Kooragang cancer shock

A STUDY has shown that the incidence of cancer among Port Waratah Coal Services’ Kooragang Island workforce is higher than expected.

The company initiated the study in response to concerns from employees.

The University of Newcastle conducted the independent study.

Video by Darren Pateman and Amy Spear

Port Waratah Coal Services also engaged a medical expert to provide an assessment of the findings.

The study started in 2006 and involved a peer review.

Statistical information involving many hundreds of PWCS employees over a 23 year period was obtained, analysed and compared with cancer records of the New South Wales and Australian populations.

The company’s Kooragang Island workforce was also compared against its Carrington workforce.

The study found a relatively higher incidence rate of cancers amongst the Kooragang Island employees compared to these populations.

Covering 859 Port Waratah Coal Services employees from 1983 and 2006, the study found:

* 63 Port Waratah Coal Services employees were diagnosed with cancer (58 men and 5 women).

* Melanoma, prostate and colorectal (bowel) were the most common types of cancer found, making up nearly two thirds of cases detected.

* Kooragang Island employees were 1.7 to 2.8 times more likely to be diagnosed with cancer when compared to the NSW population, the Australian population or Carrington terminal employees.

Advice by prominent Occupational and Environmental Medicine specialist Dr Ian Gardner shows that:

* Over the 23 years covered by the study a relatively small number of cancers were diagnosed, and none of these cancers are known to be associated with occupational or environmental exposures.

* The three most common types of cancer found in this study – melanoma, prostate and colorectal - are almost always influenced by hereditary and lifestyle factors.

* These cancers are more likely to be detected by screening.

* Most common cancers are very rarely linked to occupational or environmental causes.

* There are significant regional variations in cancer, particularly melanoma, which is more prevalent in coastal areas.

“Cancer is an unfortunate but common condition in the Australian population, with more than half of all men being diagnosed during their life,” Dr Gardner said.

“National and international experience shows it is almost impossible to find causal factors for common cancers occurring in a group of people, such as in a workplace.

“I am not alarmed by the findings, although ongoing effort should continue into learning more about what’s behind them.”

Port Waratah Coal Services said it has committed to all recommendations in the study, which are:

* Assembling an expert panel to provide advice on developing a cancer prevention and screening program.

* Encouraging employees at Kooragang Island to contact their GPs and adhere to recommendations regarding screening for melanoma, prostate cancer and colorectal cancer.

* Consulting an independent cccupational hygienist to evaluate the Kooragang Island site and its processes to recommend improvements, possible remediation and safety procedures.

Additionally, Port Waratah Coal Services said it will engage an occupational medical specialist to advise on health matters generally.

The company said these measures will complement and build on many health initiatives already in place at Port Waratah Coal Services, including:

* Comprehensive health programs encouraging employees to undergo cancer screening and medical check-ups.

* Asking the Hunter Prostate Cancer Alliance to give onsite advice about detecting and treating prostate cancer

* Providing UV-safe uniforms and sunscreen.

* Providing free and staffed gyms.

* Encouraging better eating practices and smoking cessation.

* Regular on-site environmental monitoring and testing, including groundwater and dust.

“PWCS is always concerned about the health and well-being of its workforce, and takes seriously indications that the incidence of cancer amongst Kooragang Island employees is higher than expected,” chief executive officer Hennie Du Plooy said.

“We are following through with the study recommendations and reinforcing and enhancing our existing health measures.

“We will also continue close communication with our employees.”

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