Cabbage Tree Road
By Carrie Fellner
To her family, Boronia Howell was “the angel on earth that we knew”.
They were shattered when she was diagnosed with lymphatic leukemia at the age of 64.
She fought the disease courageously for over a decade before losing her battle in 2003.
Just over a year later, Ms Howell’s husband Ted succumbed to prostate cancer that had spread to his brain.
Then her brother, Kevin Thomas, was struck down by same type of leukemia she had suffered. The family thought it was odd.
Even to the doctors, it seemed too unlikely to be a coincidence.
“They went through a lot of tests to try and find a genetic connection but they found nothing,” Ms Howell’s daughter, Robyn Miles, said.
“They were hoping there might of been a connection because it would have given them some insight into the illness.”
Ms Miles herself battled cervical cancer in her mid-20s and her brother, Ted, was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2005.
The only thing all five of them had in common was the time they’d spent at the family farm on Cabbage Tree Road in Williamtown, just north of Newcastle.
“It was kind of the hub for the family,” Ms Miles said. “We all congregated there.”
Their story is not unique on this sparsely populated stretch, a collection of mostly hobby farms and acreages.
Locals have long commented on the ‘tremendous’ amount of cancer on the road.
“You’re better off counting the people who haven’t had cancer rather than the ones who have,” long term resident Gary Robertson said.
But even they have been startled at the exact toll.
A Fairfax Media special investigation has found at least 39 people who have lived on a five-kilometre section of the road - or in one case, spent significant amounts of time there - have battled cancer in the past 15 years.
There were ten cases of breast cancer, seven of prostate cancer, five of bowel cancer, three of stomach cancer, three of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, two leukemias and two liver cancers over the time period, as well as individual cases of melanoma, lung, pancreatic, tongue and testicular cancer.
Another person had a rare type of cancerous neck tumour.
Each cancer survivor,or relative of a resident who has died, has agreed to supply their details to Fairfax Media as calls mount for a formal investigation into what is feared to be a cancer cluster in the midst of the small community.
To residents, a disturbing element is Cabbage Tree Road’s location, immediately south of the Williamtown RAAF base.
It cuts through the heart of a plume of toxic contamination, from chemicals used in firefighting foams by the air force for around four decades from the 1970s.
The poly- and per-fluoroalkyl chemicals, suspected carcinogens also known as PFAS, continue to be flushed off the base by a network of open drains.
The drains snake through properties on Cabbage Tree Road and eventually empty into Fullerton Cove and the Hunter River. But on the days it rains, the foul water spills over and floods the low-lying farms, turning paddocks into swamps.
The largest of them, Dawson’s drain, crosses the road just metres from homes. Five people who have lived or stayed at the two properties either side of it have developed cancer since 2009, the youngest in his 30s.
It was Luke Jordan’s wife that noticed the bulge in his neck in 2013 and pressed him to see the GP.
Mr Jordan, now 36, was informed the growth was malignant. But his oncologists couldn’t tell him what it was; they had never seen a cancer like it before.
Mr Jordan’s mother, Irene, remembers how he delighted in catching frogs in the drain as a child. One day, he asked her if he could go fishing.
She agreed, oblivious to the risk.
“I would tell him not to come back until he’d caught something,” she said.
Within a year of her son’s illness, Ms Jordan was diagnosed with breast cancer. She had barely finished chemotherapy when her sister, Marie Cadogan, discovered she had bowel cancer.
“She died, just like that,” Ms Jordan remembers.
The pair had been inseparable, often sharing in the spoils from her vegetable patch at the Cabbage Tree Road farm.
The family moved away and Gaylene Brown, a horse riding teacher, took up residence in the home.
2015 was a difficult year: she suffered uncontrollable vomiting for several months. Last year, she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“I chased up my birth mum to let my sisters know, but none of them have had breast cancer,” she said.
Ms Brown maintains that she will only draw a link between her cancer and environmental factors with scientific proof.
But she was surprised to learn of the number of other women on the road with breast cancer.
“You’ve got to wonder if there’s clustering here,” she said.
On the other side of the drain lived Ms Sneddon, who died of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2011 at the age of 55.
Just over a year after she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Lorelei Sneddon finally booked the New Zealand trip that had always been on her bucket list.
On the second day of the holiday, the 55-year-old set out from Christchurch with her husband, Keith.
The pair had a “lovely dinner” together in Timaru.
But by 11pm that night, Ms Sneddon was in hospital. A week later, she was dead.
The softly-spoken nurse left behind her husband and two daughters.
When Fairfax Media independently tested Dawson’s drain, staggering levels of PFAS contamination were discovered.
The readings were among the highest ever recorded off the RAAF base, and up to 23 times higher than the levels authorities have reported in the drain.
The chemical perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) was found at 92 micrograms per litre, while perfluorohexane sulfonate (PFHxS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) were detected at 44 and 4.2 respectively.
The results were more than 1900 times the combined safe limit for PFOS and PFHxS in drinking water(.07), and about 194 times the safe limit for recreational water (.7).
Defence stood by its results, saying it had tested the drain around 60 times in three years and was confident its figures were “representative” of concentrations.
A spokesperson said the discrepancies could have been related to differences in sampling techniques, difference in laboratory analysis methods, cross contamination or rainfall at the time of testing.
But Dr Steven Lucas from the University of Newcastle’s school of environmental sciences, who took the samples on behalf of Fairfax Media, said the latest readings warranted further investigation.
“We did it by standard sampling protocol,” he said.
"The fact we're getting a reading that high is of concern."
Debate over the health effects of PFAS chemicals has been another source of conflict. NSW Health maintains there is “no conclusive evidence” the contaminants cause any specific illnesses.
“Studies in laboratory animals suggest that PFAS may promote some cancers in those animals, but it is not clear if these results have any implications for human health,” a spokeswoman said.
But a world-leading expert warned it is “possible and indeed probable” the chemicals were carcinogenic.
During his 12 years living on Cabbage Tree Road, Denis McEnearney would often occupy himself helping his neighbours with their farm work.
He moved away in 2015, but as a last favour for his mate, Keith Sneddon, Mr McEnearney promised to fix "the water problem" on his acreage.
That involved entering and clearing the flood-prone Dawson's drain, choked with sediment and weeds.
Mr McEnearney, 78, broke down in tears after Mr Sneddon called him out of the blue last month, to inform him of the number of cancer cases on his old street and the concentrations of toxic chemicals in the drain.
In the time Mr McEnearney lived on Cabbage Tree Road, he developed prostate cancer and then an unrelated case of lymphatic leukemia. He is still battling the latter, and fears he only has a matter of time left.
"I was blessed with good health all my life up until I moved to Williamtown," he said. "I thought I was going to live forever, to be honest. That's all shattered now."
He had no family history of either cancer.
“Most of my siblings are in their 80s and 90s now and they’re all as good as gold,” he said.
Philippe Grandjean, an adjunct professor of environmental health at the Harvard School of Public Health, has led a series of studies indicating PFAS can suppress the body’s immune system.
When asked whether that could be one way elevated exposure could lead to increased cancer risk, Professor Grandjean said it was “entirely possible”.
“With immune dysfunction, the body does not pick up the abnormal cells that are spreading and developing into a cancer,” he said.
Professor Grandjean said population studies had not been conducted on a large enough scale to make a judgement about cancer, but his gut reaction was that people should minimise their exposure as much as possible.
It comes after a 2011 study found an “extraordinary” increase in breast cancer among Inuit women with a high exposure to the PFAS in Greenland.
Eva Cecilie Bonefeld-Jorgensen, a professor from the University of Greenland and expert for the Danish Environmental Protection Agency, found that hormone disruption by the chemicals may have contributed to the result.
Professor Grandjean's research has resonated with Kim-Leanne King, who is stranded on a property less than a kilometre from the RAAF base, with levels of contaminants in her bore water more than 500 times accepted health risk limits.
Last year, she was rushed to hospital gravely ill, from what had started out as a case of the flue. Tests showed her white blood cell count was remarkably low.
"They asked me the question, have you ever used IV drugs, because your immune system is like that of an AIDS patient," Ms King, who lost her father to bowel cancer, said.
"I burst into tears. I was so upset that someone would think that. And that my immune system was not fighting for me."
Across the road from Ms King, Jenny Robinson is just starting to get her hair back. She underwent chemotherapy after two tumours were removed from her breast last year.
"It was unusual, because one was oestrogen positive and one was oestrogen negative, suggesting they were different types of breast cancer," she said.
"It's not just that we're having cancer, we're having cancer outside the norm."
The neighours on either side of the Robinsons have passed away from cancer and their horse "withered away" at the age of 15. Their vet believed it was suffering seizures because of tumours on its brain.
"Six months ago we were painting fences and we're watching the ground foam up in front of us ... that's not a natural occurrence," Ms Robinson's husband Terry said.
Williamtown is set to be the focus of one of Australia’s first epidemiological studies on the chemicals, commissioned by the Department of Health and being conducted by researchers at the Australian National University.
Its final report is due to be handed down in 2020.
Professor of public health at the University of Sydney Bruce Armstrong will be advising on the study.
He urged residents of Cabbage Tree Road to wait for its results, labelling a second study a “sterile” exercise.
“It’s a bit of a coincidence, obviously, that this particular ‘cluster’ has popped up in the Williamtown area,” said Professor Armstrong, who led a major investigation into a cancer cluster at the ABC radio studios in Brisbane.
“Really the question is what’s being done in the planned investigation to be able to pick up the evidence you’ve uncovered, of what appears to be quite a large number of people developing cancer."
Professor Armstrong added that it might be important to include people who had lived in the area historically but had moved away.
But member for Port Stephens, Kate Washington, said three years was too long to wait for residents trapped on unsaleable properties.
“If we do, it’ll be too late for too many people,” shesaid.
“The awful facts speak for themselves. The government must act now to support residents to leave the red zone.”
For Ms Miles, her greatest fear is now for her children, now aged in their 30s.
Her daughter has already had a slew of health problems, including miscarriages, thyroid problems and Graves disease.
“That farm is my childhood and that’s where my children spent 90 per cent of their childhood,”she said.
“It’s turned something that was our fondest memory into our scariest one.”
Cancer Council Queensland head of research Professor Joanne Aitken cautioned that cancer was common and it was not unusual to see groups of cases occurring in an area by chance.
However she said the numbers supplied by the Herald did “seem high, particularly if they are the same type of cancer”
“The first step in any cancer cluster investigation is to answer one key question: are there more cases than you would expect, given the known background rate of cancer in that population?”