Dozens of Australian agriculture workers, who were exposed to a toxic chemical used in Agent Orange during a controversial weed-spraying programme, are demanding compensation after the state government admitted that the health risks were covered up for two decades.
Up to 36 premature deaths have been linked to the herbicide, which was used in the remote Kimberley region of Western Australia between 1975 and 1985. Survivors say they have suffered health problems, including blindness, cancer and respiratory illnesses, and some have children who were born with deformities.
The Western Australia government, after years of resistance, ordered an inquiry which recommended last year that compensation be paid to the men who worked for its Agricultural Protection Board (APB). But the inquiry said it would be difficult to prove that their illnesses were directly caused by exposure to the herbicide, called 245-T. State politicians then referred the issue to a panel of scientists.Their findings are due next week.
The herbicide has been linked with health problems for decades. The men say the drums of chemicals were not labelled properly and they were not advised how to use them safely. Carl Drysdale, a former district officer for the APB, said that workers were told the herbicide was safe enough to drink.
Ron Delvin, another former APB worker, said: "We were traipsing around the country, spraying it all over the joint willy-nilly. We were living and breathing ... that stuff."
Those who have died include Cyril Hunter, an Aboriginal man from the town of Derby, who had a heart attack aged 33. Mr Drysdale said: "A lot of these guys were strapping good fellas, and to die in your 30s - and there's quite a lot that died in their 30s - it's not on."
Mr Hunter's mother, Lucy Marshall, is convinced that the 245-T caused his death. "All I want is the truth," she said.
The inquiry, led by Andrew Harper, a Perth occupational health expert, concluded that the men's working conditions were "deficient". It found that 13 out of 90 men interviewed had suffered chronic disability that was "probably attributable" to their exposure to the herbicide.
The former workers are particularly concerned about a batch from unmarked, 44-gallon drums in the 1970s. It was, they say, darker and stickier than what they were used to. They believe it may have contained cheap chemicals imported from Singapore and damaged by fire, which would have made them more toxic.
Mr Drysdale said: "I reckon they dumped it in the Kimberley thinking that ... out of sight, out of mind." Others have suggested that the rogue batch may have originally been destined for use in the Vietnam War, when Agent Orange was sprayed as a defoliant to make it more difficult for the Viet Cong to evade American forces.
While the state government admitted responsibility, it deferred the question of compensation. The men fear that the findings of the scientific panel will allow politicians to sidestep it completely.Reuse content