An ongoing investigation by the Socialist Equality Party
Childhood cancers linked to factory pollution
British study exposes BHP's lies
Children born near factories which are sources of industrial pollution are more likely to die of leukaemias and other childhood cancers before they reach adulthood, a major British study has found.
Researchers examined the cases of 22,400 children who died between 1953 and 1980 in one of the largest studies of childhood cancer carried out in Britain. They concluded that those born within 5 km of a source of industrial pollution were at a 20 percent higher risk.
The highest death tolls were associated with being born close to oil refineries, car factories, power stations, steelworks, cement works and crematoria. Place of birth was more important in determining the level of risk than the addresses to which children moved later in life.
Professor George Knox and other members of the Department of Public Health and Epidemiology at the University of Birmingham, who conducted the study, said the key pollutants appeared to be petrol fumes and similar volatile organic compounds and those produced by high temperature furnaces and kilns.
The research also showed extra cancer deaths among children born within 4 km of a motorway or railway, although beyond this distance there were fewer deaths than expected. The link between road and rail is likely to be petrol and diesel fumes, the authors say.
The researchers plotted the postcodes for the birthplaces of children who had died and compared their proximity with different types of industrial plant. Petrol stations, bus stations, hospital and school chimneys could also be dangerous, they said. Certain industries such as brewing, cotton manufacture and furniture building produced no correlation.
Professor Knox said the exposure of pregnant women or infants directly to airborne pollutants was the most likely cause of the excess cancer cases. These substances also combined to form secondary pollutants.
Knox said the 20 percent increase in risk was statistically significant because of the large numbers involved in the study. His study is published in the April issue of the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.
The findings, which held true across many different regions of Britain, shed new light on an earlier study which showed that the childhood cancer deaths tended to occur in small geographical clusters.
Some scientists have suggested infection may be the cause of childhood leukaemias as the building of new factories draws workers into an area, exposing the local population to new viruses.
Knox said that although infection could be a factor, it did not explain persistent excesses of cancer cases over many years which pointed to a local environmental hazard. "It is the only possible explanation," he told the British press.
BHP and benzene
This conclusion is highly significant to the Wollongong leukaemia and cancer crisis for a number of reasons.
In the first place, it further undermines the Illawarra Public Health Unit's claim that the leukaemia cases are simply an isolated "cluster" with no connection to the wider pattern of cancers and other ill-health caused by industrial emissions.
Secondly, the Unit's director, Dr Victoria Westley-Wise, indicated at the last meeting of its "community reference group" that its preliminary report on the leukaemia deaths will recommend a further study of the impact of "mixing populations" on exposure to unfamiliar viruses.
This proposal is a crude attempt to divert attention away from industrial pollution and to sow divisions among working class families, along the lines that immigrants and other new arrivals in the region were responsible for the deaths.
The British study shows that the leukaemias and cancers in Wollongong are likely to be the result of patterns of exposure to emissions of benzene and other known carcinogens, not isolated "clusters" caused by "alien" viruses.
It adds weight to the results of the preliminary investigation conducted by Workers News which found that people living close to the Port Kembla smokestacks were three times more likely to contract cancer than those living 20 km away. Our investigation used a similar methodology to the British study - plotting the postcodes of cancer patients compared with distance from the BHP steelworks and former Southern Copper smelter.
As part of an official cover-up, the NSW Cancer Registry has for years refused to provide postcode-by-postcode lists of cancer cases.
The British research also exposes the lies being peddled by BHP in its public statements in recent weeks. In a series of media releases, paid advertisements and staff briefings, BHP has claimed that there has been no demonstrated risk of leukaemia resulting from exposure to benzene emitted from gas processing plants around the world, including the plant at the Port Kembla steelworks.
The truth is that benzene, a by-product of the steelworks coke-making process, has been known for more than a century to be a leukaemia and cancer-causing toxin. American and other international scientific and medical studies have shown that coke ovens and gas processing plant workers have a far higher death rate from many cancers, including lung, kidney, larynx, pancreas and stomach, as well as leukaemias.
BHP claims that monitoring between September 1996 and January this year showed the level of benzene in the atmosphere in Wollongong's southern suburbs to be below recommended levels. But coke ovens workers have told the Committee for a Workers Inquiry that BHP has deliberately rigged the results by placing coke ovens on suction and by reducing the output from its dirtiest battery, Number 3, during monitoring, vastly reducing emissions.
In addition, BHP's figures are based on averages which disguise the episodic bursts of high levels of benzene emissions associated with coke ovens and gas processing plant operations, the release of fumes during the night and the impact of prevailing winds.