Is there a cancer cluster in Barwon Heads, and is mossie spraying to blame?

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


A surprising number of Barwon Heads locals aged in their 20s to 30s have died from, or are suffering from, lymphoma and blood cancers. They went to the same schools, played in the same parks and lived in the same streets. A local research group called Discovery 3227 has been investigating if there is a link between these sick young people and historic pest spraying by the area’s council.

The council has denied there is a cancer cluster in Barwon Heads and a State Government investigation found there was no evidence of it.

But the local people I spoke to are adamant there are too many cases of sick young people for this to be a random coincidence.

I recently read a Facebook post that said: “Five young friends play in their local park in Barwon Heads, years later 3 get leukemia, 1 brain cancer and 1 Hashimoto disease…strange but true.” I decided I should meet with the man who posted this.

I first caught up with Ross Harrison at his surf shop called Rasta in the heart of Barwon Heads. Inside the shop, he was talking to two girls in their early 20s about surfboards he had sold to one of their dads many years ago. Outside, a man who was walk by stoped at the window to wave to Harrison. At a café, Harrison addressed the waitress by name and she does the same back. I concluded that I was possibly sitting across from the most popular man in town. And rightly so.

Harrison is no stranger to fighting for his community. Prior to opening Rasta in 1991 he ran an environmental shop for two years which was formed to fight authorities on the issue of ocean pollution. His investigation back then found incriminating information and now, many years later, his latest research has led to another shocking breakthrough.

After listening to persistent rumours over the past 10 to 12 years about cancer in the area, Harrison formed the Discovery 3227 group. The group was made up of just two others who had a science and auditing background. No members were paid for their research and relied heavily on crowd-funding sourced by locals. “We are just chasing truth, that’s it … I’m not a litigant, I’m not financially involved in it, we’re just chasing the truth and acknowledgement of what happened,” he said.

Harrison described the method as mad. “We worked pretty much 24/7 for about three months, which meant that we would communicate at all times throughout the day and night,” he said.  He found himself eating less and losing weight as he would be working “hideous amounts of hours”. 

Through their research, the group identified a pesticide, commonly synthesised and used in chemical warfare, had long been sprayed over Barwon Heads and surrounding wetlands in order to cull mosquitos. The group is now convinced it has discovered the cause of high cancer cases in the area. 

The City of South Barwon from 1984 to 1993, and the City of Greater Geelong from 1993,  have conducted mosquito eradication programs along the Bellarine Peninsula. From the mid-1980s to around 2012, the program run by the council used organophosphate pesticides.

The chemical malathion is the most common organophosphate used for pest control and is usually applied through ground and aerial spraying. The chemical is a nerve poison which works by attacking the nervous system. It is regarded for its high toxicity levels in insects and seemingly low levels in mammals. However, after extensive research carried out by the Discovery 3227 group, it believes it has the evidence to put the City of Greater Geelong in the spotlight in what it considers to be a blatant disregard to human life.

Aerial treatment of pest insects. Source: City of Greater Geelong.

An article earlier this year in The Age began asking whether cancerous pesticides were present on the Bellarine Peninsula. The media had become interested in the story after the death of Georgie Stephenson. Stephenson was a 26-year-old Barwon Heads local who passed away in 2017 after her second bout of Leukaemia. The story raised concerns for locals as it was further reported that five of her peers from both Barwon Heads Primary School and Bellarine Secondary College had also passed away as a result of cancer. The Stephenson family told The Age they knew at least another 20 young adults who lived in the area that had also experienced cancer.

The chemical Dieldrin, which is a synthetic form of organochlorine, was previously thought to be connected with the increase in cancer cases along the Bellarine. But Harrison calls Dieldrin “the red herring”. “The City of Greater Geelong was very happy it was discovered in Drysdale because they knew that would really be something that they couldn’t be responsible for”. Dieldrin is more commonly used by farmers in crop spraying than by councils for mosquito spraying.

Acting Health minister Peter Sutton released a report in January based on the Australian Cancer Atlas data, which indicated no higher number of specific cancers of interest in the area. The report rejected claims of a cancer cluster based in Barwon Heads.

However, Harrison said the statistics Dr Sutton used combined Barwon Heads and Ocean Grove, therefore, it cannot be known what percentage of cancer comes from Barwon Heads alone. He said it also failed to consider that the council stopped using malathion in 2012, meaning the effects would only be seen in long-term locals or former residents who had moved away, yet “these figures were washed out in the report”.

A cancer cluster occurs when a large number of people from the same area or group are diagnosed with a particular cancer, with cases of that illness being higher than otherwise expected. Very few cancer clusters across the world have been proven despite a number of pesticides being linked to cancer. The limited research has made it difficult to confirm.

The people of Barwon Heads were not so easily convinced and, through private investigations, they suspect a different pesticide that was administered by the council had potentially hazardous effects.

Discovery 3227 says those living near the 54-acre park commonly referred to as ‘The Muddies’ were exposed to organophosphate pesticides, with new evidence emerging that the children of Barwon Heads Primary School were also exposed to the chemical as ‘Murtnagurt’ and ‘No Go Zone’ were sprayed through fogging and aerial application for a long period of time. 

The red represents the areas the Discovery 3227 group says were commonly sprayed by the council. Source: Ross Harrison.

In light of their findings, Harrison took to Facebook with claims that the council was in denial. “Who’s Lying, contrary to all local community evidence, former councillors, Council Employees, Local Residents/Victim statements, the City of Greater Geelong … are now claiming to have never sprayed for mosquitoes in what’s known as the 54 acres (The Muddies) or surrounds in Barwon Heads … Truth suffers when good people say nothing.”

When asked what he meant by this he said the council told him that they have never sprayed the park. But former councillors have confirmed this did happen. He said he wondered if the current council was playing to the technical terms – that it did not do the actual physically spraying of the area itself – as a ploy to shift liability.

City of Greater Geelong Mayor Bruce Harwood has said he is unaware of any evidence that the Discovery 3227 group has or how it collated it. He told D*scribe that Barwon Health had conducted its own studies and had found no evidence to suggest cancer rates were above what was expected for the area.

When asked if ‘The Muddies’ and the primary school had been sprayed, he said there had been programs for many years to meet the expectations of the community who “want the mosquito program” to prevent mosquito-borne diseases. He said he was unsure if malathion was ever used throughout the program.

“Any issues a community raises, of course, the council … will engage. At this point, we’ve gone to Barwon Health, who are the experts, to seek their advice. Their report is quite clear. They’ve looked at the data, there is no evidence. They’re not seeing this figure that Discovery 3227 are,” he said.  

Cr Harwood said Barwon Heads was a “very safe place to live” and Barwon Health monitors the entire region, so if it were to see a spike in cancer or other illnesses, it would investigate. “If there is evidence to suggest that there is any pesticide found to be detrimental it will be reviewed and stopped in use,” he said.

The concern with the mosquito program was the use of organophosphates such as malathion used in the air for killing adult mosquitos. The chemical is often inhaled or absorbed through the skin and has been declared as ‘probably carcinogenic’ (Group 2 A) by The International Agency for Research on Cancer.

These pesticides can cause cancers such as Leukemia, Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma, brain and breast cancer but have also been responsible for immune diseases such as Crohn’s disease and Lupus as well attacking the nervous and endocrine systems. They are thought to chromosome share, meaning that victim’s children could possibly expect to endure the same fate.

The Department of Sustainability and Environment’s Framework for Mosquito Management in Victoria cites the main chemicals as malathion and various pyrethroids. Whilst the document states that all pesticides currently registered for mosquito control have been researched both nationally and internationally, they note little research had been conducted under Victorian conditions.

Harrison says the “problem is that right from the federal government that actually legislates which pesticides can be used … and from the state delegations of power, you had this total disconnect for what the real pesticide was designed for. Those pesticides should not have been used around the population.”

Within the 34-page framework, there is no mention of public safety in regard to the use of these pesticides. The Discovery 3227 group has labelled this document as “damning”, saying to have a framework of such depth with no mention of the public and their wellbeing is a “failure”.

The Victorian framework on mosquito management says, “malathion and pyrethroids … have a broader scale impact on non-target species and may have a much smaller impact on overall mosquito numbers than larviciding.”

A map showing where the Discovery 3227 group says cancer and immune disease victims reside. Source: Ross Harrison.

The Sierra Club in Canada, whose mission is to give the earth a voice, has deemed all organophosphates including malathion as toxic to insects, animals and humans. It says that the aerial spraying is not a long-term solution as the mosquitos gradually build immunity to the chemical. In addition, the application of aerial treatments is ineffective as one in 1000 drops is likely to hit an adult mosquito, with at least three drops being required to kill the target. This means that most of the chemical ends up on the non-target species and surrounds.

Discovery 3227 will continue its fight by trying to put some infrastructure in place for future health coverage. It will continue to build its case by gathering data from Ocean Grove wetlands to investigate any possibly links between wherever chemical the mosquito program has sprayed there and any potential cancer cluster.

Cr Harwood commends the group’s work. “They are doing some due diligence, as have the council and Barwon Health. If they are able to provide new evidence to suggest there is a correlation between contamination of the land and the cancer levels … this information has to be … investigated,” he said.

“But, as a non-medical person, I accept and respect the report from Barwon health.”


0 comments on “Is there a cancer cluster in Barwon Heads, and is mossie spraying to blame?

  • sally-ann white says:

    We lived in Cottesloe Drive from 1989 to 2001. My daughter (who is now 40) has been diagnosed with sarcoidosis, an autoimmune disease. There is no history of this disease in either side of the family. Do you think this might be related to your investigation??

  • HI Geogia

    The federal Government have now announced and inquiry into the The City of Greater Geelong’s organophosphate mosquito program and the clusters of cancers and immune disease on the Bellarine, Surf Coast and Geelong areas.


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