Thursday, April 29, 2004

WA agricultural workers still seeking justice

By Chris Latham

A herbicide used in the highly toxic chemical mixture Agent Orange — widely used during the US war in Vietnam — was still being used in Australia as late as 1985.

A group of workers, employed by the Western Australian government's Agricultural Protection Board (APB), who sprayed the herbicide in the remote Kimberley region have battled for decades to get official recognition for a wide range of illnesses which they blame on exposure to chemicals.

Finally, in February this year, the WA government agreed to pay compensation to 17 workers employed by the APB in the Kimberley between 1975 and 1985.

According to July 2002 government-commissioned study — the Kimberley Chemical Use Review (available at < http://www.ministers.wa.gov.au/Feature_stories/Chance_KimbChemRevA HREF="mailto:iew.pdf">), the APB used the herbicide 2,4,5-Trichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4,5-T) in the Kimberley region between 1975 and 1985. The herbicide is known to contain the highly toxic dioxin TCDD.

A soil sample taken from the Derby APB store site in 1999 indicated that the herbicide may have had higher levels of TCDD contamination than the maximum legal level permitted. While it is unclear what the source of this contamination may have been, it is possible that Agent Orange was imported cheaply after the end of the US war in Vietnam. What is clear is that over an extended period of time, workers were spraying herbicides that were in unlabeled drums.

Adding to the danger of dioxin exposure was the lack of occupational, health and safety measures that would have limited possible exposure.

Of the Aboriginal workers employed by APB in the Kimberley region, 90% told the review they received no safety training. While this partly reflected a lack of legislative measures mandating what was adequate protection, there is considerable evidence that in other parts of WA workers wore protective gear.

The APB workers in the Kimberley were told by managers that water near where the herbicide was sprayed was safe to drink. "Safety" videos made by the APB showed the herbicide being sprayed by workers wearing shorts and T-shirts, despite the manufacturer's labels (from 1969) specifying that skin contact should be avoided.

The workers were given no clear direction on storage of the herbicides or on safe food preparation in their work camps.

Numerous anecdotes were provided to the review of workers who had their clothes saturated with 2,4,5-T in the course of their work, and these clothes being taken home and washed with other family garments.

The workers and their families' fears of the possible dangers of the herbicides increased when an APB worker died suddenly during a local football match. The worker was 33 years old and physically fit, but had had a high level of exposure to the 2,4,5-T.

Despite these concerns, there has been little provision of information to the local communities were the spraying was carried out or to workers over the past 20 years.

Dr Andrew Harper, the report's author, found that among the 90 former APB employees interviewed, at least 13 probably had illnesses resulting from exposure to the herbicides. His report made 16 recommendations, including that the agriculture minister acknowledge that former APB workers and their families had been exposed to an increased risk of ill health as a consequence of the APB's policies and practices.

Harper also recommended that consideration be given to compensating those workers who had been exposed to the herbicide and suffered disability as a consequence.

In response, the government convened a new "medical expert panel" to investigate whether Harper's conclusion about "an association between the herbicide and illness was scientifically accurate".

This new review published its report in February. It concluded that Harper's report had not established a causal relationship between the exposure to 2,4,5-T and the ill health that the APB workers have experienced. It also argued that the 17 cancers and 49 deaths that have occurred among the 321 workers employed by the APB in the Kimberley over the period studied were "non-significant" as a statistical test. The workers' cancer rate was 48% higher and their death rate 9% higher than Kimberley residents not exposed to herbicide.

This second report became the basis for the government's decision to compensate only those APB workers who have developed cancer.

The majority of the former APB workers, who have illnesses other than cancer, have been left to seek compensation through the tortuously slow workers' compensation system.

Interviewed on ABC Radio National's Background Briefing program on April 18, Harper described as "a cop-out" the second report's refusal to recognise that the non-cancer illnesses could have been produced by expose to 2,4,5-T. "I think it's socially unjust, and I think that it is an inappropriate use of science", Harper said.

From Green Left Weekly #580.

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