BELLARINE, Australia — A federal inquiry has recommended Victoria’s Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton meet with a local community concerned about a possible cancer cluster linked to pesticide use.
Residents on the Bellarine Peninsula, southwest of Melbourne, believe a mosquito spraying program in the 1980s is to blame for dozens of cases of cancer and autoimmune disease in the area.
Many of the cases occurred among people aged in their 20s and 30s who attended Barwon Heads Primary School and Bellarine Secondary College in the nearby town of Drysdale.
But a 2019 investigation by Sutton found no evidence of a higher rate of cancer in the Bellarine Peninsula when compared to the rest of Australia.
An analysis of data from the Victorian Cancer Registry found no evidence of increased rates of cancer in Bellarine Peninsula residents between 1982 and 2019, other than for breast cancer.
For breast cancer, there was an estimated 24 percent excess incidence relative to the Victorian average.
Pesticides were found in soil tested in the area, but at levels below what is considered harmful to human health.
The Senate Community Affairs Committee, led by Australian Greens senator Rachel Siewert, has spent almost two years investigating residents’ concerns.
In their final report tabled on June 30,, the committee acknowledged the “suffering, stress and sadness” experienced by residents touched by cancer or autoimmune illnesses.
“In a small town like Barwon Heads, each cancer or autoimmune diagnosis can affect the whole community,” the report read.
“It is understandable that people question why cancers and autoimmune diseases are happening in their community, especially amongst young people.”
The committee said many of those within the community have not been satisfied with the Victorian Department of Health’s investigation.
“In most, if not all, cases such investigations can only result in a disappointing outcome for the individuals with cancer and their families and friends, who may be looking for answers that a scientific investigation cannot provide,” the committee said.
The senators recommended the Victorian health department prepare and release a comprehensive report, which explains “clearly and carefully” the findings of their studies and responds to community concerns.
It also suggests Professor Sutton meet with the community to answer any of their questions.
“The Barwon Heads community deserves closure, and this can only be achieved through the active engagement of the Victorian Department of Health and Chief Health Officer in effectively communicating all the findings,” the committee said.
The committee also recommended the state government review and update its framework for mosquito management in Victoria.
(Edited by Vaibhav Pawar and Krishna Kakani)