Dioxins in the Harbour!

Deadly catch at Woolwich. Photo: Dallas Kilponen

Results of recent testing for dioxin levels in fish from Sydney Harbour by the NSW Department of Environment, Climate Change and Water means that the ban on eating fish caught west of the Sydney Harbour Bridge may continue for decades to come.

The water in Sydney Harbour looks so clean, it’s hard to believe that aquatic life can be so highly contaminated. The reason is that dioxins are contained within the sediment on the harbour floor and make their way up the food chain from invertebrates to prawns, then bottom feeding fish.

A recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald (http://www.smh.com.au/environment/water-issues/the-poison-that-got-away-20101029-177i0.html) blames the contamination squarely on dumping by Union Carbide:

For more than 20 years, waste from the Union Carbide site was used for landfill and was dumped into the mangroves where it leached into Homebush Bay. Union Carbide was allowed to leave Australia without a comprehensive clean-up of the site and in the 1980s it was discovered that it was the main source of contamination of fish in the bay.”

This was in the NINETEEN 60’s and 70’s. It beggars belief that the company didn’t know the effect that their dumping would have. These weren’t products that were seen as harmless back then… we’re talking about 2-4-5-T and everybody’s favourite defoliant, Agent Orange. How could they dump this waste, then walk away and sleep at night? How were they allowed to? More to the point, how many cancers and birth defects will their vandalism cause? And what other surprises might await us as we continue to convert industrial areas for residential use?

It was almost 25 years from the time this dumping ground was first discovered until dioxin levels in prawns and fish from the Harbour were checked and found to be well in excess of safe levels. Even now, Sydney residents (many of whom can’t read and understand English) ignore posted warnings, and catch and eat these contaminated fish.

Will the next problem be increased heavy metal readings in children playing in backyards that used to be plating shops or tanneries? Will it be Bi-Phenyls from water as a result of coal seam gas recovery? The lesson we should learn is that we must always err on the side of caution when it comes to industrial waste disposal practices.

It may cost a little more now to do so… but the cost to future generations is likely to be far greater.

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