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Tuesday, 26 February 1985
Page: 176

Senator REYNOLDS —Is the Minister representing the Minister for Health aware of the large number of people reporting ill-health since the fire at Brisbane's chemical and fertiliser factory, Rite-Gro Pty Ltd, last month? One resident who lived 300 metres from the fire has died suddenly and an autopsy is being conducted to establish whether this death is related to the chemical fire. What assistance can the Federal Government offer the Queensland Government to ensure that residents are fully informed about the extent of toxic fumes which appear to have contributed to some 250 reported cases of sickness since the fire? What responsibilities does the company Rite-Gro have as a result of this chemical fire in proximity to a residential area?

Senator GRIMES —My attention has been drawn to the fire at the Rite-Gro chemical factory at Zillmere in Brisbane in January and the reports in the newspapers of cases of illness allegedly caused by the fallout from that fire. Responsibility in this area generally is in fact shared by the Commonwealth and State governments. The Queensland health authorities have claimed that they have found no evidence of a continuing health problem as a result of the accident, but obviously the Queensland authorities are continuing to investigate the matter.

The Australian Chemical Industries Council operates an around-the-clock computerised information system known as Data Chem which is specially designed to give fire authorities information on hazardous chemicals involved in emergency situations of this type. However, coping with the immediate hazard problems presented by explosions or combustion of pesticides in factories of this type is in general a matter for the local authorities and for emergency personnel provided by the State departments of health, by the various fire authorities and the various State authorities. Individuals are made available on request by the Federal authorities in these circumstances.

The general question of chemical hazards in the work place is the subject of legislation now being developed by the Department of Arts, Heritage and Environment and the National Occupational Health and Safety Commission will have the primary carriage of this legislation. The Department of Health is responsible for the evaluation of the toxic properties of pesticides, but this function is barely related to the problems arising from the large scale combustion of pesticides and reactions with other chemicals which unfortunately have occurred in factories of this type in recent times.

I am uncertain as to the responsibilities of the Rite-Gro company as a result of this chemical fire. I imagine that it would be a matter largely for the courts. However, I will refer that question to my colleague the Minister for Employment and Industrial Relations, who probably will be able to give more information than I am able to do at this time. We have a problem in which both the Commonwealth and State authorities are involved. Certainly the Commonwealth authority, on request, will be available to assist the Queensland Department of Health or other Queensland Government departments in handling this problem.

Senator REYNOLDS —I ask a supplementary question. Has the State Government documented its investigations to the Federal Government and, furthermore, has the State Government requested any Commonwealth assistance?

Senator GRIMES —I will have to seek that information from the Minister for Health as I do not have it in my brief.