Cancer fear in the Illawarra

[Green Left Weekly, #282, July 23, 1997]

WOLLONGONG — The recent release of a long-awaited government report on leukaemia clusters in the Illawarra will do little to allay community concerns.

The report, by a special committee set up by the Illawarra Public Health Unit, confirms the existence of a cluster — i.e., a higher than average incidence — of leukaemia and lymphoma in the suburb of Warrawong, bordering the BHP steelworks.

However, it argues that with the available information, it is not possible to attribute this to any particular cause.

This will hardly satisfy those residents and BHP workers, past and present, who fear for their health and want solid answers and real action.

Information is indeed a problem.

Benzene, a proven carcinogen, is a major suspect. It is produced by motor vehicles and by coke works, of which there are three in the Illawarra, one in the BHP complex itself. However, since the government began to monitor benzene levels only after the cancer cluster became known, past levels can only be estimated, with all the uncertainties involved.

It was one of the Warrawong leukaemia victims, the late Melissa Cristiano, who uncovered the cluster among friends and acquaintances almost two years ago. Without her discovery and persistent attempts to alert authorities, the truth would have remained buried in the government's regional average cancer figures.

Many are wondering how many other such tragedies are yet to be revealed, covered up by inadequate statistics and deceptive averages.

A public Workers Inquiry conducted by the Socialist Equality Party July 19-20 has received considerable publicity in the area. Even the appalling Illawarra Mercury has felt obliged to give it some positive coverage (for the moment, at least).

The SEP's long record of ultraleft sectarianism provides real grounds for concern. But in the absence of any meaningful activity by the leadership of the trade union movement in the region, the group's campaign has provided the only real forum for concerned residents and workers.

The Warrawong cancer cluster is undoubtedly only the tip of a veritable iceberg of environmental health horrors. These are the direct result of industry's ruthless drive for profit without any regard for how this affects people's lives.

With the help of successive pliant Labor and Liberal governments and the ever friendly big business media, they have managed to keep much of this hidden from us. In the Illawarra a tiny corner of the curtain has been lifted.