Professor Bruce Armstrong from the University of Sydney promises cancer study in Williamtown red zone will be free of interference.

INVESTIGATING: Professor Bruce Armstrong will be involved in a study looking at the health of the Williamtown community. He previously looked into potential cancer clusters in Singleton and Brisbane. Picture: Max Mason-Hubers
INVESTIGATING: Professor Bruce Armstrong will be involved in a study looking at the health of the Williamtown community. He previously looked into potential cancer clusters in Singleton and Brisbane. Picture: Max Mason-Hubers

An expert who led investigations into potential cancer clusters at Singleton and the ABC studios in Brisbane has promised residents of the ‘red zone’ that a health study in Williamtown will be carried out without interference from vested interests and government agencies. 

Emeritus Professor Bruce Armstrong from the University of Sydney’s School of Public Health told a public meeting on Friday he had a “fairly good reputation for doing things with integrity.” 

“We will not be allowing other interests to get in the way of us reporting the facts as they are and as we find them,” he said. “I’m a retired person… I don’t have any conflicts of interest here. My contract in assisting with this project is with the Australian National University (ANU) and not a government body.” 

The study will examine levels of exposure residents have had to the perfluoroalkyl chemicals (PFAS) from the Williamtown RAAF base and patterns of disease. 

Focus groups will be held between July and December, followed by an analysis of blood test results and a cross-sectional survey, giving a ‘snapshot’ of residents’ health at that point in time. 

However the ANU research team has not decided whether a data-linkage study – which would use Medicare data to look at rates of cancer and other diseases over a longer time period – will be performed. 

Associate Professor Dr Martyn Kirk, who will lead the study, apologised to residents that only three days notice was given ahead of the consultation session. 

He said that given the small size of the population it would be challenging to produce definitive findings but denied it was necessary to monitor the community’s health in the long term. 

“I don’t think going for six or 10 years is necessarily going to help us here,” he said. 

But Professor Armstrong admitted that epidemiological studies ideally lasted between 10 and 20 years. 

“The longer you go, the more endpoints you get and the more endpoints you get, the more powerful the statistical analysis is and the more convincing it becomes.” 

The researchers will rely on the 200 epidemiological studies that have been produced internationally, including those by scientists working for the US polluters that manufactured the chemicals.

“I think if they’ve declared where the funding source was from and it’s been published in a scientific peer-reviewed journal and it looks like what we would expect a good epidemiological study to look like, then I think we can trust it,” Dr Kirk said. 

“We have to have something to go on.” 

Member for Paterson Meryl Swanson implored the community to take part. 

“I know people are frustrated but it is an important piece of the puzzle,” she said. 

After the meeting, Salt Ash resident John Stretton said he came away with unanswered questions. 

“There was a lot of verbiage but very little as far as specific details to satisfy the interest of the people who attended,” he said.