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Public interest and toxic chemicals

The power of journalism and the science behind hazardous chemicals on our health

How do the harmful effects of chemicals go undetected, and what can we do to better protect against this? Public health expert Professor Tim Driscoll and Walkley Award-winning journalists Kerry O'Brien and Carrie Fellner discuss.

In 1982 Kerry O’Brien won the Gold Walkley – the highest honour in Australian journalism – for his TV documentary Circle of Poison, exposing the environmental effects of poisonous chemicals.

He found that there was no official register of chemicals in Australia and the government officials supposed to be overseeing public health were as in the dark as the public about the dangers of widely used chemicals.

Today we’re much more aware of the effects of chemicals on our health, animals and the environment; but we’re still uncovering cancer clusters and filing class actions, such as the recent case against a popular weedkiller.

So, how far have we come? What role does the media, science and policy play in transparency and regulation? 

Hear Kerry discuss these issues with Professor Tim Driscoll, an expert in work-related injury and diseases, from University of Sydney’s School of Public Health. Investigative journalist Carrie Fellner (Sydney Morning Herald), who has won awards for her reporting on illness clusters and toxic environments, will moderate this conversation.

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This event was co-presented with The Walkley Foundation. You may also be interested in our next event collaboration, How the Waterfront Dispute changed industrial relations in Australia on October 28.

The speakers

Tim is the Professor of Epidemiology and Occupational Medicine at School of Public Health, University of Sydney. His main area of teaching is epidemiology at the post-graduate level. Tim also contributes to teaching in burden of disease, occupational health and safety and injury in the Master of Public Health and the Graduate Medical Program.

His main research interest is the epidemiology of work-related injuries and diseases, with an emphasis on work-related fatal injury. Tim is also interested in data systems that facilitate the effective recording and analysis of injury and disease information, and how best to use surveillance and research data in planning and prioritising interventions aimed at decreasing the frequency and severity of work-related and other disorders. He has worked for several years as a member of the team considering occupational risk factors in the WHO Global Burden of Disease Comparative Risk Assessment.

Kerry is one of Australia’s most distinguished and respected journalists with six Walkley Awards for excellence in journalism including the Gold Walkley, and the Walkley for Outstanding Leadership. Other industry awards include a Logie for public affairs coverage.

He has been a journalist for 49 years covering print, television and wire service, as a reporter, feature writer, columnist and foreign correspondent. He has specialised in national politics for the ABC, as well as the Ten and Seven networks, and was press secretary to Labor leader Gough Whitlam.

For more information visit kerryobrien.com.au.

Carrie started her career in broadcast journalism after graduating from UTS in 2010. Her first reporting job was with a commercial radio station in Lithgow. Carrie joined the Newcastle Herald in 2016 and was part of the Herald team that won a Walkley in 2017. She was also a joint winner at the 2017 Walkley Young Australian Journalist of the Year Awards. Carrie now works in the investigations team at The Sydney Morning Herald.

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