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Something In The Water Part 2 - Transcript

PROGRAM TRANSCRIPT: Monday, 22 February , 2010

CAROLINE JONES, PRESENTER: Hello, I'm Caroline Jones. Tonight, the compelling conclusion to the
story of Georges Bay in the beautiful Bay of Fires region of north-east Tasmania. Last week's
episode centered on the alliance forged between local oyster farmers, a GP and a Sydney scientist.
They joined forces because of what they saw as government indifference in the face of serious
concerns about water quality and human and animal health. They poured tens of thousands of dollars
of their own money into their investigations. What they eventually found turned out to be the very
opposite of what they expected. We begin tonight with a quick recap.

(Excerpt from 'Something in the Water - Part 1' on Australian Story 15 February 2010)

DR MARCUS SCAMMELL, MARINE ECOLOGIST: She's got a history that most people are completely unaware
of. She's doing in Tasmania what she did in the Falklands in 1982. She stepped right out in front
of the firing line for what she believes in.

DR ALISON BLEANEY, GP & LOCAL COUNCILLOR: It dawned on me that really I was seeing an increase in
all sorts of diseases that to me was quite unexpected.

DR MARCUS SCAMMELL, MARINE ECOLOGIST: The oyster farmers started noticing significant losses after
rainfall. So I was called in because I was an expert in oysters.

DR ALISON BLEANEY, GP & LOCAL COUNCILLOR: And in 2004 we had this huge flood and they lost 90 per
cent of the intertidal oysters.

DR DAVID OBENDORF, WILDLIFE VET PATHOLOGIST: Tasmanian devil facial tumor disease came out of
nowhere back in the mid 90s, just north of St Helens.

DR MARCUS SCAMMELL, MARINE ECOLOGIST: When we started to look at the size of the plantations it
became apparent that here was a very large source of potential toxic chemical.

DR ALISON BLEANEY, GP & LOCAL COUNCILLOR: And in fact could be in the water.

DR MARCUS SCAMMELL, MARINE ECOLOGIST: What we appear to have is a problem that's going right across
the ecosystem.

DR ALISON BLEANEY, GP & LOCAL COUNCILLOR: We released a joint paper which has been called the
Scammell Report.

BRYAN GREEN, RESOURCES MINISTER: This report has no science attached to it.

DR MARCUS SCAMMELL, MARINE ECOLOGIST: Well, of course there was no science there. All we had was a
series of observations and a request for some science.

and then put up a brick wall.

DR ALISON BLEANEY, GP & LOCAL COUNCILLOR: So we decided just to pay for it ourselves and go and
have a look to see what pesticides were coming down in the catchment.

DR MARCUS SCAMMELL, MARINE ECOLOGIST: So we organized for dry weather water to be sampled, and they
rang me up and said 'your water's toxic'. And so we were both now, you know, more than concerned.
We were now alarmed.

(End of excerpt)

DR ALISON BLEANEY, GP & LOCAL COUNCILLOR: On the one hand you don't want to alarm people if it's
not actually a huge problem, although it seems like it's a really significant problem. On the other
hand you actually have people whose livelihoods depend on having water quality which is pure; on
having a clean green area; on continuing to live on the pristine environment that we have here.

JIM HARRIS: Whatever she does... knows that she's not a scaremonger or a muckraker; that she only
has people's best interest at heart with whatever she does.

DR MARCUS SCAMMELL, MARINE ECOLOGIST: The Government had known that there was a problem in that
location since 2000. We're now in 2005 and out of our own desperation we've gone and tested the

DR ALISON BLEANEY, GP & LOCAL COUNCILLOR: And to our surprise, it came back that it was toxic. So
we immediately alerted Public Health to our findings. The samples were reproduced; they were taken

IAN COATSWORTH, OYSTER FARMER: We had another scientist come down from Sydney, who took samples out
of the skimmer box in conjunction with the State Government. So they got 50 per cent of the sample,
we got 50 per cent of the sample. The Government tested for toxicity; we tested for toxicity.

(Excerpt from Government sample findings March 2005)

(On screen text): The Tasmanian Government reported that no man-made chemicals were found in the
water. Bottom and surface samples did not prove toxic to daphnia (water fleas). Only concentrated
surface scum proved toxic to daphnia. The scum was analysed and found to contain organic compounds
from 'naturally produced vegetation such as ti-tree and eucalypts'. These organic compounds are
common and natural.

(End of excerpt)

DR MARCUS SCAMMELL, MARINE ECOLOGIST: Tasmanian Government's conclusion was that it was naturally
occurring toxins and therefore it's okay. I said, 'Well that's absurd.'

(Excerpt from ABC News March 2005)

STEPHEN SALTER, MAYOR BREAK O'DAY COUNCIL: We should actually be taking legal action against people
who are putting down our community on a regular basis on... based on non-scientific fact.

STEPHEN KONS, MINISTER FOR PRIMARY INDUSTRIES & WATER: People who make such accusations and
quackery in my view should certainly hold back, make sure that what they say is genuine, and have
the results to back it up.

(End of excerpt)

DR ALISON BLEANEY, GP & LOCAL COUNCILLOR: The fact that they wouldn't investigate this any further
and wouldn't take protective measures with regard to public health, Marcus and I both felt were
totally inappropriate, and for our own peace of mind we decided that we would carry on and try and
find out what this toxin was.

DR MARCUS SCAMMELL, MARINE ECOLOGIST: So it was no longer 'what should we do?' but rather 'what can
we do?', and what we could do because of my links into the scientific industry and because of
Alison's desire to have this thing fixed, was we could run our own private investigation. It meant
we were going to have to be fairly careful about what we spent money on because it's very easy to
spend a lot of money very quickly when you don't know what you're looking for.

DR ALISON BLEANEY, GP & LOCAL COUNCILLOR: Our belief at the outset was that this toxin that was
occurring in dry weather was a chemical - a manmade chemical that was being sprayed in the hills
around that area. And that somehow it had got to the groundwater and that's why it was present all
the time. So we started looking for manmade chemicals.

DR ALISON BLEANEY, GP & LOCAL COUNCILLOR: So we've actually taken multiple samples. We've taken it
from the upper south George, the upper north George where the two George Rivers meets to form the
George itself. We've taken from the bottom end of the catchment just where the water intake for the
town is.

DR MARCUS SCAMMELL, MARINE ECOLOGIST: Every time we took a water sample test in that catchment the
water came back toxic.

DR ALISON BLEANEY, GP & LOCAL COUNCILLOR: We've involved five different universities, five
different laboratories. All of them top notch, all of them accredited nationally.

DR MARCUS SCAMMELL, MARINE ECOLOGIST: And in the event we conducted approximately 26/27 individual
studies of possible toxins that might cause the toxicity of the George River water.

DR ALISON BLEANEY, GP & LOCAL COUNCILLOR: Our findings had been confirmed every time we've tested.

DR MARCUS SCAMMELL, MARINE ECOLOGIST: We effectively eliminated all possible known man-made and
naturally occurring toxins that have caused problems in the literature. These include all the
pesticides, they include metals, they include blue-green algal toxins, they include toxins from
funguses, they include fungicides, so on and so forth. Everything that we knew could cause toxicity
we had eliminated. We'd tested it twice and it wasn't there. And yet the toxicity was there every
time we went. So this is 26/27 water samples later... sampling events later. We still couldn't find
a cause.

(Excertp of inspection of water intake pipe)

DR ALISON BLEANEY, GP & LOCAL COUNCILLOR (Walking to river's edge): So here we go Marcus - this is
the water intake pipe for the St Helens.

DR MARCUS SCAMMELL, MARINE ECOLOGIST: It's interesting at this site because there is no foam. and
yet it reforms as soon as it goes over that waterfall down there. So that kind of suggests to me
that the particulate matter and the toxin is spread from top to bottom.

DR ALISON BLEANEY, GP & LOCAL COUNCILLOR: And this in fact is our most toxic sampling site, isn't


DR ALISON BLEANEY, GP & LOCAL COUNCILLOR: This is where the water is at most toxicity.

DR MARCUS SCAMMELL, MARINE ECOLOGIST: Yes. It's always been most toxic here.

(End of excerpt)

DR MARCUS SCAMMELL, MARINE ECOLOGIST: I do not know how effective the sand filtration system is and
that is something that we are looking at. But what I do know is, that in the raw water supply going
into that sand filter every single day of the week, it contains a toxin. We also tested water from
the nearby catchment at St Marys. Unlike St Helens, which is surrounded by plantation timbers - the
eucalyptus nitens - St Marys is surrounded by natural forest. And we've found no evidence of
toxicity in the St Marys catchment. However in the St Helens catchment directly below this
monoculture of plantation trees, we had permanently present toxin.

DR ALISON BLEANEY, GP & LOCAL COUNCILLOR (at South Georges River): This is the head waters of the
South George which feeds into the George River, and here we are surrounded by plantations. This
used to be natural bush and farming land and now we are completely surrounded by plantations here -
the Eucalyptus Nitens. This is the source of our drinking water for St Helens, let alone all the
animals that drink from it, and this is one of the areas where we've discovered that the water in
fact is toxic. This should be the most pristine water. This is the very head waters of the South
George. Where is this toxin coming from?

(Excerpt of Dr Alison driving to visit patient)

DR ALISON BLEANEY, GP & LOCAL COUNCILLOR: I'm off to go and see a patient who's got a very... a
very rare cancer - Waldenstrom's Anaemia. She's one of only approximately 18 in Australia, and we
just happen to have two in St Helens. And in the last perhaps six years or so we've actually seen
quite few people with really quite rare autoimmune diseases of their brain for instance. We've had
a case of Wegener's Granulomatosis; it's actually quite a rare disease.

So now looking back on this over the last ten years, I realize that I see many things now that as a
GP... that many GPs would never see one of these cases in their working lifetime.

(End of excerpt)

DR ALISON BLEANEY, GP & LOCAL COUNCILLOR: Clearly in a population of less than 3,000 to have these
rare diseases - to have this chronic ill health - there must be something on the go to explain

(Excerpt of Dr Alison Bleaney talking with patient)

DR ALISON BLEANEY, GP & LOCAL COUNCILLOR: Now, I hear you haven't been doing so well?

GLENDA BLAIR, PATIENT: No, there's been a few more problems cropping up. I've had one with my eyes,
so I had to go to the ophthalmologist.

DR ALISON BLEANEY, GP & LOCAL COUNCILLOR: So, how have the headaches been Glenda?

GLENDA BLAIR, PATIENT: They're not so bad. My eye's been okay, but still getting a bit of the


GLENDA BLAIR, PATIENT (to interviewer): Well, it's not a curable cancer. No-one really offers any
explanation. But you do wonder because even with my cancer, they are looking at whether it's
environment factors or viruses that are causing this particular cancer. So you do get a bit
concerned about the environment itself around here.

(End of Excerpt)

DR MARCUS SCAMMELL, MARINE ECOLOGIST: After 26 to 27 independent investigations of different
possible hypotheses as to what this toxin was, in the end the only possible source of contamination
that we were left with was the trees themselves - these plantation trees. Alison and I decided that
we would test the actual plantation timber leaf material itself; we'd test the actual tree. When we
took the leaves and extracted their contents and checked them for toxicity they were indeed very
toxic. Ironically the Government and our investigation have come to the same conclusions - that the
origin of that toxin is the trees. They've concluded that it's naturally occurring and therefore
not an issue. We haven't accepted that.

(On screen text): Having found that water samples from the George River were toxic to daphnia
(water fleas), oyster larvae and sea urchins, Drs Bleaney and Scammell decided to go one step
further. They sent water samples to the University of New South Wales for testing on human cell

toxic to skin, liver and lung cells. Interestingly, we found that using the water undiluted, you
can kill 100 per cent of your population of cells, which was surprising. And the more you dilute
the water the less kill rate you get. We got some testing previously done on the Olympic site where
we had some heavily contaminated water which came out positive. But that's the second incidence
where I see a water sample which can trigger such toxicity - 100 per cent. And it's surprising to
get something like that in a pristine area that you expect like in Tasmania. Whatever is in the
water is killing all the cell population in my tests. It is toxic, but I don't know the extent of
the impact on the whole body. But because, as you know, we're doing experiments using single cells
which is different from an organism where you have multiple cells interacting with each other and
where cells can repair themselves in the human body.

(On screen text): Having been accused previously of 'unscientific quackery', Bleaney and Scammell
say they wanted additional confirmation before publicly revealing their findings. An anonymous
donor agreed to help pay. Internationally recognised eco-toxicologist, Dr Chris Hickey from New
Zealand's National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research Institute, reviewed and repeated the

DR ALISON BLEANEY, GP & LOCAL COUNCILLOR: We've collected that foam from two sites, one of which
was near the water intake for the St Helens township.

the foam under the microscope - and we've looked at the type of characteristics of the foam - it's
got a lot of broken down plant tissue in it and debris, and it's about half sort of organic matter
that makes up the foam. At certain high levels it causes complete disintegration of the blue mussel
larvae. We've been able to show that that occurs from the eucalyptus leaves as well. The
disintegration of the blue mussel larvae is actually unique to this foam and now these studies with
these eucalyptus leaves. We've never seen it elsewhere before. The hypothesis was that the
Tasmanian plantation trees had been genetically improved and that had led to an increase in
toxicity of those leaves.

DR MARCUS SCAMMELL, MARINE ECOLOGIST: The timber companies themselves refer to these as genetically
improved. They don't say how they're improved.

the toxicity of the leaves from old growth eucalyptus nitens in Victoria and compared those with
the plantation trees in Tasmania. There were subtle differences in chemistry with the leaves but it
wasn't increasing the toxicity of the leaves. The major difference that we found between these
leaves was quite marked in the relation to the ability to generate foam. The Tasmanian trees
generated a lot more foam and this foam was a lot more stable than the Victorian leaves. The
significance of this is that... in that the toxin is carried in the foams - this is the mode by
which the toxin can be transferred within the catchment and moved down the river system and into an
estuarine environment.

IAN COATSWORTH, OYSTER FARMER: Which was a real worry for us as oyster growers because that
particulate matter that is coming down the river runs into our bay 24 hours a day, and it's also
food for our oysters. It's what... one of the things the oysters eat.

have stumbled on something quite new here. Not only did you have the major event that occurred in
2004 with major lethality's of oysters and other species, but they've had ongoing problems in much
reduced oyster health. And this is symptomatic that it wasn't just the event that occurred at that
time, but we've got an ongoing, if you like, a stressor in that system; quite a major thing that's
affecting oysters.

IAN COATSWORTH, OYSTER FARMER: We first reported major problems in about 2000, and now it's what,
ten years down the track and we've still got nowhere. That in itself is just devastating. When
everything was right, it's just a wonderful industry. But you can't defeat the undefeatable.
There's other losses apart from the oysters. There's the... it's, you know, the anguish,
depression; it's dreadful.

necessarily in the laboratory or even expect to sort of look for this sort of effect. You're only
going to see it once you get things on a very large scale monoculture. It's a classic case of
potential unintended circumstances, unintended effects from something that's on a large scale like
plantation forestry. We're quite comfortable that we know that the foam is very toxic, but we don't
know what quantities are produced and the frequency that it's occurred and how often things are
exposed. So that is a major unknown that needs some more work.

this research, I was a bit doubtful about it. So I went through all the data, all the experiments
and all the results that Marcus and Alison had put together. I went through it with a fine
toothcomb. It is classical toxicology. It's rigorous; It's right down the line. I couldn't find a
nicer piece of work. And then as I got drawn into the story, I became fascinated by the mystery. I
think there are a number of different things going on here and we need to work out what's going on
in this river. We used two different cell lines... two different cancer cell lines to test the
toxicity of the foam that Chris Hickey worked on and to some other water samples that I collected
from the George River. We actually took breast cancer cells and cells from a placental tumor. We
deliberately choose these cancer cells for culture systems because they're hardy and robust. They
both died; both cancer cell lines died. It doesn't mean that actually if somebody drinks the water
that it will poison them. It doesn't mean that, because it could be that the digestive processes
that go on in the stomach might break down the toxin, might render the toxin harmless; we just
don't know. But what was surprising was the speed with which the cells died after exposure to these
water samples. So we've investigated the effects of the toxins on cell death and cell viability,
and that's one thing. But in fact you can get more subtle effects. So for example, the toxin might
affect the hormone system in the body. And the hormone system might be affected... is more likely
to be affected before the cells actually die. Cell death's at the end of the line; you get other
damage occurring before cell death. So these are preliminary data because we've only done two
separate samples in a number of ways in the lab, with a number of different tests. But those two
sets of data, as well as all the data that's come from the... another research group at Uni New
South Wales, as well as all the other invertebrate data that others have done, are enough to say
we've got to look at this in far more detail.

experiments we designed a second series of experiments whereby we would chemically analyse both
leaf material from eucalyptus nitens and foam material, and then follow that up with bioassays with
both our fresh water cladocerans and our blue mussels. So this is some sort of forensic toxicology
work that we're doing. What we've been able to do is come very close to showing that there's a
common chemical fraction in both the eucalyptus nitens leaves and in the toxicity in the foams. So
from that we really feel we're very close to being able to confirm that the eucalyptus nitens is
the primary source of toxicity in the foams. We just haven't been able to actually get down to the
final fingerprinting and molecular weight determinations which will give us our final linkage to
the eucalyptus nitens.

DR ALISON BLEANEY, GP & LOCAL COUNCILLOR: In the beginning, after the oyster kill, we actually
thought it was just pesticides and we went looking for those. And although we didn't find any at
the time, we know that pesticides are still being aerially sprayed in the water catchment; they're
still being ground sprayed, and it adds to the complexity of the picture.

that Alison and Marcus faced here is that they're seeing both effects on human health in Alison's
practice as a GP, as well as these effects on oysters and effects on other aquatic species. It's
difficult to assess whether your human health eco-toxicological and oyster health problems are all
with the same causative agent; just making that linkage is difficult. Chemical use of course in our
environment is an accepted part of agricultural management. I think something we shouldn't dismiss
entirely is the potential for this being a cocktail effect of a number of different things
occurring in this catchment.

DR ALISON BLEANEY, GP & LOCAL COUNCILLOR: And whether this is having an effect, for instance, on
the Tassie Devil or not remains to be seen. But we would call that... we would call for testing as
soon as possible to be done in such a way that can determine that.

DR MARCUS SCAMMELL, MARINE ECOLOGIST: So from the oyster farmers' point of view, they're in an
impossible catch 22. If they don't speak out, they will never be able to grow a crop. If they do
speak out, there will be an inevitable backlash in the market place. The onus will then be on them
to prove that whatever oysters they do manage to grow are safe to eat. What they do now is instead
of growing the oysters in the intertidal zone where they grow fastest, but where they also come
into contact with the toxin, they now grow those oysters at depth. And they only bring them to the
surface when there has been no rainfall and when the water that's sitting in the bay is ocean
water. So they now have a strategy for growing oysters that are safe to eat.

ALISON BLEANEY: Of course I wonder if I've got it right. You go over it again and again. We're not
saying we actually have absolute proof of what's going on. We're actually saying that this needs to
be investigated and it needs to be looked at very carefully. I've been accused of scaremongering
and I suppose talking out like this, you could actually accuse me of that. But I don't actually see
it as scaremongering because no-one really seems to want to listen. The Government has to take some
action and make sure that the main reason it is here for is to protect human health.

environmental problems on this scale it is normally at some stage you expect a major sort of
environmental project to be funded by a government research organization.

plantations in Tasmania and over half of the plantations in Tasmania are eucalyptus nitens
plantations. It's extensively established across huge areas across northern Tasmania. You've got a
finding here that has the potential to have significant public health implications. It's clear that
it's early stages and there's a whole lot more research work that needs to be done. But it is
absolutely crazy that a couple of private citizens have had to keep going and investigating this
issue, funding it themselves, doing all the work to try and get to the bottom of what is
essentially an environmental and public health issue that government should act on.


The State Government was approached but declined to comment.

The State Director of Health says investigations and monitoring in St Helens have not suggested any
abnormal clustering of particular disease types or any adverse trends. His full statement is
available as part of our broadband coverage:

The Forest Industries Association of Tasmania has provided a detailed four page statement published
on our site, along with extended interviews, links and commentary from a range of perspectives.