Sunday, May 18, 2008


Cancer is obviously no joke – Okay, it's at least smile-inducing if you're a lefty and the sufferer is Tim Blair – but a report on "chemical weapons" in the Sydney Morning Herald is hilarious. The first paragraph is a beauty:
The Australian Army tested chemical weapons on a town which now has deaths from cancer 10 times the state average.
The "chemical weapons" were actually herbicides (the dreaded Agent Orange and possibly other chemicals often mixed with herbicides). The town, Innisfail, Queensland, was not the site of the testing, with the chemicals actually applied to a heavily vegetated area nearby.

The mere mention of Agent Orange evokes images of fleets of C 130 aircraft over Vietnam saturating the countryside with defoliants but spraying near Innisfail was not quite so grand:
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."
So two guys fronted up out of the blue seeking the assistance of a local who drove them to an appropriate test site where they hand-sprayed the jungle with defoliants. What, the military conducted an operation without hundreds of personnel transported by a convoy of vehicles? How much defoliant could two men hand-spray over how large an area, and how did they reach the treetops? And this spraying of what must be a rather small quantity of herbicides has resulted in locals having a cancer rate 10 times the national average? Hmm, colour me skeptical.

Now don't get me wrong, I'm not downplaying the dangers of toxic chemicals and I'm certainly not making fun of anyone who might have suffered adverse health effects after contact with Agent Orange or other defoliants. That said, the toxicity of dioxins (thought to be the possibly carcinogenic component in these defoliants) appears to be grossly exaggerated, if the U.S. National Research Council of the National Academies is to be believed:
The committee concludes that the weight of epidemiological evidence supporting classification of TCDD [thought to be the most toxic dioxin] as a human carcinogen is not “strong.” The committee points out, however, that the human data available from occupational studies show a modest positive association between relatively high concentrations of TCDD in the body and increased mortality from all cancers.
Irresponsible reporting from the SMH helps no-one and will probably scare the crap out of Innisfail locals. But I guess it helps sell newspapers.

Update: There is no cancer epidemic:
Queensland Health Tropical Population Health Network Director Brad McCulloch said a review of Queensland Cancer Registry figures showed the incidence of cancer in Innisfail was the same as the rest of the state.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Agent Orange is an herbicide made of two chemicals you can buy at your local garden store, 2-4D, used as a broadleaf killer ie Dandilions, and 2-4-5T a brush killer ie blackberries. The two mixed become a broad spectrum defoliant. The dioxin component is an artifact introduced by the low cost bidders lack of quality control in the synthesis of the defoliants.

1:28 AM  

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