Former councillor says spraying Barwon Heads’ mossies was common

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Barwon Heads Village by the Sea source: Barry Plant

This case study is part of an investigative package. Read these stories to find out more about this issue:

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A former councillor believes the chemicals used for spraying mosquitoes 20 years ago is the “common dominator” for the suspected cancer and autoimmune disease cluster in Barwon Heads.

During the 1980s and 90s, mosquitos were considered to be in “plague proportion” in Barwon Heads and Ocean Grove. Helen Oates was a councillor with the then City of South Barwon at the time, and a resident of Barwon Heads.

She said it was near impossible to hang out the washing or to spend time outside without getting bitten. The mosquitos had become unbearable and fed up residents would call on the council to spray the area on demand. 

The council hired a local contractor to spray the area. Throughout this period this same contractor conducted the spraying of the chemical malathion, targeting about 54 acres of tee tree, mangrove, the river area near Carr St and the golf club.

“It was common lingo: ‘Oh the mossies are not as bad’. ‘Yeah, they (the council) have just sprayed’. We all knew, and we all spoke about it,” Oates said.

“I remember at the council meeting, Lori Miller was the officer in charge of planning and infrastructure. He would just say, ‘Oh Helen, we have had a lot of phone calls and we have been out your way spraying’.

“We did not know much about the chemicals, and I did not think a lot about it.”

Oates does not believe the council tried to conceal any risk, rather it was just naïve about the effect of the chemicals used. Oates has relocated twice since the 80s and 90s and has lost any documentation about the spraying, but is convinced there was never any official research or regulations in place.  

“I think everyone just had a lot of trust. They came across a product that was effective (and thought) ‘wow, it will do the job’. Just anything to get rid of the bloody mosquitos,” she said.

“I think the community as a whole is much more aware of this stuff now.”

The former City of South Barwon’s logo. Photo: Wikipedia

The Department of Sustainability and Environment’s Framework for Mosquito Management in Victoria states that the chemicals malathion and various pyrethroids were registered for mosquito control but had received little research under Victorian conditions prior to their use.

Researchers have since made significant connections malathion and cancer and autoimmune diseases in humans. The International Agency for Research on Cancer considers malathion “probably carcinogenic”.

However, 20 to 30 years ago Barwon Heads residents felt safe letting kids build their cubbies in the muddies and the mangroves, which is the site of many memories for Oates’ children growing up. “If you were concerned about it, you were thought to be carrying on,” Oates said.

Friends of Oates, Pam and Murray Waugh, are Ocean Grove residents and pioneers of connecting the mosquito spraying with health risks. They were concerned about the spraying in the 1980s but everyone then thought they were crazy.

The couple’s children attended Barwon Heads primary school and lived in Ocean Grove on the river, another heavily sprayed area. They used to pick wild blackberries that had been sprayed during the mosquito program and are now convinced that was the cause of their daughter Kristen’s disability.

“Pam was the first person I heard talk about a particular pesticide. Everyone thought she was crazy at the time,” Oates said.

Kristen was born with major unexpected difficulties, which prompted Pam and Murray to conduct research into the possible causes. They found that the spraying may have compromised Pam’s pregnancy.

“It was always like, Pam you are carrying on, but she probably stumbled onto something back then,” Oates said.  

Although she was once sceptical of Pam and Murray’s research, Oates has had a change of heart since learning five families who they were close to growing up have all experienced a  bout of cancer or illness within their family.

“One family, both dad and daughter got ill; one family had a cancer case; one had to deal with spinal tumours; one had fibromatosis; and another family had someone pass away at (age) 14. Every family of close friends had something happen,” she said.

Oates admits to having no scientific background but trusts the work of the local Discovery 3227 group’s research and believes that the number of cases that have since come forward suggests there has been some impact.

Like many past and present Barwon Heads locals she maintains that it is not about placing the blame on the former council, which was amalgamated into the City of Greater Geelong in 1993. Instead, it is just about getting an answer as to why these illnesses are occurring and how to go forward in the future.

“Unfortunately, that is just how bureaucracies operate. Straight away they are concerned about litigation and being held responsible, but it is just about trying to understand why it has happened,” Oates said.

“We are not saying it is definitely the cause, even though it is looking like it, it is just about trying to find answers.”

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