Kooragang workers cancer risk

PAST and present employees of Port Waratah Coal Services’ Kooragang Island terminal are up to two to three times more likely to be diagnosed with cancer than the NSW and Australian populations, or colleagues based at Carrington, a study has found.

A University of Newcastle report covering 859 workers over a 23-year period said melanoma, prostate and bowel were the most common types of cancer identified.

Editorial: Kooragang cancer fear

Consultant occupational and environmental physician Ian Gardner said none of the cancers were known to be associated with occupational or environmental exposures.

But public health authorities say further investigation is needed.

The company says it is already working on the report’s recommended health and safety improvements.

Port Waratah Coal Services requested the independent University of Newcastle study in response to employees’ concerns.

The results were made public yesterday.

‘‘An increased risk of cancer, beyond what is expected by chance, was observed among the employees at the Kooragang terminal,’’ the report said.

The Port Waratah Coal Services Health Study Report said that between 1983 and 2006, 63 cancers were diagnosed among company employees.

The 58 men and five women experienced 18 types of cancer, the most common being melanoma (28per cent), prostate (22per cent) and bowel (13per cent).

The report said Kooragang employees were 1.8 times more likely to be diagnosed with a cancer when compared with the Australian population.

In comparing the company’s sites, the study found that those people only ever employed at Kooragang were 2.8 times more likely to be diagnosed with a cancer than those only ever employed at Carrington.

In comparing the jobs of Kooragang and Carrington workers, operators, who use process water to hose and clean coal spillage and allotted areas of the plant and machinery, were 3.3 times more likely to be diagnosed with a cancer.

The study came after Kooragang workers raised concern in 2006 about the number of

employees diagnosed with cancer.

They were worried that the underlying cause could be that Kooragang was a renowned waste area for the BHP Steelworks and other industries, the report said.

Delays gaining ethics approval, time taken to analyse historical data, and a lag in state and national data, were reasons the authors cited for the study being released six years on.

While the study confirmed an increased risk of diagnosis among past and present Kooragang employees, which was not limited to a specific cancer, it was beyond the scope of the study to identify the risk factor responsible for this increase.

The report recommended an independent assessment of the Kooragang site and its processes to look at possible remediation and safety procedures and improvements.

It also suggested a cancer prevention and screening program, and that employees be encouraged to contact their GPs.

The company said it was implementing the recommendations.

Hunter New England public health physician Craig Dalton said the findings were a concern that required further investigation.

University of Newcastle public health academic Nick Higginbotham said that in terms of occupational and wider public health, it was crucial that the findings be fully explained.

‘‘What are the exposures that make it more hazardous for the workers on Kooragang Island?’’ he said.

‘‘Further developments on this site will be at the expense of people’s health, unless the underlying problems there can be remedied.’’

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