Cancer cluster fears on Cabbage Tree Road to be addressed in epidemiological study, Labor MPs told

PUSH FOR ANSWERS: Shadow Assistant Defence Minister Gai Brodtmann, centre, and Paterson MP Meryl Swanson, right. Picture: Marina Neil
PUSH FOR ANSWERS: Shadow Assistant Defence Minister Gai Brodtmann, centre, and Paterson MP Meryl Swanson, right. Picture: Marina Neil

HEALTH OFFICIALS have agreed that further investigation is needed into a potential cancer cluster on Cabbage Tree Road in Williamtown, according to federal Labor MPs who were briefed this week. 

The meeting was called by Shadow Assistant Defence Minister Gai Brodtmann and Paterson MP Meryl Swanson, in response to an investigation published by the Newcastle Herald last month. 

It found that at least 39 people have battled cancer in the last 15 years, on one section of a road running through the heart of Williamtown’s contamination ‘red zone’. Defence has polluted the land with poly- and per-fluoroalkyl chemicals (PFAS), toxins that have been linked with impaired immune function and various cancers in overseas studies. 

It’s understood officials from the federal Department of Health and a representative of Health Minister Greg Hunt took part in the briefing, called by Labor to discuss the Herald’s investigation and how its findings would be incorporated into an epidemiological study on Williamtown.

Labor was assured that the study, being led by researchers at the Australian National University, would address the health fears of residents living on Cabbage Tree Road. 

“I think if the Herald’s information has brought about an expanded investigation, then that’s a good thing,” Ms Swanson said. “The feeling of the briefing was that they were being very cooperative.” 

The study will include focus groups, opportunities for expanded blood testing outside the investigation area and a survey to examine potential PFAS exposure pathways. A further study will cross-reference Medicare files, the Australian Cancer Database and the national death register, dating back to the 1980s. 

“With regards to media reports regarding a Cabbage Tree Road cancer cluster, Health emphasized further investigation was required as the cancers identified in the media reports were common,” Ms Swanson and Ms Brodtmann said in a joint statement. 

A spokeswoman for Senator James McGrath – the head of the government’s PFAS taskforce – said the advice of the Department of Health was that there was no evidence exposure to PFAS causes adverse human health effects.

The position is at odds with the US EPA, which has concluded the chemicals pose a human health hazard. 

The spokeswoman for Senator McGrath said a national research program, worth $12.5 million, and the epidemiological study would help authorities better understand the potential effects of prolonged exposure. 

“This important program will assist in contributing to increased knowledge and understanding, nationally and internationally.”