Special investigation: During the 1990s workers were told not to worry about breathing in the poison – but years later they suffer debilitating illnesses

Outside the fumigation chambers it hung around, bonded to the tropical north Queensland air, amid the hottest November on record. When Sharman went home, and nursed his baby son to sleep, the odour of the gas was still there.

“It would stick around on my clothes when I’d go home at night,” Sharman recalls. “A garlicky sort of smell. A specific smell, I’ve never smelled it before or since [but] it’s a smell you wouldn’t forget.”

Sharman was unemployed in October 1995, when he heard about the discovery of the papaya fruit fly (Bactrocera papayae) in north Queensland and offered to help out. Within days he was on the government payroll, working in a makeshift fumigation tent near Innisfail, disinfesting fruit with ethylene dibromide (EDB).

The fumigation chambers were converted PVC tents that routinely leaked. They had no exhaust vents. In the corner, sitting on an old milk crate, was an aluminium electric frypan.

“You’d be handed the chemical … in a five-litre plastic container, unlabelled, like water. We used to pour … an amount into a beaker, pour it into a frypan and let it boil off.

“We wore shorts and T-shirts. We were told, ‘Just don’t spill it on yourself, on your skin. Don’t worry about breathing it, breathing it won’t hurt you.’”

When Sharman speaks, his racing thoughts escape like mismatched puzzle pieces. He is easily frustrated when others don’t seem to understand how they join together.

He’s used to being misunderstood and disbelieved. Three years ago Sharman was sent to a mental health facility for a month, diagnosed with delusional disorder, after claiming he had been poisoned by EDB.

His psychologist, Marged Goode, describes him as someone who was “functioning fairly effectively before the chemical contamination and has been dysfunctional since”.

"> A November 1995 notification from Queensland Health stating the department ‘does not support the continued use of EDB for post-harvest treatment’

Sharman describes it as “just 20 years of confusion, torment”. He has been diagnosed with a long list of chronic conditions that he says contributed to the breakdown of his marriage and left him unable to work. The occupational medicine specialist Bruce Hocking says there is “good evidence” that some of Sharman’s conditions were caused by overexposure to EDB.

Authorities have known about the effects of the highly toxic chemical – a known carcinogen with properties similar to mustard gas, capable of mutating DNA – for more than 40 years. In Australia, moves to ban EDB as a fumigant started in 1984.

Documents obtained by Guardian Australia under freedom of information laws show the Queensland department of primary industries (DPI) was warned bluntly – about seven months before Sharman was last exposed – about significant health and safety concerns related to the EDB fumigation chambers.

Sharman’s work and medical records indicate his exposure continued for six months after licensing authorities withdrew permits for EDB.

“None of that information ever filtered through to us,” Sharman says. “We were just out in the field just working in the tent.”

"> In December 1995 Queensland Workplace Health and Safety advised the Queensland Department of Primary Industry of health and safety concerns regarding the use of EDB

“Imagine finding this out 22 years later and that it was all hidden, that they knew all about it. Not only that, they were there and showed us how to use it. These are professional people in their fields. With prior knowledge, how could you do that?

“Of course I’m devastated about myself and my own family, coming home every day and poisoning my family, I really have no words for it. Heinous in nature. It was state-sanctioned poisoning.”

On 17 October 1995 a farmer near Cairns found fruit fly maggots under the skin of a pawpaw. Within days, the papaya fruit fly, an exotic species likely to have come from the Papua New Guinea highlands and the Torres Strait, had been detected as far south as Bingil Bay, and inland at Mareeba.

The response to the outbreak was necessarily aggressive, given the existential threat to agricultural industries in the wet tropics. Workers called themselves “fruit fly fighters” and the offensive – implemented by north Queensland DPI managers who sidelined the department’s own fruit fly scientists – relied on the indiscriminate use of pesticides.

Extraordinary quantities of chemicals were used. Documents obtained under FoI show 80,000L and 114,000kg of EDB were purchased in Australia in 1995. Huge amounts of malathion, methyl bromide, fenthion and dimethoate, which were all used as pesticides, were also brought into the country.

The DPI was granted several “off-label” permits for the emergency use of certain chemicals, which would allow them to be used in unconventional ways.

"> Documents obtained under FoI show 80,000L and 114,000kg of EDB were purchased in Australia in 1995

On 9 November 1995, the then Queensland premier, Wayne Goss, met fruit growers in Cairns to address concerns about the chemicals, mainly because some international and domestic markets – including Japan, New Zealand and the Australian Capital Territory – had refused to accept produce that had been treated with pesticides after being harvested. It later emerged more than 10,000 pallets of fruit had to be dumped, after reaching markets with damage caused by fumigation.

The front page of the following day’s Cairns Post quoted Goss speaking about “unnecessary fears” regarding the use of chemicals, and saying there was “no health risk”. Goss did acknowledge the chemicals could be dangerous to workers “if safety precautions were not adhered to”.

In those first few weeks, workers began to show signs of acute exposure. Sharman’s medical records show that on 10 and 22 November he saw his local GP, who logged his overexposure with the tropical health unit. The doctor’s notes record: “headaches, giddy, sleepy”.

“I didn’t know what was happening,” Sharman says. “All my skin was burned, I was all burned up inside my shorts, in my genital area, on the inside of my elbows and the back of my knees. I’d worked out in the sun before ... but I’d never been burned in those places before.”

Mark Trinca was a health nut. He ran a nutrition business with his wife and cycled up to 1,000km a week. In 2011, while riding, he noticed a lump in his groin. The diagnosis was Burkitt’s lymphoma, his first bout of aggressive cancer.

Trinca recalls: “I just looked at the doctor and my question to him was, ‘How the hell did I get this? I do everything right.’”

Trinca had spent six years – from 1997 to 2003 – working for the DPI and most of that time “soaked in chemical”; manufacturing canite blocks doused in the organophosphate malathion, installing the blocks and using pesticide sprays. He says he went years without being monitored for symptoms of exposure.

Trinca was shown chemical procedures by veterans of the papaya fruit fly program. They told him “to blanket the whole place … to put as much chemical out as we can, and that way, we’re going to eradicate it fast and hard”.

By 2002, Trinca’s work diaries show he would regularly get sick when he came back from extended periods in the Torres Strait, where he worked on Northwatch, a successor to the fruit fly eradication program.

“It wasn’t flu-like symptoms. I was getting nauseous. It was quite an interesting feeling where it was a deep fatigue. I can only explain it as a deep bone fatigue.”

Doctors who I’ve spoken to say there’s no doubt that’s what it is. But I can’t get anyone to put it in writing

Last year Trinca underwent an operation for a liposarcoma, his second rare cancer. Doctors say if it returns – and there is a high chance it will – there will be nothing more they can do.

“I really can’t see a reason,” Trinca says. “I did the right thing for the right people. I worked my arse off for the government. I followed the procedures, I did everything that I was supposed to.

“I’m probably one of those people who can show from a lifestyle point of view there was no other risk factors. I had two … extremely high-grade cancers. The research links both of them to pesticide and herbicide exposure. Doctors who I’ve spoken to say there’s no doubt that’s what it is. But I can’t get anyone to put it in writing.”

Elizabeth Bors was working at a local market in Mareeba in late 1995 when she applied for a job on the eradication campaign. She worked mainly with malathion, used in efforts to attract and kill the male papaya fruit fly, installing blocks soaked in the chemical and spraying it on to crops around the Atherton Tablelands community.

“I recall being told by a DPI representative that there was no real data on the handling and use of the chemicals and that we were guinea pigs,” Bors said in a signed statement to the Queensland supreme court in 2006.

The statement, made in a civil case about damaged coffee crops, detailed a common complaint about the program’s operation; a lack of informed consent from people instructed to work with chemicals. Bors said many were otherwise long-term unemployed, thankful for the steady work and reluctant to ask questions.

“I recall being told the names of the chemicals we were using but was not given any real data on them,” Bors said in her statement.

Ethylene dibromide (EDB) was historically used as a soil and post-harvest fumigant for crops, including wheat grains and fruit. It is highly toxic. EDB is most dangerous when inhaled but can be absorbed into the body by penetrating the skin.

Studies have shown the chemical is believed to cause cancer, reproductive effects and foetal abnormalities. It can damage the lungs, liver, kidneys, heart, and other internal organs. It has been linked to depression and mental health conditions. It is capable of causing mutations in genetic material.

EDB has been known to be carcinogenic since the mid-1970s. The US EPA once described it as the “most powerful carcinogen” it had tested. The US banned agricultural uses of EDB progressively between 1983 and 1985.

Memos show Australian authorities had discussed the need for a “replacement” in 1984. De-registration of all EDB products was proposed in 1991.

In 1995, an “off-label” permit for its use as a post-harvest fumigant was issued, then withdrawn two months later due to safety concerns for fumigators and the public. Huge stockpiles of the chemical were purchased that year.

EDB remained in use until 1998 as a soil fumigant, mainly due to pressure from pineapple and tobacco growers.

Bors said DPI managers had been “tight” with expenditure and did not provide proper protective equipment. She said workers had been told to reuse rubber gloves and had to “fight to get supplies, like soap and other necessities”.

One former DPI manager tells Guardian Australia he was aware of claims made by workers for compensation owing to chemical exposure. He said he would have opposed any such claims.

“They were slackers, they knew it was coming to an end, the money was coming to an end and they tried everything they possibly could to keep that going,” the former manager says.

“I bought protective equipment and everything myself, on my credit card for the government and it was available. If they didn’t use it, then we know who is to blame for that.”

In the far north, between the beach and the rainforest, between the bustling tourist towns and the snaking hinterland roads, is some of Australia’s most productive farmland for cane and tropical fruit.

“Chemicals have always been part and parcel of farming in this part of the world,” says Yvonne Cunningham, a long-term Innisfail resident and environmentalist, who has been a local critic of agricultural chemical practices since the 1970s.

After the papaya fruit fly outbreak, farm workers began to contact Cunningham to raise the alarm about the required pesticide treatments, and she began to advocate on their behalf.

“People were told they had to dip their fruit in this organochlorine, dimethoate, and they had no protective clothing,” she says. “They had big vats of this chemical. They had to dispose of it on their own property.

“The kids were playing in the kitchen and mum is there with the dimethoate, dipping the bananas or pawpaws. They said, ‘If we can’t do this, we can’t send our fruit away, then we can’t get any money and we’ll be broke.’

“They had no alternative. I said, ‘At least wear gloves. Don’t go dipping your hands in the stuff. Don’t go dumping it in pits near the house.’”

Cunningham recalls workers getting sick and walking off the job, residents near the fumigation chambers being poisoned by clouds of gas. In her files are letters from workers expressing their concerns. One man, Brian Warn, a father of threee from Bilyana, told the ABC in 1996 he had been poisoned by fumes from a nearby fumigation chamber.

In another letter, a 23-year-old woman, V Eller, talks about “getting severe headaches, to the point of convulsions”.

“When I have expressed this concern to doctors, I have been told the chemicals aren’t dangerous and they use them themselves in their gardens,” she wrote.

With farms facing ruin and livelihoods at stake, Cunningham says her concerns about chemicals were often unwelcome. She recalls being thrown out of a fruit packing shed during a meeting of growers and farmworkers near Tully after she attempted to speak.

“I stood up to speak and … two heavies moved over and picked me up, one under each arm, and carried me out of the shed,” she remembers.

Cunningham, who was later appointed to a government health liaison committee, says the DPI wouldn’t consider alternatives to chemicals: “The politicians were standing up in parliament saying these chemicals are safe.

“They’d already bought the chemicals. So they had this huge stockpile of chemicals and they had to use it. They ordered the chemicals right at the outset, at day one.”

In a 2015 report the Cancer Council highlighted the difficulties in obtaining compensation for chronic occupational illnesses, in which symptoms often manifest years or decades later. The report estimated that 92 out of 100 people who contract occupational-derived cancers do not receive any sort of workers’ compensation.

The report concluded there were “inherent difficulties in assigning a specific case to an occupational cause”.

In Sharman’s case, WorkCover Queensland has accepted he was exposed to EDB for a nine-month period – including after it was banned. WorkCover accepts medical evidence that Sharman has suffered from multiple medical conditions, including two cancer precursor conditions, diseases affecting his lungs and teeth, skin conditions, migraines and various psychiatric illnesses.

Sharman now has three separate medical opinions – from a pathologist, a psychologist and an occupational doctor – which say his symptoms may have been caused by exposure to EDB. Dr Bruce Hocking, a leading occupational medical specialist, says it is “more likely than not” that some conditions were the result of overexposure.

But WorkCover has twice rejected Sharman’s compensation claim. Most recently, he was told “the available medical evidence” does not prove that the conditions were the result of his employment with the DPI.

In an email to Sharman last year, the pathologist Charles Appleton, the head of biochemistry at QML Pathology, wrote that “causality is difficult to establish”.

“The fact is that EDB can cause [these conditions] and you have been exposed to EDB and you have so many of them … it can be argued that the whole picture suggests abnormal toxic exposure.”

The DPI no longer exists. Its modern iteration, Queensland’s Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, said it had difficulty commenting about past practices given the amount of time that had passed, the fact many of the staff concerned had since retired, and that some records relating to the papaya fruit fly program had been destroyed in Cyclone Yasi in 2011.

Many in the agricultural industry are watching developments in the US, where a groundbreaking civil ruling against the chemical company Monsanto, in relation to the commonly used weedkiller glyphosate (Roundup) has prompted a string of litigation relating to agricultural chemicals. Pesticides and herbicides have been called “the next asbestos”.

Kate Hughes, an environmental advocate and researcher with a focus on hazardous chemicals who spent time in north Queensland during the papaya fruit fly eradication program, says regulators in Australia “had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the 20th century”.

“With the acutely toxic [chemicals] like EDB you could only shake your head and say, ‘Don’t they have any compassion for working-class people, for working people who can’t rush off to a lawyer and say I’ve been poisoned.’

“It was 1995 – it wasn’t as if it was 1975. It was quite shocking to know the conditions under which people were obliged to apply [chemicals]. It’s very hard to apply toxic pesticides in a tropical climate. It’s very, very hard to use the protective equipment. You could say that in certain climates it’s virtually impossible to apply occupational health and safety, because of the conditions.”

Hughes says the permit system failed in allowing EDB to be used. She agrees emergency measures were needed in some circumstances but that these “clearly weren’t balanced with the need to protect health”.

Doctors now know about lead but it took a long time. Doctors know now about asbestos but it took a long time

“EDB is incredibly acutely toxic. It’s a shockingly strong nerve poison or neurotoxin, it can damage the brain in various ways [and] affect our emotions, learning and behaviour.”

Hughes was one of the first researchers to write about the mental health impacts of chemicals, now well established by research, and also the effects of prolonged exposure to amounts considered harmless by regulators. Her 1994 book, Quick Poison, Slow Poison, was ahead of its time in recognising the way chemicals act as “slow poisons ... that cause sickness in people who are regularly exposed to small doses over long periods of time”.

But she maintains chemicals – including Roundup – are useful and necessary to support farmers to produce food and protect biodiversity from invasive species.

“The whole modern food production system, whether you like it or don’t like it, requires the use of pesticides,” she says. But she adds that the fact those same chemicals are sold in supermarkets “an aisle over from the bread” is “an obscenity”.

“Doctors now know about lead but it took a long time,” Hughes says. “Doctors know now about asbestos but it took a long time.

“I’m certainly not alarmist on this but I certainly am alarmed. What I’ve been reading over the past five years [about chemicals] is that humans are the test animals, we’re just not getting the test right.”

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