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Victoria’s chief health officer must investigate high rates of leukemia in Barwon Heads

Today I called on Victoria’s Chief Health Officer, Professor Brett Sutton, to investigate the high rate of leukemia in Barwon Heads between 1982 and 2000, including whether people diagnosed with leukemia, no longer residing in Barwon Heads, may have a connection with the coastal township.

During today’s public hearing at the Barwon Heads community hall of a Senate inquiry into a possible cancer cluster on the Bellarine Peninsula, data from the Victorian Cancer Registry revealed than during this period, there were 42 per cent more cases of leukemia in Barwon Heads than occurs in the ordinary population.

While the expert advisory group appointed by the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services did not consider the number of leukemia cases to be statistically material, it found a higher rate than normal (24 per cent) of breast cancer cases occurred in Barwon Heads between 1982 and 2019.  It concluded that “no substantive evidence of increased incidence was found, other than for breast cancer …”

As Barwon Heads’ mosquito spraying program occurred during the summer months when large numbers of holidaymakers were present and given many residents exposed to organophosphate pesticides (OPs) may have moved away, I have asked Professor Sutton to investigate the links between the Barwon Heads’ mosquito spraying program and Victorians diagnosed with leukemia.  This may involve writing to each such person and inquiring as to whether they had ever spent any time on the Bellarine Peninsula, including Barwon Heads.  Professor Sutton has agreed to consider my request.

My call is supported by a number of witnesses who testified today including Mr Campbell Stephenson who bravely spoke about the death of his sister Georgie, at the age of 26, after she was diagnosed with leukemia.

The Senate inquiry also heard evidence today from a number of local residents who, as children, regularly had contact with chemicals used in the City of Greater Geelong’s mosquito spraying program. Ms Kristie Ainsworth, later diagnosed with leukemia, told us she would frequently ride her bike through a chemical ‘fog’ on her way to school from the age of eight.

Questions remain as to the basis on which the expert cancer group attributed the higher than average rate of breast cancer on socio- economic factors rather than on other factors such as environmental exposure to OPs.

Despite claims by the City of Greater Geelong that spraying in residential streets in Barwon Heads was not part of its core mosquito spraying program, the inquiry heard from numerous witnesses that spraying frequently occurred in and around the Village Park, as well as in the mangroves near the river, the local primary school and the caravan park.

I have asked council officers to provide a copy of each of the City’s mosquito spraying schedules since 1982.

I will continue to fight for better access to data which may show a link between the mosquito spraying program and higher than average cancer rates in our community.

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