Living on death road: Cancer strikes neighbours along one road in rural Australia

Lorelei Sneddon died of non-Hodgkins lymphoma at the age of 55.
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Lorelei Sneddon died of non-Hodgkins lymphoma at the age of 55.

To her family, Boronia Howell was "the angel on earth that we knew". They were shattered when she was diagnosed with lymphatic leukemia at the age of 64. She fought the disease courageously for over a decade before losing her battle in 2003.

Just over a year later, Howell's husband, Ted, succumbed to prostate cancer that had spread to his brain. Then her brother, Kevin Thomas, was struck down by same type of leukemia she had suffered. The family thought it was odd. Even to the doctors, it seemed too unlikely to be a coincidence.

"They went through a lot of tests to try and find a genetic connection but they found nothing," Howell's daughter, Robyn Miles, said. "They were hoping there might of been a connection because it would have given them some insight into the illness."

"You have to wonder": Gaylene Brown at her home on Cabbage Tree Road, Williamtown, near Newcastle.
JONATHAN CARROLL/SMH

"You have to wonder": Gaylene Brown at her home on Cabbage Tree Road, Williamtown, near Newcastle.

Miles herself battled cervical cancer in her mid-20s and her brother, Ted, was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2005.

The only thing all five of them had in common was the time they'd spent at the family farm on Cabbage Tree Road in Williamtown, just north of Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia.

"It was kind of the hub for the family," Miles said. "We all congregated there."

Warren Munro, who has had prostate cancer, on his Cabbage Tree Road property, near Newcastle in NSW.
JONATHAN CARROLL/SMH

Warren Munro, who has had prostate cancer, on his Cabbage Tree Road property, near Newcastle in NSW.

Their story is not unique on this sparsely populated stretch, a collection of mostly hobby farms and acreages. Locals have long commented on the "tremendous" amount of cancer on the road.

"You're better off counting the people who haven't had cancer rather than the ones who have," long-term resident Gary Robertson said.

But even they have been startled at the exact toll.

Leanne Ryan, who is recovering from breast cancer, lived on Cabbage Tree Road for four years.
MARINA NEIL/SMH

Leanne Ryan, who is recovering from breast cancer, lived on Cabbage Tree Road for four years.

A Fairfax Media special investigation has found at least 39 people who have lived on a five-kilometre section of the road – or in one case, spent significant amounts of time there – have battled cancer in the past 15 years.

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There were 10 cases of breast cancer, eight of prostate cancer, five of bowel cancer, three of stomach cancer, three of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, two leukemias and two liver cancers over the time period, as well as individual cases of melanoma, lung, pancreatic, tongue and testicular cancer.

Another person had a rare type of cancerous neck tumour.

John Hill had lymphoma 15 years ago.
JONATHAN CARROLL/SMH

John Hill had lymphoma 15 years ago.

Each cancer survivor, or relative of a resident who has died, has agreed to supply their details to Fairfax Media as calls mount for a formal investigation into what is feared to be a cancer cluster in the midst of the small community.

To residents, a disturbing element is Cabbage Tree Road's location, immediately south of the Williamtown RAAF base.

It cuts through the heart of a plume of toxic contamination, from chemicals used in firefighting foams by the air force for about four decades from the 1970s.

The poly- and per-fluoroalkyl chemicals, suspected carcinogens also known as PFAS, continue to be flushed off the base by a network of open drains. The drains snake through properties on Cabbage Tree Road and eventually empty into Fullerton Cove and the Hunter River. But on the days it rains, the foul water spills over and floods the low-lying farms, turning paddocks into swamps.

The largest of them, Dawson's drain, crosses the road just metres from homes. Five people who have lived or stayed at the two properties either side of it have developed cancer since 2009, the youngest in his 30s.

It was Luke Jordan's wife who noticed the bulge in his neck in 2013 and pressed him to see the GP. Jordan, now 36, was informed the growth was malignant. But his oncologists couldn't tell him what it was; they had never seen a cancer like it before.

"Even the specialist said it's a bit of doozy," he recalled.

Jordan's mother, Irene, remembers how he delighted in catching frogs in the drain as a child. One day, he asked her if he could go fishing. She agreed, oblivious to the risk.

"I would tell him not to come back until he'd caught something," she said.

Within a year of her son's illness, Irene Jordan was diagnosed with breast cancer. She had barely finished chemotherapy when her sister, Marie Cadogan, discovered she had bowel cancer.

"She died, just like that," Irene Jordan remembers. The pair had been inseparable, often sharing in the spoils from her vegetable patch at the Cabbage Tree Road farm.

The family moved away and Gaylene Brown, a horse riding teacher, took up residence in the home – 2015 was a difficult year: she suffered uncontrollable vomiting for several months. Last year, she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

"I chased up my birth mum to let my sisters know, but none of them have had breast cancer," she said.

Brown maintains that she will only draw a link between her cancer and environmental factors with scientific proof. But she was surprised to learn of the number of other women on the road with breast cancer.

"You've got to wonder if there's clustering here," she said.

On the other side of the drain lived Lorelei Sneddon, who died of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in 2011 at the age of 55. The softly spoken nurse left behind a husband, Keith, and two daughters.

When Fairfax Media independently tested Dawson's drain, staggering levels of PFAS contamination were discovered.

The readings were among the highest ever recorded off the RAAF base, and up to 23 times higher than the levels authorities have reported in the drain.

The chemical perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) was found at 92 micrograms per litre, while perfluorohexane sulfonate (PFHxS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) were detected at 44 and 4.2 respectively.

The results were more than 1900 times the combined safe limit for PFOS and PFHxS in drinking water (.07), and about 194 times the safe limit for recreational water (.7).

Defence stood by its results, saying it had tested the drain about 60 times in three years and was confident its figures were "representative" of concentrations.

A spokesperson said the discrepancies could have been related to differences in sampling techniques, difference in laboratory analysis methods, cross contamination or rainfall at the time of testing.

But Dr Steven Lucas from the University of Newcastle's school of environmental sciences, who took the samples on behalf of Fairfax Media, said the latest readings warranted further investigation.

"We did it by standard sampling protocol," he said. "The fact we're getting a reading that high is of concern."

Debate over the health effects of PFAS chemicals has been another source of conflict. NSW Health maintains there is "no conclusive evidence" the contaminants cause any specific illnesses.

"Studies in laboratory animals suggest that PFAS may promote some cancers in those animals, but it is not clear if these results have any implications for human health," a spokeswoman said.

But a world-leading expert warned it is "possible and indeed probable" the chemicals were carcinogenic.

Philippe Grandjean, an adjunct professor of environmental health at the Harvard School of Public Health, has led a series of studies indicating PFAS can suppress the body's immune system.

When asked whether that could be one way elevated exposure could lead to increased cancer risk, Professor Grandjean said it was "entirely possible".

"With immune dysfunction, the body does not pick up the abnormal cells that are spreading and developing into a cancer," he said.

Professor Grandjean said population studies had not been conducted on a large enough scale to make a judgment about cancer, but his gut reaction was that people should minimise their exposure as much as possible.

It comes after a 2011 study found an "extraordinary" increase in breast cancer among Inuit women with a high exposure to the PFAS in Greenland.

Eva Cecilie Bonefeld-Jorgensen, a professor from the University of Greenland and expert for the Danish Environmental Protection Agency, found that hormone disruption by the chemicals may have contributed to the result.

Williamtown is set to be the focus of one of Australia's first epidemiological studies on the chemicals, commissioned by the Department of Health and being conducted by researchers at the Australian National University. Its final report is due to be handed down in 2020.

Professor of public health at the University of Sydney, Bruce Armstrong, will be advising on the study. He urged residents of Cabbage Tree Road to wait for its results, labelling a second study a "sterile" exercise.

"It's a bit of a coincidence, obviously, that this particular 'cluster' has popped up in the Williamtown area," said Professor Armstrong, who led a major investigation into a cancer cluster at the ABC radio studios in Brisbane.

"Really, the question is what's being done in the planned investigation to be able to pick up the evidence you've uncovered, of what appears to be quite a large number of people developing cancer," he said, adding that it might be important to include people who had lived in the area historically but had moved away.

But member for Port Stephens, Kate Washington, said three years was too long to wait for residents trapped on unsaleable properties.

"If we do, it'll be too late for too many people," she said.

"The awful facts speak for themselves. The government must act now to support residents to leave the red zone."

For Miles, her greatest fear is now for her children, now aged in their 30s. Her daughter has already had a slew of health problems, including miscarriages, thyroid problems and Graves disease.

"That farm is my childhood and that's where my children spent 90 per cent of their childhood," she said.

"It's turned something that was our fondest memory into our scariest one."

*Comments on this article have now closed.

 - Sydney Morning Herald

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