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Sunday 18 February 2018

Minister to investigate cancer 'hot spot' claims

Concern as disease rate in town is 38 per cent higher than average

Ralph Riegel

Ralph Riegel

HEALTH Minister James Reilly has ordered a special probe into an alleged cancer 'hot spot' not far from Ireland's most toxic industrial site.

The move came as a bitter row erupted over the potential causes of the high cancer incidence in the Cork harbour town of Cobh which overlooks the former Irish Steel-Irish Ispat mill on Haulbowline Island.

A reported 500,000 tonnes of hazardous waste -- including heavy metals and carcinogens such as Chromium 6 -- were dumped on the island over generations of steel making.

Dr Reilly has now asked his chief medical officer, Dr Tony Holohan, to examine why Cobh's cancer incidence rate is almost 38pc higher than the national average, according to the National Cancer Registry.

However, the Government has not conceded a full baseline health study of Cork harbour as demanded by local residents.

Experts stressed that such a detailed study would cost at least €1m to conduct.

Cobh resident and former Labour TD John Mulvihill expressed outrage at suggestions by one academic that the high local cancer rate could have as much to do with poverty as any influence of the Haulbowline Island waste.

Prof Anthony Staines of Dublin City University (DCU) is one of Ireland's top analysts on public health and population.

He indicated that the fact Cobh's population was "relatively poor" could influence overall cancer rates to a greater degree than anything to do with the former steel site.

"Most causes of death, such as cancer, are more common in poorer people than rich people," he said.

"Poor people tend to smoke more, live in worse houses and have worse diets than richer people. They are also less educated about health issues. If you adjusted the cancer figures for the fact that people in Cobh are poor, I would bet that the (overall) difference is minimal," said Prof Staines.

"The question must be asked, would it be better to spend €1m on a youth cafe and playgrounds or on a full health study?"

However, Mr Mulvihill -- whose own wife died of cancer -- said any suggestion that Cobh's overall cancer rate was entirely down to poverty was "nonsense".

"If that is the case then why is Cobh's cancer rate substantially higher than the comparable cancer rate for some of Ireland's poorest and most disadvantaged urban areas," he said.

"If this was all about poverty, then why aren't cancer 'hot-spots' entirely restricted to the poorest parts of our cities."

Mr Mulvihill warned that questions about high cancer and respiratory disease rates in Cobh and Cork harbour will persist until a baseline health study is conducted.

The detection of Chromium 6 on Haulbowline three years ago prompted a message of solidarity from acclaimed US environmental campaigner Erin Brockovich.

The Irish Steel-Irish Ispat mill shut down in 2001 but it is estimated that a full clean-up of the island could cost between €100m and €300m.

Ireland was last month warned to start a clean-up of the Haulbowline site or face legal action by the EU.

The Brussels warning came as environmental campaigners accused the Government of "stalling tactics" over the clean-up of the mill.

The Department of the Environment has said it will finalise a detailed study within a matter of weeks to outline its long-term blueprint for the clean-up.

Sunday Independent

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