2017: Cabbage Tree Road, Williamtown (NSW) Cancer and Health Impacts

The pretty country road that hides a deadly secret

CABBAGE Tree Road is a quiet country road running through idyllic farmland. But to residents, it’s the site of a deadly cancer cluster which has claimed 39 victims.

July 15 2017


THE road of death winds its way gently for more than six kilometres through undulating green fields and idyllic farmland in the NSW Hunter Valley.

It begins at the roundabout just before the pretty little St Saviour’s Anglican Church and curves by a riding school and dog kennels before ending at a bus stop where the road forks into two.

It even has a reassuring name, perhaps referring to the plans which once lined its track, but that is misleading.

For the people who have lived along this country thoroughfare for decades, Cabbage Tree Road near Williamtown increasingly means disease and death.

An apparent cancer cluster has affected at least 39 people living on either side of Cabbage Tree Road, according to a Fairfax News investigation.

The 39 who have lived on a 5km stretch of the road are battling cancer, or have died from it.

Multiple cases of breast cancer, prostate cancer, bowel and stomach cancer, leukaemia, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and liver cancer have struck down residents.

Tongue, testicular, pancreatic and lung cancer, a neck tumour and melanoma have affected individuals.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported that resident Boronia Howell died in 2003 from leukaemia, and just over a year later her husband, Ted, died from metastasised prostate cancer.

Her brother was then diagnosed with leukaemia and her daughter, Robyn Miles, who had fought off cervical cancer in her twenties had a brother, Ted, diagnosed with prostate cancer.

Cabbage Tree Road is in the rural suburb of Williamtown, 25km north of Newcastle and 175km north of Sydney.

It is just a four minute drive from the RAAF Williamtown and it is this proximity to the air force base that its residents say is making them ill, from toxic contamination of groundwater.

As reported by news.com.au, chemical agents used around the world in airport fire drills cause cancer, neurological disease and reproductive disorders.

The residents of Oakey air base in Queensland have presented with similar cancer clusters to those along Cabbage Tree Road, Williamtown.

The chemicals perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) have been used in firefighting foams and household items such as non-stick cookware since the 1950s.

The chemicals are water soluble, do not break down in the environment and can travel long distances along waterways or in the air.

Residents of both Williamtown and Oakey have launched class actions against the Australian Department of Defence.

Last year, the Department held public meetings, letterboxed homes and placed advertisements to advise residents of programs to test for the potential carcinogens.

Following the US EPA warning, then Australian Assistant Defence Minister Michael McCormack said that there was “no sufficient link” between PFOS/PFOA and adverse human health effects.

In May this year, an independent report into how the New South Wales Environmental Protection Authority managed the contamination said defence knew about the problem years before informing residents.

Thousands of people in 18 communities near military airfields across Australia live in “priority one” contamination zones.

The residents claim they suffer health problems and plummeting property prices for living in the zones.

The US Environmental Protection Agency has suggested PFOS and PFOA pose greater health risks than Australian environmental and health authorities previously accepted.

The US data warns that exposure to the chemicals can cause testicular and kidney cancer, liver damage, immune suppression, thyroid disease and reduced fertility.

Young parents Samantha and Jamie Kelly, who moved for a “tree change” from Sydney to Williamtown, said that soon after they were letterboxed about a “contamination meeting”, The Australian reported.

Samantha was six months pregnant, and the couple learnt they were now living in the “Red Zone” of chemical pollution from the RAAF base.

“At first they tried to normalise the contaminations, saying they were in everyday products like non-stick frying pans and pop corn bags,” Ms Kelly told The Australian.

“But quickly it was followed with advice from the NSW Health Department that we weren’t to consume the water, any eggs from our chickens, eat any meat products which had consumed the water.

“And that there were some causal effects to cancers in animals.

“It was shocking, I’d been consuming our eggs and our vegies … it’s very scary.

“We wanted a bit of land that was ours, to escape from the city; we moved here for the outdoor lifestyle, and it’s been completely destroyed now.”

Williamtown is now to be the focus of a NSW Department of Health epidemiological study of the chemicals.

The residents have been advised to wait for results, but as Robyn Miles told Fairfax, her greatest fear is that contamination is affecting the next generation with her daughter suffering miscarriages and thyroid problems.