Monday, February 28, 2005

Public health doctor sued over warning

If you aren't Australian you probably haven't heard of Gunns, Ltd., that country's "largest fully integrated hardwood forest prodcuts company." But if you are Australian and you care about forests, you've heard of Gunns. In particular, you've heard of them if you are a public health physician by the name of Dr. Frank Nicklason, a specialist at Tasmania's Royal Hobart Hospital, or if you are one of his 19 codefendants named in a $5 million law suit by Gunns for "damaging the companies business activities."

As related in a news story in the British Medical Journal (subscription not required)
Dr Nicklason said the case may stop doctors raising legitimate health concerns because of fear of being involved in prolonged and expensive legal action. He said that although the case would not silence him it had already affected the forestry debate, which is dividing Tasmania.

"It has succeeded in shutting other people up in Tasmania, mainly small local environmental and community groups," he said of the writ, which was served in December.

Dr Nicklason faces years of legal action and a damages claim of $A250 000 for calling for an independent risk assessment of large piles of woodchips in the port of Burnie. He made the call in 2002, as a spokesman for the non-aligned lobby group Doctors for Forests.

He said the Hippocratic oath required him to prevent illness not just in patients but in society as well, and he believed, after talking with experts, that the stockpiles of shredded wood on the wharf posed potential health risks to Burnies citizens.

His research showed that legionella bacteria, fungal organisms, and wood dust, all of which posed health risks, could have been in the stockpiles, some of which had been undisturbed for years. The local medical community, however, had said nothing.
The chairman of the Tasmanian Australian Medical Association said, quite correctly:
"In principle I feel that using the law to control the expression of concern about public health is wrong. If Gunns had any concerns they should have replied to Dr Nicklason with scientific arguments."
Bravo to Dr. Nicklason and his co-defendants. Tasmania is a long way away from most of us, but Gunns exports a wide range of timber products to overseas markets. If any reader knows of companies that sell Gunns products, we invite them to email us or use the Comments to alert other readers.

In addition, Gunns bought Tamar Ridge Wines in 2003. The wines are distributed by Robert Whale Selections, Ltd. in Washington, DC. You can email them at:
  • in Canada by Appellation Wines in Toronto (;
  • in the UK by Vinus Vita U.K. (St. Merryn, Henley);
  • in Denmark by New World Vinimport (;
  • in Finland by E. A. Hjeldt (;
  • in Germany by Linke Weinhandellsgeschellschaft (;
  • in Ireland by TDL Distributor, Ltd. (;
  • in The Philippines by Zen Asia, Inc. (;
  • in Singapore by Crystal Wines, Pty Ltd. (
Feel free to drop the distributor in your area a line if you feel that Gunns has stepped over the line. There are lots of other great wines from Australia and New Zealand.