Agent Orange Town

by Matthew Benns and Frank Walker, Sydney Morning Herald

The Australian Army tested chemical weapons on a town which now has deaths from cancer 10 times the state average.

Military scientists sprayed the toxic defoliant Agent Orange in the jungle that is part of the water catchment area for Innisfail in Queensland’s far north at the start of the Vietnam War.

The Sun-Herald last week found the site where military scientists tested Agent Orange in 1966. It is on a ridge little more 100 metres above the Johnstone River, which supplies the drinking water for Innisfail.

Forty years later the site – which abuts farmer Alan Wakeham’s land – is still bare, covered only in tough Guinea grass, but surrounded by thick jungle.

“It’s strange how the jungle comes right up to this site and then just stops. It won’t grow any further,” Mr Wakeham said.

Agent Orange was sprayed extensively in Vietnam to defoliate the jungle and remove cover for North Vietnamese troops. It contains chemicals including the dioxin TCDD, which causes forms of cancer, birth defects and other health problems.

Researcher Jean Williams found details of the secret Innisfail tests in the Australian War Memorial archives.

“These tests carried out between 1964 and 1966 were the first tests of Agent Orange and they were carried out at Gregory Falls near Innisfail,” said Ms Williams, who has been awarded the Order of Australia Medal for her work on the effects of chemicals on Vietnam veterans.

“I was told there is a high rate of cancer there but no one can understand why. Perhaps now they will understand.”

Ms Williams unearthed three boxes of damning files.

One file showed the chemicals 2,4-D, Diquat, Tordon and dimethyl sulphoxide (DMSO) were sprayed on the rainforest in the Gregory Falls area in June 1966.

The file carried the remarks: “Considered sensitive because report recommends use of 2,4-D with other agents in aerial spraying trials in Innisfail.”

Ms Williams said: “It was considered sensitive because they were mixing together all the bad chemicals, which just made them worse. They cause all the cancers.”

Ms Williams claims a file which could indicate much wider testing in a project called Operation Desert had gone missing. The contents were marked “too disturbing to ever be released”.

“Those chemicals stay in the soil for years and every time there is a storm they are stirred up and go into the water supply,” Ms Williams said.

“The poor people of Innisfail have been kept in the dark about this. But these chemicals cause cancer and deformities that are passed on for generations. It is shocking. I am just an 83-year-old war-weary battler. I don’t want any more medals, I just want justice for the people of Innisfail.”

Queensland Health Department figures show Innisfail, which has a population of almost 12,000, had 76 people die from cancer in 2005. That is four times the national rate of death from cancer and 10 times the Queensland average.

Australian War Memorial director Steve Gower confirmed the file on Operation Desert could not be found.

Australia and Britain opened a joint tropical research unit at Innisfail in 1962. In 1969 the Liberal defence minister Allen Fairhall flatly denied chemical warfare experiments had been associated with the unit at Innisfail.

But last week The Sun-Herald found the site and an old digger, a decorated veteran of three wars, who had worked on the experiment.

Innisfail local Ted Bosworth, 86, fought in the New Guinea campaign in World War II, copped a bullet in the lungs in the Korean War for which he was awarded the Military Medal and was in the Army Reserve during the Vietnam War.

In 1966 he drove scientists to the site where the spraying occurred.

“There was an English scientist and an Australian. I heard they both later died of cancer.

“They sprayed by hand. The forest started dying within days. By three weeks all the foliage was gone. The scientists always denied it was Agent Orange. They were pretty cagey.”

Mr Bosworth confirmed photos The Sun-Herald took were of the experiment site. “That is the area they sprayed. That is it. It was on top of the ridge next to grassland in the trees. It hasn’t changed much in all these years.”

Innisfail RSL president Reg Hamann suffers terrible effects from Agent Orange he was exposed to during the Vietnam War.

“A lot of my unit have died of cancer. I’ve got cancer of the oesophagus and stomach. I have to sleep on a special bed that raises me 17 degrees or everything in my stomach rises up. I’ve had a subdural hemorrhage, a heart attack and a quadruple bypass.

“It passes on to the next generation. My son was born with a deformed lung. My daughter has got the same skin problem I have from Agent Orange. Now my grandkids are going to get it.”

Mr Hamann is angry at the lies and deceit about the effects of Agent Orange on veterans and their families. Now he’s discovered that while he was fighting in Vietnam the Australian government was experimenting with Agent Orange upriver from his home town.

“We were sprayed regularly by Agent Orange as they cleared the river banks. We had no idea how dangerous the stuff was. They’d fly over us and give us a squirt just for fun and wiggle their wings. We took it as a joke. But the stuff turned out to be a curse.”

“I saw in Vietnam what Agent Orange did to an area and I am shocked to learn they used it here. It was kept secret. The army didn’t tell anyone. It was just some of the old army guys and local farmers who knew they were experimenting up there.

“I believe it must have something to do with the high cancer rates in Innisfail. The amount of young people in this area who die of leukaemia and similar cancers to what I got from Agent Orange is scary. The authorities are scared of digging into it as there would be lots of law suits.

“The sad part is the number of kids who get cancer here. It’s been that way at least since I came here in 1970. That means it can’t be chemical spraying on the bananas as they only came here 15 years ago.

“They’ve always used Innisfail as guinea pigs. They did it in World War II and they did it during Vietnam. It’s time to set it right.”

Val Robertson, 74, said a high number of local people aged in their 40s were dying from cancer, about one a month for the last 12 months.

“That’s a lot for a small town like Innisfail. They would have been babies when they were spraying Agent Orange,” she said.

Innisfail Mayor Bill Shannon said there was a high cancer rate in the area and there should be a full investigation.

The Queensland Government and the Federal Government said they would look into the issue.

Guardian UK
Australia cancer deaths linked to Agent Orange
· Town’s rate 10 times state average, says researcher
· Call for inquiry into claims of secret testing in 1960s

Barbara McMahon in Sydney
The Guardian, Monday May 19 2008

Claims by a leading researcher that cancer deaths in a small town in Queensland, Australia, are 10 times higher than the state average owing to the secret testing of Agent Orange there more than 40 years ago are to be investigated by the authorities.

Australian military scientists sprayed the toxic herbicide on rainforest near Innisfail during defoliant testing in the early years of the Vietnam war, it is alleged. The jungle began dying and has never recovered, according to local people.

The site is near a river which supplies water for the town in the far north of the country and researchers believe the spraying may be responsible for cancer rates in the area being 10 times the state average and four times the national average.

The Innisfail claims were made by the researcher Jean Williams, who has been awarded the Order of Australia medal for her work on the effects of chemicals on Vietnam war veterans. She said she found reports of the secret tests in Australian War Memorial museum archives.

“These tests carried out between 1964 and 1966 were the first tests of Agent Orange,” she told Fairfax Media.

Williams said one of the files on the testing was marked “considered sensitive” and showed that the chemicals 2,4-D, Diquat, Tordon and dimethylsulphoxide had been sprayed on the rainforest.

“It was considered sensitive because they were mixing together all the bad chemicals, which just made them worse,” she said. “Those chemicals stay in the soil for years and every time there is a storm they are stirred up and go into the water supply.”

Williams also claimed that a file which could prove that wider testing took place had gone missing from the archives.

A former soldier, Ted Bosworth, has backed up the claims, saying two scientists he drove to the site in the 1960s were interested in the effect the chemical cocktail had on rubber vine, which is also found in Vietnam.

“They sprayed the trees by hand and then in the next couple of weeks I took them back up and they put ladders up against the trees and took photos of them as the foliage was dying,” he said. “They called it some other funny name – I hadn’t heard of Agent Orange then.”

Agent Orange was sprayed by the Australian and the US military during the Vietnam war to defoliate jungle where North Vietnamese troops were positioned. The cocktail of toxic chemicals in Agent Orange has been linked to cancer, birth defects and other health problems.

Yesterday the local mayor, Bill Shannon, called on the Australian Defence Force to investigate Williams’s claims. He said the half-acre site remains deforested, and though the town’s water supply showed no evidence of the chemicals, local people had long been concerned about cancer rates in the area. “I’d like to know exactly what did happen and the extent of it. We don’t want a cover-up,” he said.

Queensland’s premier, Anna Blyth, said she was disturbed by the claims. “Any concerns these residents have can and will be investigated thoroughly,” she said in Brisbane yesterday.

However, the Queensland health department said that the incidence of cancer in Innisfail is no higher than in other parts of the state.

Health rejects Agent Orange cancer link

Sarah Elks, THE AUSTRALIAN | May 19, 2008

QUEENSLAND Health has hit back at claims that the rate of cancer deaths is higher in the north Queensland town of Innisfail, where the army reportedly tested chemical weapons at the start of the Vietnam War.

A Sunday newspaper report claimed Queensland Health figures showed Innisfail had a rate of cancer mortality four times higher than the national death rate and 10 times the Queensland average.

But a Queensland Health official flatly rejected those figures last night and said the data “completely lacks credibility”.

Brad McCulloch, director of the Tropical Population Health Network based in Cairns, said the mortality data was incorrect.

“We can’t validate where it came from and there’s no way we can find any way to reproduce the journalist’s calculations,” Mr McCulloch said.

He said the rate of incidence of cancer – not the mortality rate – was a more accurate indicator of cancer risk caused by environmental factors. “Mortality is not a good indicator of a cancer cluster because some people who get cancer move,” he said.

“If you’re looking for an environmental cause, you look at incidence rates, or the emergence of new cases of cancer. And the cancer incidence data for Innisfail is exactly the same as the rest of Queensland.

“We reject that there’s anything unusual about Innisfail in terms of cancer incidence.”

Author and researcher Jean Williams said she had seen files at the Australian War Memorial that said the toxic defoliant Agent Orange was sprayed on the jungle in the water catchment area of Innisfail in 1966.

Ms Williams, who was awarded the Order of Australia for her research into the effects of Agent Orange on Vietnam veterans, said the chemical testing in Innisfail was known as Project Desert.

“Lieutenant E. Holt and his assistant George Lugg, a former chemistry professor at Melbourne University, (were) sent to Vietnam late in 1967 by the Department of Supply to develop techniques for clearing taskforce perimeters,” she said.

“But experiments had previously been carried out in Australia. Innisfail’s water catchment area, Gregory Falls, was the designated testing place for Lugg and Holt’s experiments with highly toxic chemicals.”

She said one file showed the chemicals 2,4-D (a component of Agent Orange), Diquat, Tordon and dimethyl sulphoxide were sprayed on rainforest near Gregory Falls in 1966.

A Defence spokeswoman refused to confirm or deny the allegations. “Defence is taking into consideration the allegations made in the article,” she said.

“Defence will review these allegations but we are unable to provide a response in the timeframe.”

Bill Shannon, Mayor of Cassowary Coast Regional Council, said there should be a full investigation as it was potentially a “very serious health issue”.

He said he had spoken to several members of the community who remembered the testing.

“I made some inquiries and in the 1960s it was known that it had occurred, but only amongst a handful of people.”

Queensland Premier Anna Bligh said concerns would be thoroughly investigated.

“Any concerns these residents have can and will be investigated … just as we have when there’s been complaints about unusual cancer rates at workplaces,” Ms Bligh said. “I would encourage these residents who have any concerns to talk to the Environmental Protection Agency.”