Senate inquiry into possible Bellarine Peninsula cancer cluster now open
Illness has been a major part of Danielle Livingstone’s life.
The palliative care nurse spends her working hours caring for the terminally ill, her adult daughter has Crohn’s disease, her son had ulcerative colitis and three years ago Ms Livingstone was diagnosed with breast cancer.
The idyllic riverside court where she lived in Barwon Heads, on Victoria’s Bellarine Peninsula, had 10 houses and multiple cases of cancer and auto-immune disease.
And after a number of young Barwon Heads locals died from cancer in the space of just a few years, she, like many others in the small coastal community, became concerned the region’s farming history or mosquito spraying programs could have contributed to an increased level of illness.
Amid the community angst, both candidates for a tightly-fought election campaign in the ultra-marginal seat of Corangamite promised a Senate inquiry to investigate the issue.
Ms Livingstone said the inquiry was needed.
“There’s been a lot of community talk,” she said.
“There’s been conversations, many conversations, over the years like ‘is this healthy?'”
Council slams ‘irresponsible’ claims
Mangroves behind Ms Livingstone’s yard were routinely treated with chemicals by the Bellarine Shire and later the City of Greater Geelong — often at the request of the community, who wanted to keep the mosquitoes at bay and minimise the risk of mosquito-borne diseases.
It included aerial treatment, where pellets were dropped from helicopters.
“Where we were was a very heavily sprayed area,” she said.
“You would see the helicopters dropping the pellets.
“You would wake up in the morning and there’d be this low, sort of fog around Barwon Heads.”
Ms Livingstone became particularly concerned when she saw the reported cases of cancer and auto-immune disease plotted out on a map of Barwon Heads.
“It blew my mind. I was shocked, really, really shocked,” she said.
It’s a community fear that authorities have been trying hard to placate in recent years.
The City of Greater Geelong has repeatedly said there was “no scientific basis” to claims linking mosquito treatment to human health impacts, even hosting community meetings to answer questions from frightened residents.
Planning and development director Gareth Smith said any suggestions of a link were “irresponsible” and had the potential to hurt those who had suffered from the impact of serious disease.
“All of the chemicals used in our mosquito treatment programs have been approved as safe products by the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority,” he said.
“These products only affect mosquito larvae and do not harm people, pets or the general environment.”
But he also said council could “empathise” with the community, which was still hurting.
“Sadly, the occurrence of cancer and immunological diseases is not uncommon in any community,” he said.
“The devastating impacts can be widespread and long-lasting.”
A long list of investigations
The Senate inquiry is now open and will investigate the possibility of a cancer cluster on the Bellarine Peninsula.
Submissions close at the end of this month, public hearings will follow and a report is due in August.
But this will not be the first time a government agency has investigated claims of a cancer cluster in the popular holiday spot, located about 90 minutes south of Melbourne.
In January 2019, Victoria’s chief health officer initiated a review of cancer incidence rates for total cancers; breast and liver cancer; and non-Hodgkin lymphoma, multiple myeloma, brain cancers and leukaemia.
It used data from the Australian Cancer Atlas and found “no evidence of a higher rate of cancer overall” and “no high number of the specific cancers of interest” on the Bellarine Peninsula than expected based on the average cancer rate in Australia.
A Cancer Council Victoria report from October 2019 also found “no substantive evidence of increased [cancer] incidence” across the peninsula.
This finding was endorsed by an expert advisory group established by the state’s Health Department.
Concerns about possible soil contamination from dieldrin — a pesticide previously used on farms which can contaminate the soil for decades — also prompted the Education Department and WorkSafe to conduct soil tests at Bellarine Secondary College, in the nearby town of Drysdale, in 2018, in a bid to allay community concerns stemming from the fact that a number of the young people who became sick had attended the school.
The report found pesticides, including dieldrin, were found in the soil, but in levels below what is considered harmful to human health.
What will the inquiry achieve?
The Senate inquiry will be chaired by Greens senator Rachel Siewert and will look at residents’ concerns, the incidence of cancer in the area, possible environmental factors and the Victorian chief health officer’s investigation.
Local surf shop owner Ross Harrison, who has led the public campaign for answers, said previous data analyses have not taken into account the holiday town’s transient population.
“We’ve had a mass migration in, and a mass migration out of the township so those people that are presented with disease end up with a different postcode,” he said.
“Also, in coastal townships we have many holiday-makers with houses who have holidayed here for 40 and 50 years, so when they present with disease they present with that disease in their hometown.”
He hopes the bipartisan inquiry will provide the community with some answers.
“We just look forward to a forensic examination of the issues … this can’t be a desktop review,” he said.
“What we are arguing is that there has been a chemical exposure and the epidemiology figures show that so a diligent forensic investigation would be the minimum, I’d imagine.”
Ms Livingstone also hopes this inquiry will put an end to some of the uncertainty.
“I’m just hoping that the truth will be revealed really and that people can tell their story,” she said.
“There’s just so many people down here who’ve been affected by it, who’ve lost loved ones, young people dying unnecessarily and young kids and everyone being sick.
“It’s too much to not be strange.”