BOB COLE is living in the shadow of a toxic pesticide once widely-used across Australia.
The Bendigo resident's body is riddled by cancer and he suffers short-term memory lapses more than half a century after handling dieldrin, a poison once used to protect underground phone cables from termite attack.
He has a growing pile of medical records on melanomas and carcinomas that need to be removed from his ear to his ankle.
Mr Cole has urged people who use modern chemicals like glyphosate - the active ingredient in many herbicides - to keep a close eye on their health, especially after a US court awarded damages to a man who believed it had contributed to his health problems.
Two weeks ago, chemical manufacturer Bayer announced it would pay billions of dollars to settle lawsuits over glyphosate's possible links to cancer.
Those litigations were based on "one outlier in research", with overwhelming scientific findings indicating glyphosate is safe to use, chief operating officer of Bayer Crop Science said at the time.
Bayer has not accepted liability or wrongdoing and has pointed to regulators which say it is safe to use.
Dieldrin - which Bayer never manufactured and works very differently to glyphosate - has long been linked to cancer and was largely phased out by the 1980s and 90s, according to Agriculture Victoria.
Mr Cole believes dieldrin accumulated in his colleagues' bodies and lowered their resistance to carcinogens, especially in the 1960s when it was used to protect telecommunication cables Swan Hill to the South Australian border.
"I could sit here and name you a dozen blokes that I suspect had cancer through it, who worked with it constantly," Mr Cole said.
Many, including his brother, never followed up to see if that was the case as their health deteriorated. Some were smokers or heavy drinkers and many spent a lot of time in the sun.
'It came out like milk'; and stayed in the body for 50 years
Mr Cole began using dieldrin when he worked for Telecom (now known as Telstra).
That time included work on northern Victorian projects monitoring phone cables to help technicians quickly find and repair termite damage.
Workers mixed dieldrin in drums attached to cable-laying machinery. They also used it after they had made repairs to cables
"We used to mix this stuff up at two galleons to 44 galleons of water. There were no warnings other than to wear rubber gloves and overalls, nothing about the fumes (the mix created)," Mr Cole said.
"That was twice the amount recommended, and it was what you needed to get the volume (of pesticide) running on the cables.
"It came out like milk."
The below timeline shows Telecom research on ways to protect its underground cables from ant and termite attack. All information comes from the Telecommunication Journal of Australia (1985) unless otherwise specified. Timeline is best viewed on a computer.
Neither he, Telecom and the independent scientists who OK'd its use knew just how dangerous dieldrin was, Mr Cole said.
"That's what has annoyed me the most over the years: the ignorance," Mr Cole said.
In 1966 Mr Cole was shopping with his children in Swan Hill when he collapsed, "vomited green" and fell unconscious.
Puzzled doctors did not know what the cause was and a week later Mr Cole was back at work.
He will never know whether he collapsed because of Dieldrin, but it came a day after he had spent hours working in the pesticide's fumes.
He had dug down to a freshly cable on the Lake Boga line because it was faulty and was using a gas torch as part of the repair work.
"The heat made it more toxic. And bear in mind I was working in a hole that was, maybe a foot wide and as deep as a table," Mr Cole said.
"The fumes would knock you around."
Trauma sets in as the truth emerges
The communication industry stopped needing dieldrin by 1968 as new nylon-jacketed cables more impervious to termite damage were introduced.
A spokesperson for Telstra said dieldrin said global controls were brought in from the 1960s onwards as people began to identify its negative effects.
"Like other persistent pesticides, the impact wasn't well understood at this time," they said.
"To our knowledge, Dieldrin was most widely used in agriculture given it was a recognised pesticide. We did, however, use it for a period of time for termite control in some of our network infrastructure."
Mr Cole said that the first he realised dieldrin was dangerous was when two men arrived Telecom's depot in Abel Street, Bendigo, in the early 1980s to find out whether anyone had handled it.
Mr Cole was the only person to raise his hand.
"That's when it all started to come together and snowball," he said.
A specialist later told Mr Cole dieldrin could remain in his system for up to 50 years after exposure.
"You imagine the trauma if I was to say to you that you have this poison in your system," he said.
"I was the boss of 100 men but I couldn't concentrate."
Mr Cole stopped working for Telecom in the 1980s.
Telstra has accepted responsibility for Mr Cole's skin cancer as a direct result of daily exposure to Dieldrin, Slater & Gordon lawyer Gabriella Giunta said.
"His exposure to the insecticide meant he has not been able to live the life he would have lived, had he not developed cancer," she said.
Dieldrin has not been used in Australia for 40 years and the active ingredient Mr Cole and his co-workers left in the soil in the 1960s would not be dangerous anymore.
Telstra still warns current workers to be wary around cables and manholes where dieldrin was once used.
"Out of an abundance of caution we have safe work practices in place for working in manholes where Dieldrin was used in the 1960s," its spokesperson said.
It is too late for Mr Cole, though.
"I'm just sitting back to see where it comes out next. I don't know. I'll tell you this, I keep an eye on every skin blotch," he said.
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