EDITORIAL: Electrical cancer concerns

IN 2009, state government electricity body EnergyAustralia (now Ausgrid) spent a reported $24million on a new electricity substation on the corner of Glebe Road and Chatham Street, Hamilton South.

The substation was designed to blend in with nearby housing and uses state-of-the-art technology to ensure the power security of more than 20,000 properties.

But for some of the substation’s neighbours, it’s not the look of the facility that bothers them.

They are concerned  the substation is linked  to what they believe is an unusually high number of cancers in the adjacent streets.

Julie Galli, whose Douglas Way home backs on to the substation’s eastern boundary, has drawn up a list of cancer cases involving the families around her and is asking anyone who knows of further cases to come forward.

Hunter New England Health public health physician David Durrheim says the residents’ concerns are being taken seriously. But Dr Durrheim says cancer clusters are very rare, and anecdotal evidence linking electromagnetic fields  with childhood leukaemia remains unproven.

 Responding to the concerns, Ausgrid moved quickly to measure the electromagnetic field levels in nearby streets, describing them as ‘‘normal’’ and a fraction of the recommended maximum.

At the same time, the high-voltage installations at Chatham Street have only been operating for a few years. If environmental exposure was a factor in nearby cancer cases, it would be electromagnetic field levels at the old substation, not the new one, that mattered. Such information may be difficult to obtain.  But if Ausgrid is to retain the confidence of the substation’s neighbours it must answer any questions they have about electromagnetic emissions from the old equipment.

Last year’s cancer scare at the Kooragang coal terminal operated by Port Waratah Coal Services is a textbook study in the difficulties of establishing definitive truths about the causes of cancer cases.

Here, workers’ hunches proved correct, and the University of Newcastle found some forms of cancer at almost three times the state and national averages.

But a trigger for the unusual figures – if there was one - remains uncertain, and while the issue has died down in the public eye, it continues to worry many of the Kooragang loader workers.

The Hamilton South residents, too, are understandably worried about their health. The relevant authorities owe it to the public to investigate their fears quickly and thoroughly, and to make their findings public as soon as possible. 

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