Senate inquiry investigates possible cancer cluster on Victoria’s Bellarine Peninsula
1 May 2020
A Drysdale secondary school likely had “harmful levels” of insecticides in the soil when it first opened in 1997, a Senate inquiry into a possible cancer cluster on Victoria’s Bellarine Peninsula has heard.
Gordon Legal senior partner Peter Gordon told the inquiry he was acting for the spouses of three former Bellarine Secondary College students who died from cancer.
He said Scott Beyer, Mitch Trickey and Tyanne Riddle all attended the school during its initial years of operation and all three died as young adults from different forms of cancer.
Mr Gordon told the inquiry that dangerous levels of carcinogens would likely have been present when the school first opened.
“It’s very likely to have been unsafe in the years 1997, 1998, 1999 when school children were first put in harm’s way,” he said.
Concerns about possible soil contamination from dieldrin — a pesticide previously used on farms which can contaminate the soil for decades — prompted the Department of Education and WorkSafe to conduct soil tests at Bellarine Secondary College, in 2018.
The report found pesticides, including dieldrin, were found in the soil, but in levels below what is considered harmful to human health.
Mr Gordon told the inquiry that while soil testing conducted in recent years found “negligible levels” of dieldrin and other organo-chlorine pesticides, levels would have been higher in previous decades.
“Based on our investigation there’s evidence of a disturbing number of cancer cases occurring in the Bellarine Secondary College cohort — that is, teachers and students — who were present at the Drysdale campus when it first opened in 1997 and the years that followed,” he told the inquiry.
“There’s clear evidence that the school population in that period was exposed to certain levels of organo-chlorine pesticides, of which dieldrin was one.
“It’s probable that exposure caused the cancer and death of at least some people in the Bellarine Secondary College cohort.”
Mr Gordon also argued previous studies which found no evidence of a cancer cluster on the Bellarine Peninsula had “serious limitations” because they focused on statistical data across a wide geographical area.
Mr Gordon told the inquiry he planned to negotiate with the Victorian Government on behalf of his clients, but if those negotiations broke down he expected to launch legal proceedings.
But he made it clear he did not believe there was any ongoing risk to students at the school today.
“I don’t think there is a hard and fast year where one can say the risk became an acceptable risk,” he said.
“The risk and the exposure levels, in my view, diminished over the years.”
‘Unusual’ investigation arose from media reports
The Senate inquiry is the result of a promise from both major parties made during the tightly-fought 2019 federal election campaign in the marginal seat of Corangamite.
Both candidates picked up on community concerns about a perceived higher rate of cancer on the Bellarine Peninsula.
Victoria’s Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton told the inquiry that while the community was originally worried about the level of dieldrin in the soil at Bellarine Secondary College, concerns had changed over time to include a widespread mosquito-spraying program around Barwon Heads.
He said claims of a possible cancer cluster on the Bellarine Peninsula were “quite unusual” because the department had not been approached by individuals — as is usually the case with cancer cluster claims — but had instead responded to multiple community concerns raised in the media.
“We were trying to piece together where the concerns were focused,” he said.
“That did change over time. Over the past 16 months there’s been a shift in concerns or there’s been multiple concerns expressed by different groups.”
Senator labels report an ’embarrassment’
Victorian Senator Sarah Henderson, who promised the inquiry when she was recontesting the seat of Corangamite before taking up a role in the Senate, questioned the credibility of a Cancer Council study which found no higher incidence of cancer in Barwon Heads.
The study was commissioned by the state’s Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and identified 315 new cancer cases diagnosed between 2001 and 2016, including six cases in people aged 10 to 34 years, in the town with a population of fewer than 4,000 people.
Senator Henderson said the Barwon Heads community’s biggest concern related to the mosquito-spraying program conducted by the local council, which ran from the 1980s to the mid-2000s.
“Most of the cancers that are of concern in the Barwon Heads community predominantly occurred prior to 2001 when this spraying program was underway,” Senator Henderson told the inquiry.
“This is such a poorly framed epidemiological study that it appears, and it’s almost designed to ensure, there’s no assessment at all of allegations of a potential cancer cluster in the period of the 1980 and 90s.”
The report’s author, Professor Roger Milne, told the inquiry DHHS had originally asked him to consider data from 1991 onwards.
But Professor Milne said there was a change in the way data was collated after 2001, making it more time-consuming and potentially problematic to compare cancer data before that date.
He told the inquiry he advised department that he could provide a more timely report if he only looked at data from 2001 onwards, a proposal the department accepted.
Senator Henderson said it was “extremely disappointing” the department had not taken into account many of the concerns raised by local residents.
“I would say that this is just an absolute embarrassment,” she told the inquiry.
Questions raised over ‘no cancer cluster’ findings
The inquiry also heard from Professor David Hill, a member of the expert advisory group which provides advice on potential cancer clusters to DHHS.
He said Professor Milne’s report was appropriate and “the conclusions are valid”.
Senator Henderson said it was shocking two decades of cancer data was not considered.
“Given that exposure [to chemicals used in mosquito spraying] first occurred from the early 1980s isn’t it the case that the Victorian Government has misled the community?” she asked.
“How can the community be assured there’s no cancer cluster?”
Professor Hill said the investigations were in line with the “standard response”.
“I can’t agree with the proposition that the department have misled the community about the absence of a cancer cluster,” he said.
Professor Hill said one of the biggest issues was a lack of clarity around exactly what the community was concerned about
“Our group has never seen the age distribution of the cluster that people in the community perceived … so it’s very difficult to plan an analysis,” he said.
“It would be extremely helpful to know what the community’s evidence of a cluster is. And that evidence really needs to be based on the number of patients, the type of cancers they had, the date of diagnosis and their age.”
A local community group headed by Ross Harrison has been collating evidence of cancer and auto-immune disease diagnoses in Barwon Heads.
He told the inquiry the figures were alarming and there was a need for a more in-depth analysis.
Promise of further investigations
City of Greater Geelong planning, design and development director Gareth Smith told the inquiry all the products used in mosquito-spraying program were approved by the relevant Commonwealth Government agencies.
He said the council had provided all the information it had, including prior to council amalgamations in 1993, but many of the historic documents has not been preserved.
“We want to be transparent. We have an obligation to our community,” he said.
Under questioning, Professor Sutton told the inquiry he would agree to commission a report that considered data going back to the 1980s, provided there was a community desire for the information and it was “methodologically feasible”.
A second public hearing will be held once coronavirus restrictions are relaxed and the Senate committee is able to travel to the Bellarine Peninsula.
The Senate committee is due to hand down its report in November.