1979 + 2015/19: Palm Island (Queensland) – Cylindrospermopsin, Colour, Turbidity, Do Not Drink Water

Palm Island (Queensland) – Cylindrospermopsin

“Cylindrospermopsin is believed to have been the causative agent in the Palm Island “mystery disease” poisoning incident in Queensland in 1979, in which 148 people were hospitalised (Byth 1980). It was subsequently shown that water from Solomon Dam on Palm Island contained blooms of toxic C. raciborskii (Hawkins et al 1985). C. raciborskii has been found in many water supply reservoirs in northern, central and southern Queensland. Although C. raciborskii
and A. ovalisporum are both considered to be predominantly tropical/sub-tropical in terms of habitat, with most Australian blooms occurring in Queensland, C. raciborskii also occurs in the Murray-Darling River system (Baker and Humpage 1994). In recent years there has been increasing evidence of detection in the River Murray and C. raciborskii was detected in the major blooms that affected several hundred kilometres of the River Murray on the border between New South Wales and Victoria in 2009 and 2010 (NSW Office of Water 2009, MDBA 2010). C. raciborskii is not a scum-forming organism, but forms dense bands below the water surface in stratified lakes, while A. ovalisporum may form thick brown surface scums (Shaw et al 1999). Although no reports of human poisoning attributable to cylindrospermopsin have appeared since the Palm Island incident, recent cattle deaths in Queensland are attributed to
this toxin (Saker et al 1999)”. (Fact Sheet Cylindrospermopsin ADWG 2011).

1979 – Palm Island Mystery Disease


In 1979 an outbreak of hepatoenteritis, also known as the Palm Island mystery disease, was reported[1] and described a hepatitis-like illness (associated in many cases with dehydration and bloody diarrhoea) in 148 people[2] (138 children and 10 adults) of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent in Palm Island, Queensland.


The cause of the outbreak was determined to be the addition of excessive doses of copper sulfate to the water supply of Solomon Dam to target a cyanobacteria bloom of Cylindrospermopsis raciborskii. The excessive dosing was following the use of least-cost contractors to control the algae, who were unqualified in the field.[3]

Toxins from the cyanobacteria itself had also been described as a possible cause.[4][5]

Early suggestions included Toxocariasis.[6][7][8]


Symptoms of hepatoenteritis included diarrhoea, vomiting attacks, loss of balance and disorientation.[9]

The perinatal effects of cyanobacteria contamination of drinking water include prematurity, low birth weight and congenital defects detected at birth. In 1996 there were 63 deaths attributed to drinking water contamination in Caruaru, Brazil.[10]


This Queensland island is about to dry up, causing residents to bathe in and drink dirty water

October 7 2015


A SEEMINGLY idyllic Queensland island is about to run out of water, leaving its residents to bathe in and drink “filthy, murky, dark brown” contaminated water.

A TROPICAL island on the Great Barrier Reef is about to run out of water as its dams dry up and levels become so low that thousands of residents are forced to bathe in and drink contaminated water.

Many, including children and the elderly, have fallen ill; suffering nausea, diarrhoea and boils, since the water on Palm Island turned a “filthy, murky dark brown”, news.com.au has been told.

Palm Island is located about 65km northwest of Townsville, off the coast of Queensland and home to about 4000 residents.

It is the main island of the Greater Palm group, and consists of small bays, sandy beaches and steep forested mountains rising to a peak of 548m.

But the seemingly idyllic island is in the grip of a severe drought that is expected to cause the region’s only two dams, Francis Creek and Solomon, to deplete by Christmas this year.

Palm Island mayor Alf Lacey told news.com.au the dams only had enough water to last the community another 94 and 81 days respectively if significant rainfall didn’t come first.

Mr Lacey said water meters were not installed in the community’s dams, making it difficult to monitor consumption and easy to run dry, as one did in the early 1990s.

“We are using just over 1.4 mega litres of water for town usage per day,” Mr Lacey said.

“It’s concerning for us here on the island but I don’t want to be the one who presses the panic button.

“Our issue at the moment is asking residents in town to play their part in conserving water in their households on the island.”

Mr Lacey said essential services were allowed on the island but that visitors, including “church groups, government and non-government agencies”, were restricted access in a bid to conserve water.

“You don’t come to Palm Island unless necessary,” he said.

Strict water restrictions were recently put in place on Palm Island but some locals say they should have been implemented sooner.

“As the father of nine children myself, I am deeply concerned,” Mr Lacey said.

Long term Palm Island resident Lyndell Prior, 38, said her family, including three of her five young children, had been forced to bathe in the “dirty, brown” contaminated water every day for about two weeks.

“Everyone’s been getting sick since it started,” Ms Prior told news.com.au.

“Luckily we were able to bring a filter in for the tap in the kitchen to give us clear drinking water but we have to have baths in the filth.

“When the children bath in the water I supervise and say ‘don’t drink the water’ — I don’t like it that they have to bathe in murky water.

“If you’ve got a little cut, your cuts can get infected.”

Ms Prior said her children had experienced “sore tummies, diarrhoea and feeling nauseous in stomach”, which she believed was a result of coming into contact with contaminated water.

“When I pull the plug out of the tub there’s a brown mark that stays around the tub,” she said.

“Residents without the filters are boiling their water which kills the bacteria so you can drink it but it’s still that brown colour.

“A doctor made the comment that it was the water and said ‘you’d be surprised how many people are coming through the Palm Island hospital with the same symptoms’.”

Townsville Hospital and Health Service chief executive Julia Squire said The Joyce Palmer Health Service — Palm Island’s hospital — “has not reported any increase in presentations of children with the illnesses described (by Ms Prior)”.

“Environmental health officers from the Townsville Hospital and Health Service have not received any notifications of contamination of the island’s water supply,” Ms Squire said.

Palm Island Council chief executive Ross Norman said the discolouration of the island’s running water was caused by aerators which “turn the sediment over” with oxygenation to prevent stagnation when water levels become extremely low.

Mr Norman and Mr Lacey said water quality tests were conducted fortnightly on Palm Island but couldn’t provide the results of the latest tests to news.com.au on Tuesday.

They said the tests were conducted by Townsville City Council through Sunwater but when contacted by news.com.au, both organisations denied any responsibility or involvement in water quality testing on Palm Island.

Mr Norman said “everything was fine last week (according to tests Mr Norman said were conducted at the Townsville City Council Laboratory)” but conceded it was not known if the town’s water supply was safe for consumption today.

“We’re looking at getting some independent people to come and look at the water, and do an assessment on how much water they think is in the dams,” he said.

“The water is already dirty but all we need to be able to say is that the water is fit for human consumption.

“We should know something in the next few days.”

Mr Lacey said he had informed the Queensland Local Government about the water shortage and expected the Local Disaster Management Group would co-ordinate an emergency response if a crisis was declared.

Queensland Local Government Minister and deputy premier Jackie Trad could not be contacted for comment on Tuesday.

“In terms of where we go from here, it would be a matter for the local disaster management team to kick into play and recommend,” Mr Lacey said. “It’s the best bet at this point of time to just pray for more rain.”

But according to the weather bureau, Palm Island’s water supplies won’t be replenished anytime soon.

Bureau of Meteorology Queensland duty forecaster Rick Threlfall told news.com.au the island was unlikely to experience any significant rainfall until the wet season arrived in December.

“(Residents of Palm Island) will be waiting well into the wet season to start to see more moist air spreading south over north Queensland,” he said.

Mr Threlfall said the El Niño — a rare and extreme weather event — currently gripping Australia was one of the strongest on record and “probably” the cause of the drought on Palm Island.

“The rainfall has been below average for a year and this year we have almost the strongest El Niño on record, so (the drought) is probably connected to that,” Mr Threlfall said.

“The best (residents of Palm Island) can hope for over the next week or 10 days is one or two showers off the Coral Sea but in terms of rainfall I wouldn’t expect more than a few millimetres in a day, there’s no significant wet weather to the state in the foreseeable future.

“That looks a long way off at the moment.”

Concerns over Palm Island water quality, but residents told it’s ‘safe’ to drink

November 15 2018


Residents in the north Queensland Aboriginal community of Palm Island have expressed outrage about the state of their local water supply.

Residents in Palm Island – a small Aboriginal community off the coast of Townsville – say they’re afraid to drink their local tap water, which has been murky and discoloured for about a month.

“For the last month it’s been brown, but it just comes on and off – like clear, then dark,” said Victor Daisy, who’s lived on Palm Island his whole life.

A video uploaded to social media by a Palm Island resident on Monday shows a tap emitting brown water.

Experts say it will take a further six weeks to fix the issue.

Palm Island Aboriginal Shire Council Mayor Alf Lacey told NITV News that daily testing showed the water was still safe to drink.

“The testing that we’re currently doing at the moment, whilst there’s discolouring in the water, is that it’s safe for community consumption,” he said.

“But I do understand the discolouring is putting people off. Even in my own house, the water’s sort of brownish in the bathtub and washing up and in the showers.”

Mr Daisy said he “would never drink it”.

Home to around 2000 people, Palm Island is two hours from Townsville by ferry.

The local supermarket – the only one on the island – has provided one free carton of bottled water to each household, but Mr Daisy says it’s not enough.

He said he asked the local government-run hospital for clean water to use for his cooking on Monday night, but was refused.

“Everyone’s running around like a headless chook looking for clean water, so it’s a bad error,” the grandfather told NITV News.

A $1.4 million water treatment plant was installed in the north Queensland community in August last year.

Mr Daisy – who said he worked for the council’s water and sewerage department until he resigned a few years ago – claims local staff didn’t receive adequate training to manage the new facility.

“Our mob didn’t have any training, the council didn’t train any of our council workers for this new machine to run it,” he told NITV News.

“The engineers that were here that built it – they went away, they’ve finished their contract, and no one’s here to operate the pumps, the new machine.

“They were just setting our mob up for failure.”

Mayor Alf Lacey refuted claims that staff weren’t adequately trained, and said he had every confidence in local workers who were well-equipped to manage the new system.

“We don’t need fear factor at this point in time,” he said.

“Council is doing everything possible to ensure that we try and fix the issue.”

Late last month, the council issued a public notice saying the treatment plant was undergoing urgent “critical repairs” to address the water discolouration, but the problem remains ongoing.

A spokesperson from the State Department of Local Government said the water was discoloured due to soluble iron and manganese in the raw water supply which naturally has high levels of both minerals.

“The department acted quickly with engineering and technical experts assisting Palm Island’s council,” they said in a statement to NITV News.

“The department has been advised that discolouration poses no risk to public health.

“It is expected the discolouration issue will be corrected in six weeks.”

The spokesperson did not clarify whether free bottled water would be provided to Palm Island residents in the interim.

Frustrated Palm Island mayor calls for help with undrinkable drinking water

May 5 2019


Years of problems with drinking water on Palm Island in North Queensland have not been solved by a new treatment plant, and local residents are again being told not to drink their tap water.

Key points:

  • A new Palm Island water treatment plant was installed by the Queensland Government in 2017
  • Mayor Alf Lacey says the island needs a new water reservoir and upgraded piping
  • He is calling on the Local Government Minister to take action

For the second time in six months the tap water is brown, prompting Palm Island Mayor Alf Lacey to call for State Government intervention.

In 2017, the Queensland Government installed a new $1.4 million water treatment plant on the island to combat the ongoing supply problems, but Councillor Lacey said the facility was already in need of repair.

But yesterday Palm Island Aboriginal Shire Council was forced to issue yet another emergency alert, warning its 5,000 Indigenous residents not to drink, cook with or consume tap water until further notice.

Cr Lacey said he now wanted the Government to investigate whether the community needed a new reservoir.

He said the island residents had been left frustrated by years of ongoing water quality issues.

“If we don’t get a new reservoir then certainly a second backup reservoir in the town is needed,” Cr Lacey said.

“I’ll be putting the issue in front of Local Government Minister Stirling Hinchliffe.

“The main thing is getting the system back online again and ensuring we have safe and quality drinking water like the rest of the state.”

‘Shouldn’t happen in this day and age’

Cr Lacey said he believed old pipes in the community’s decades-old reservoir contributed to the recent discolouration.

“The advice I am getting is that the discolouring of the water is probably [due to] some aging pipe that’s been installed in the island in the early 1970s,” Cr Lacey said.

“The old reservoir, which is the main tank that feeds the whole town, was built in the 1950s. It’s something I will take up with the Minister [to request] a report into the aging assets.”

Palm Island Aboriginal Shire Council was forced to supply the community with thousands of bottles of water after their tap water turned brown.

Cr Lacey said the people of Palm Island deserved reliable, quality water.

“You wouldn’t think places like [Palm Island] in this day and age could be subject to this type of problem,” he said.

Sick Palm Island residents on dialysis evacuated due to water issues

May 10 2019


PALM ISLAND residents on dialysis have had to be evacuated to Townsville due to the ongoing water crisis, with frustrated Mayor Alf Lacey claiming not a single State Government politician has responded to his calls for help.

Thirteen emergency warnings not to drink the tap water on Palm Island have been issued so far this year, the latest one on Wednesday night.

Palm Island Council has been forced to redirect funds to import pallets of bottled water from the mainland at a cost of $300,000 so far.

Queensland Health confirmed 12 dialysis patients have been moved off the island and are being home in temporary accommodation as well as alternative treatment locations.

A spokeswoman said the arrangement would be in place until the water supply is deemed safe.

“Queensland Health is working closely with the Palm Island Aboriginal Shire Council and other government agencies to ensure public health risks are being managed,” she said.

A furious Cr Lacey said he had not heard from a single State Government politician.

“Home is always your home, and it’s really important if the water issue is not fixing itself then where the bloody hell is everyone?” Cr Lacey said.

“Is Palm part of the seat of Townsville? Is it part of the seat of Herbert? What are we? Just a foreign little island off Queensland?”

Construction of a new water treatment plan on Palm Island was completed in August 2017 at a cost of $1.4 million.

Cr Lacey believes ageing water pipes, installed in the 1950s, have not been able to keep pace with the new water treatment plant.

Local Government Minister Stirling Hinchliffe said engineers had visited Palm Island this week and would return next week to address the issue.

“The State Government will do everything in its power to help tackle the infrastructure maintenance issues council has been experiencing,” he said.

“I’ve asked to be kept fully updated on my department’s efforts to ensure a safe drinking water supply on Palm Island.”

Townsville MP Scott Stewart said he would get in touch with Cr Lacey and do what he can to get over to Palm Island.

He said he had not seen any reports or updates from Minister Hinchliffe and wanted to look at what the experts had said before taking the next step.