Survivors take stock of cancer figures

The results of a 23-year-study into higher cancer rates among Port Waratah Coal Services workers began to sink in yesterday for cancer survivors and victims’ families.

They make up some of the 63 cases of cancer diagnosed among Kooragang Island workers between 1983 and 2006, a rate described by the authors of the PWCS-commissioned report as ‘‘beyond what is expected by chance’’.

Workers at Kooragang were found to be between 1.7 and 3.3 times more likely to be diagnosed with cancer than the general population of NSW and Australia, and their colleagues at the PWCS Carrington site.

Of the 18 different types of cancer detected, the most common types were melanoma (28per cent), prostate (22per cent) and colorectal cancer (13per cent).

Among those who agitated for the inquiry was Charlie ‘‘Chaz’’ Middlebrook who was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma about seven years into his 23 years’ service with PWCS. He died in 2008.

His daughter Kiersten Middlebrook said her father had talked about possible links between cancer and the water used at PWCS.

‘‘If his persistence was instrumental in the commissioning of this study I am so proud of him,’’ she said.

She hopes PWCS will go a few steps further and look into any possible causes behind the statistics.

Wayne Cram, who has lost two close workmates to cancer in two years, says he too would like to see an investigation of possible causes.

He started as an operator for the BHP-owned Kooragang Coal Loader in 1984, and was there when PWCS took over. He feels there is something ‘‘terribly wrong’’ at PWCS.

He had surgery to remove his right kidney and has been in remission for five years after being diagnosed with kidney cancer in 2005, but considers himself one of the lucky ones.

‘‘When I saw the urologist he couldn’t understand why I had kidney cancer when I wasn’t in the demographic, and we never got to the bottom of that,’’ he said.

For many Kooragang Island workers the death of Bob Hunt in February this year, and of Danny Currie last year, is still very fresh in their hearts and minds, including that of Steve Paull, of Warners Bay, who has had aggressive treatment for throat cancer.

‘‘I really [think] that it could [be] in the ground water, which was saved by the company and used for washing down our machinery and plant equipment,’’ Mr Paull said.

But not all workers touched by cancer are concerned, saying that if there were evidence of higher rates of a single type of cancer, that would be more alarming.

Krystyna Newburn, whose husband Jim Newburn died in 2007, said it may be just a coincidence.

‘‘Perhaps if you are predisposed to developing cancer then that sort of environment could bring it on, with being shift workers and working those long hours in the dust,’’ she said.

But as she drives past Kooragang every day she is struck by the smells, and the scale of industry.

‘‘You have to wonder what’s going on over there,’’ she said.

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