NSW Health's handling of a cancer cluster study deserves to be criticised

IF ever a community required and deserved clarity, transparency and integrity of process by governments, it is the community dealing with contamination from Williamtown RAAF Base.

So it is beyond disappointing that NSW Health’s investigation of Newcastle Herald findings of 50 cases of cancer over 15 years involving residents of Cabbage Tree Road has delivered none of the above.

Because of that, its finding that the Cabbage Tree Road cases do “not indicate evidence of a cancer cluster in Williamtown” was immediately slammed by residents and Labor politicians. The study was described as “hasty” and “severely flawed” and its finding as “useless”.

It is not difficult to see why.

The study has not been made public. Given what is at stake here – the lives of people trapped in the contamination management area through no fault of their own – the NSW government has no right to keep such a report out of the public domain.

The community should have been clearly advised of the scope and detail of the study before it was undertaken, to be assured that the serious question about whether there is a heightened risk of cancer linked to the area was being thoroughly investigated.

As it is NSW Health’s sampling of 12,500 people living as far away as Karuah can be quickly challenged for relevance. There might be an explanation for why the sampling was so large, but given studies which confirmed cancer clusters at Kooragang Island, the Fiskville fire training ground and the ABC studios in Brisbane all looked at much smaller samples, it is another reason to doubt the finding.

The absence of an explanation, after more than two years of residents feeling like they’re the last to know significant issues with a direct impact on their lives, is completely unacceptable.

Issuing a one-line statement in parliament is also deeply disrespectful to affected residents and shows a department and government with a tin ear when it comes to reporting difficult news to the community.

The issue under investigation is whether the cancer diagnoses of 50 people in a very concentrated area over a 15-year period – a period when we know, with absolute certainty, that a contaminant flowed from Williamtown RAAF base – are linked to that contaminant. It is deeply regrettable the community has no confidence in the NSW Health’s attempt at an answer.

Issue: 38,725.

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