LOCATION: http://www.abc.net.au/7.30/content/2004/s1179825.htm

Australian Broadcasting Corporation


Broadcast: 18/08/2004

Diesel fumes linked to cancer deaths

KERRY O'BRIEN: The convoys of trucks that ply our highways might indicate a healthy economy, but the freight industry's heavy reliance on road transport has the potential for an entirely opposite impact on those exposed to the exhaust fumes.

There's a substantial body of expert opinion to say the fine particles from diesel exhaust are the most dangerous elements of the traffic pollution that's responsible for about 1,200 deaths a year in Australia.

That statistic is a matter of concern for anyone living or working near a major truck route, and nowhere more so than the City of Albury, a city of more than 40,000, perched on the main road link between Melbourne and Sydney.

But Albury residents' fears about diesel emissions have been increased by plans to build a freeway through the centre of the city.

Mick Bunworth reports.

MICK BUNWORTH: There's no doubt these massive semi-trailers are a vital link in Australia's transport network.

Without them, the nation would grind to a halt.

But is the diesel fuel that powers them so dangerous to our health that new roads should be designed to reduce our exposure to diesel emissions?

PROFESSOR MICHAEL ABRAMSON, MONASH UNIVERSITY: Diesel exhaust has been rated as a human carcinogen by the International Agency for Research Into Cancer And that's about definitive a body as there is in this area, so that I think we have to accept it does cause cancer.

MICK BUNWORTH: Professor Michael Abramson is with Monash University's department of epidemiology.

While diesel fumes may not cause the same rate of cancer as other factors, such as smoking, Professor Abramson says there's no disputing their impact upon human health.

PROFESSOR MICHAEL ABRAMSON: The exhaust of diesel vehicles has got more particles than the exhaust of properly maintained petrol engines.

And the particles cover a very wide range of sizes.

There are large particles, those bigger than 10,000th of a millimetre in diameter, which by and large get deposited in the nose and don't enter the lungs, and the smaller particles, and particularly the particles of less than 2,500th of a millimetre across, which can penetrate deep into the lungs and, we think, have got quite severe effects.

MICK BUNWORTH: There's no disputing diesel is a major source of traffic pollution and the impact of that pollution is deadly.

In a report released late last year, the Bureau of Transport and Regional Economics stated that: "..probably motor traffic pollution-related deaths in Australian capital cities amounted to about 1,200 persons" in the year 2000.

The national road accident toll for that year was just over 1,800 people.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR RAY KEARNEY, UNIVERSITY OF SYDNEY: What we're talking about here are the fatalities and the morbidity or sicknesses incurred as a result of exposure to the emissions.

MICK BUNWORTH: As another day draws to a close, diesel powered trucks keep rolling through the NSW border town of Albury.

By midnight, the daily count of semis, B-doubles and other heavy vehicles will exceed 3,000.

The trucks belch diesel fumes as they negotiate the Hume Highway and it is what impact these fumes are having on their health that is starting to worry some citizens of Albury, especially since they appear to have lost their fight for an external bypass which would take the trucks out of town.

TOM JENSEN, SAVE OUR CITY LOBBY GROUP: Our cancer mortality rates have been climbing and climbing and climbing.

Now, we are 20.7 per cent over the NSW average for cancer moralities and a lot of cancers that people are dying from are ones that are very directly related to diesel pollution.

MICK BUNWORTH: Tom Jensen's Save Our City group opposes the Federal Government's decision to build a freeway through the middle of Albury.

They refused to be convinced by the environmental impact statement which has given the project a clean bill of health.

TOM JENSEN: If this goes ahead, by 2015 there will be 9,000 semis a day and we will have a horrendous health problem.

MICK BUNWORTH: Dr Mark Norden is one of 27 Albury doctors who support Tom Jensen's view.

They point to the stark difference in cancer deaths between Albury and its twin city Wodonga, in Victoria, where trucks follow an external route.

DR MARK NORDEN, ALBURY GP: Just looking at the Australian Bureau of Statistics figures, we know that Albury's cancer mortality rate is significantly above the NSW State average, whereas Wodonga is significantly below the Victorian State average.

MICK BUNWORTH: Transport minister John Anderson announced the bypass 18 months ago, overturning a previous decision to have an external bypass.

While Mr Anderson declined the 7:30 Report's request for an interview, local member Sussan Ley was happy to talk.

She disputes her opponents' use of the Bureau of Statistics figures to make the link between diesel and cancer.

SUSSAN LEY, MEMBER FOR FARRER: Look, I say, quite frankly, it is garbage.

I mean, when you use ABS figures, you have a duty to use them responsibly.

And that hasn't happened in this case.

Just looking at the demographics, which weren't considered, we see that there are almost twice as many people in Albury that are over the age of 65 than there are in Wodonga.

That alone could well be a contributing factor to the higher cancer death rate.

DR MARK NORDEN: I think, given that this is a twin city, it's same access to doctors, same access to health care, that question needs to be asked -- and not only needs to be asked, needs to be answered.

SUSSAN LEY: There has been no link between the range of cancers that people may be dying from and diesel fumes.

For somebody to link them in such a spurious, frivolous way, I think is completely irresponsible.

BERT WASHINGTON: I think research overseas and in Australia proves that we do know enough, that it is proven that diesel particulate is dangerous to the health and wellbeing of all people.

MICK BUNWORTH: Retired schoolteacher Bert Washington was diagnosed with prostate cancer earlier this year.

For 15 years, he was principal of Albury North Primary School, situated right next to the Hume Highway.

BERT WASHINGTON: You were aware of noise pollution and certainly fumes.

In the playground, across the whole area on occasions you'd get a whiff of something coming through.

MICK BUNWORTH: During his time at Albury North Primary School, five of Bert's colleagues were also diagnosed with cancer.

MICK BUNWORTH (TO BERT WASHINGTON): Do you believe there's a link between your cancer and the diesel fumes that you were exposed to in the schoolyard?

BERT WASHINGTON: I have no idea, really.

It's a possibility, only a possibility.

The fact that there are other staff members came down with cancer might make it more than a possibility, I don't know, but my major concern would possibly be for the children's future, in that they have not been affected now to the best of my knowledge, but it could happen down the track.

I don't know.

DR MARK NORDEN: A very large UK study looked at over 22,000 children over 27 years -- and these children had all died of leukaemia or cancer -- and it looked at where they lived, and where they died and how close they were to various environmental sources of pollution, one of which were motorways.

And when they looked at all the data, removed all the other possibilities, they found that these children were significantly more likely to have lived within four kilometres of a motorway and much more likely again to live within one kilometre of a motorway.

MICK BUNWORTH: Peter Reynoldson is with the Access Albury Group, which supports the internal freeway.

The group points to new fuel emission standards due to be enforced by 2007, which they say will make diesel a safer fuel.

PETER REYNOLDSON, ACCESS ALBURY LOBBY GROUP: Diesel particulate will be reduced by 95 per cent, sulphur comes down by 95 per cent, and lead is completely eliminated from diesel fuel.

That means that diesel fuel is going to be significantly better than petrol.

MICK BUNWORTH: But immunologist Professor Ray Kearney, who is so concerned about the Albury freeway he has written to the Prime Minister, says new fuel standards won't reduce the dangers of diesel and that's bad for all Australians.

PROFESSOR RAY KEARNEY: The truth of the matter is there's only a marginal impact on the other toxins.

Very little impact, if at all, on the levels of the chemicals that cause cancer, for example.

And they are the concerns that I think all governments must have.

So it is misleading to say that just simply by reducing the sulphur in the fuel that we're going to have a cleaner fuel.

Cleaner, yes, visually, but we're getting much more numbers in the fine particles.

DR MARK NORDEN: I don't think there's many Western governments in the world that would put a freeway through the centre of a town the size of the Albury when you can go around it.

PROFESSOR MICHAEL ABRAMSON: We feel so strongly about discouraging people from smoking and in particular, avoiding exposure of children to environmental tobacco smoke and I would see exposure to air pollution as being in the same category.

MICK BUNWORTH: With that in mind, Australians will now be looking to Albury to see whether fears are realised on the dangers of diesel.

KERRY O'BRIEN: That could be a very long process.

Mick Bunworth with that report.

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