An ongoing investigation by the Socialist Equality Party
BHP, benzene and leukaemia
By Mike Head
BHP recently released a statement claiming to have proof that there is no link between the benzene produced by its Port Kembla coke ovens and the leukaemia epidemic in southern Wollongong.
BHP Flat Products Division external affairs manager Mike Archer went further. He declared there was no link between benzene emissions and leukaemia anywhere in the world. "We believe now there has been no demonstrated risk of leukaemia resulting from occupational exposure to benzene within the gas processing plants around the world, including the plant at the Port Kembla steelworks," he was quoted as stating.
BHP's claims were given prominent coverage in the Illawarra Mercury and other regional media. "BHP denies gas link to leukaemia," was the headline on the Mercury story.
These claims are based on a series of outright lies and distortions.
In the first place, Archer asserted that air pollution studies conducted in the Warrawong area since 1970 showed that the level of benzene had always been below recommended levels.
The truth is that neither the Environment Protection Agency nor any other government agency monitored the levels of benzene in the air at Warrawong until September 1996. That was when information made public by one young leukaemia victim, Melissa Cristiano, forced the Carr government and the Illawarra Public Health Unit to reveal the leukaemia epidemic among young people.
An EPA spokesman, Craig Lamberton, confirmed to Workers News that the EPA and BHP had not monitored benzene in the atmosphere until last September. He said BHP may have tried to "backdate" measurements taken since then.
BHP's figures are even more suspect because coke ovens workers have told Workers News that BHP temporarily reduced the output from its dirtiest battery, Number 3, to coincide with monitoring in the period from September to January.
For decades, not only was there no monitoring, but no restrictions or controls on BHP's emissions of benzene, despite decades of international scientific and medical studies showing that benzene is linked to leukaemia.
To cite just one authoritative scientific journal article: "Benzene was initially identified as being a human hematological toxin in the 19th century. Since that time the literature is replete with case studies and series in which fatal aplastic anaemia has been reported in individuals exposed to significant levels of benzene" ("The Toxicology of Benzene" by Robert Snyder, Gisela Witz and Bernard D. Goldstein, Environmental Health Perspectives, Vol. 100, pp. 293-306, 1993).
As a result of large-scale studies of benzene-exposed workers in chemical, petro-chemical and rubber industries in the 1960s and 1970s, the US Environment Protection Agency introduced workplace controls based on the danger that even a small exposure to benzene could cause aplastic anaemia and acute myelogenous leukaemia. Some scientists argue that the link to leukaemia has not been proven at very low levels of benzene exposure. But others insist that even one stray molecule of benzene can lead to a mutation resulting in leukaemia.
Leukaemia is not the only type of cancer caused by benzene and other coke ovens gases. In 1971 and 1972 the American Journal of Occupational Health reported a survey of 3,530 coke ovens workers which found that for some categories of coke ovens workers, deaths from lung cancer were nine times the average, with a 7.5-fold risk of dying from kidney cancer. Other studies have suggested a higher than normal incidence of cancers of the larynx, nasal sinuses, pancreas and stomach, as well as leukaemia.
Years of cover-up
BHP's attempt to deny the link between coke ovens emissions, leukaemia and other cancers continues a long history of cover-up by the company, assisted by the steel unions and governments, both Labor and Liberal.
By 1982 the carcinogenic nature of benzene and other coke ovens gases was so well documented that an Australian House of Representatives inquiry into hazardous chemicals condemned the steel industry employers and unions, as well as health authorities, for not taking action to protect workers.
The parliamentary committee specifically denounced the continued operation of the number three coke ovens battery at Port Kembla, which it described as a "fume-leaking monster". The report concluded: "The Committee considers that under these circumstances the continued operation of battery number three cannot be justified."
Fifteen years later, number three is still poisoning coke ovens workers and residents alike. BHP is determined to squeeze every last dollar in profit out of the Port Kembla plant before shutting its operations down.
In a recent memo to employees, BHP Flat Products Division Group General Manager George Edgar elaborated on the false claims made by Archer. He stated that average environmental benzene levels in the area surrounding the steelworks had "always" been below the Draft Australian Air Quality Goal of 5 parts per billion (pppb) and had "never" exceeded 2.7 pppb.
Once again, Edgar is relying on non-existent monitoring prior to last September.
He went on to say that monitoring at three stations between September 1996 and January 1997 showed an average of 0.81 pppb - less than one-fifth of the draft standard.
When Workers News sought to verify these figures, the EPA refused to make the data available. It has similarly barred scientists and residents from access to the test results, declaring that the statistics must first go to the Illawarra Public Health Unit leukaemia task force.
No doubt the Health Unit will attempt to present the lowest possible "average" figures in its report. The level and spread of emissions from the coke ovens and the rest of the steelworks varies enormously night and day and depending on the prevailing winds. Only a full year's figures, with night and day readings, will provide an accurate picture. Even then, the EPA's monitoring station at Flagstaff Hill is further from the steelworks than nearly all the residential areas of Cringila, Warrawong, Port Kembla, Lake Heights and Berkeley.
Moreover the draft standard itself has been set to meet the profit requirements of companies such as BHP, not the health concerns of residents and workers and the warnings of conscientious scientists. Contrary to the US evidence, it assumes that there is a safe "threshold" for benzene.
Having refused to give Workers News access to the actual figures, Lamberton, the EPA's representative claimed that the monitoring from September to January showed that the level of benzene in the air was higher in the Sydney CBD than at Flagstaff Hill. Even if true, this would only prove how deadly it would be to live on a street corner in the highly polluted city.
BHP's spokesmen, Archer and Edgar, also claim that although the levels of benzene around the coke ovens and gas processing plant are much higher, they remain within the WorkSafe Australia exposure standard. This standard, five parts per million, is 50 times higher than the US workplace standard.
Well before the Illawarra Public Health Unit task force presents its report, BHP, which sits on its steering committee, is making clear publicly that it expects the report to clear it of all responsibility. But the company's attempt to deny the scientific record comes as mounting evidence is produced by workers and residents that the leukaemia cases are only the tip of the iceberg of a wider cancer crisis caused by industrial pollution.