Can Tasmania really claim its ‘clean and green’ image?

Despite its beautiful wilderness and slow-paced way of life, it’s unsettling to learn that Tasmania has the nation’s highest rates of cancer (age standardised, excluding skin cancers), the highest rates of Parkinson’s disease and asthma, and has among the highest rates of diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

It’s not just the people that are experiencing high rates of disease. Tasmania is a stronghold for a number of native animals, but in the past few decades diseases have emerged that are seriously impacting wildlife. An aggressive transmissible cancer was first identified in Tasmanian devils in 1996. This cancer has caused a greater than 80% decline in the numbers of this first-line carnivore.

The island’s platypus population suffers from an ulcerative skin disease caused by a fungus (mucormycosis). A range of marsupials including bandicoots, wallabies, pademelons and wombats are succumbing to toxoplasmosis – a protozoan infection spread by introduced cats. The frog populations have well established chytrid fungus infections. Other diseases – such as staphylococcal infections in echidnas’ feet and tuberculosis in seals – have also been reported.

The State of Tasmania is in fact a group of islands with a total area of 68,300 sq km. It has a cool and temperate climate, prevailing westerly winds, mountains, lakes, beaches, areas of world renowned wilderness, and a population of around 500,000 people.

Like other parts of south-east Australia, it is currently experiencing changing weather patterns as a result of climate change, with increasing sea temperatures off its eastern coastline and prolonged periods of rain resulting in flooding on the back of a prolonged severe drought.

Since the introduction of the Regional Forest Agreement in 1996 and the expansion of commercial forestry and agricultural activities, human-induced changes to the natural landscape have occurred at a faster rate over the last 20 years than have occurred in the previous 100 years. As a result Tasmania now has approximately 700 species listed as threatened.

Other concerns:

  • Water catchments and rivers that provide drinking water which is contaminated with a mixture of toxic pesticides and other chemicals (such as fertilisers) on a background of tannins and organic material already in the water.
  • Heavy metal contamination of mining sites and landfill sites, plus many other contaminated sites that continue to be used for housing and recreational areas.
  • Rivers and estuaries contaminated from boat slipways and shipping, with untreated contaminated waste being deposited into these waters.
  • Contamination of soil, air, and water from long-term pesticide use by the timber and agriculture industries. Monoculture tree plantations have increased by 40% to nearly 300,000 hectares since 2001.
  • Antibiotics fed to intensively farmed salmon in sea-cages have entered the marine ecosystem and are now detectable in wild marine fish.

These are diverse areas of concern but they are interconnected. And yet they are not being considered in any social, environmental and land use planning and policy.

Pollution Information Tasmania (PIT) is documenting information including observational histories relating to pollution issues.

Environment Tasmania and Pollution Information Tasmania, with patron Peter Cundall OAM, launched the Tasmania Ecotoxicology Research Fund in  2009. Download the fund’s first educational brochure about the impacts of pesticides on Tasmania’s drinking water: WARNING! POISONED WATER?