers from depots including Ballarat, Sebastopol, Beaufort, Clunes, Daylesford, Linton, Avoca, Maryborough, Buninyong and Meredith.
The inquiry, which would be established under the Public Health and Wellbeing Act, would take submissions and have the power to call on witnesses.
The Courier has identified 17 former Victorian Lands Department weed eradicators in the region who have died, mostly from illness including various cancers.
There is currently no clear link between the deaths of the former workers and their exposure to toxic chemicals.
However, former Linton depot spray hand Ewen Ching believes his exposure to toxic chemicals led to several diseases and disorders. Former Linton depot spray hand Ewen Ching attributes most of his current illnesses to working with chemicals.
Mr Ching became sick two years after taking a redundancy package in 1998 when symptoms of peripheral neuropathy – a nerve disease – appeared. Mr Ching now battles Parkinson’s disease, sleep apnoea (a throat disorder that blocks the airways), diverticulitis (a bowel disease), a dysfunctional pancreas, a swollen prostate and cysts on his liver and kidney.
“These poisons caused a lot of what I’ve got,” Mr Ching said. “With all these sicknesses I’ve got, it’s gotta be caused by something.”
Australian Workers Union Victorian branch secretary Ben Davis said Labor’s commitment was a huge step forward.
“The AWU … calls upon the Napthine government to call an independent inquiry now so that the community can finally get some answers to some very troubling questions about the exposure of state government employees and others to these chemicals and the health effects of this.”
Earlier this week, the state government pledged to have the Department of Environment and Primary Industries – the successor to the Lands Department – conduct an internal investigation into the matter in collaboration with the Victorian WorkCover Authority. Environment and Climate Change Minister Ryan Smith could not be contacted before deadline.