A number of firefighters in Atherton have developed cancer, so it is reported (it would appear from Google most prominently by the ABC) that we have a “cancer cluster”. The ABC is likely to be sensitive to this because of the cancer cluster at their former studios in Brisbane.
The fire service is investigating, but are we really dealing with a cancer cluster?
“Up to six” current or former firemen (presumably all male) are suffering colon cancer, testicular cancer and brain tumours, but not simultaneously. Two are suffering colon cancer, one testicular cancer and two brain tumours.
Before mindlessly spreading the story, perhaps ABC reporters should pay some attention to Norman Swan’s health report of the 26th November, 2007. (Swan is one of my favourite broadcasters, and is certainly the best science broadcaster in Australia.)
Swan has this exchange with cancer specialist Bernard Stewart:
Norman Swan: So there will be people listening to this who think they’re living in an environment or work in an environment where there’s an unusually high rate of cancer. Just give us a sense then of what other things should click through your head as to whether or not it’s in your mind or real.
Bernard Stewart: The things that should click in your mind are firstly cancers of a single type rather than cancer across the board.
Norman Swan: They are all different diseases.
Bernard Stewart: Yes, they’re all different diseases and they all have their set of risk factors.
Norman Swan: This is why the one at RMIT in Melbourne wasn’t a cluster because it was all sorts of different things.
Bernard Stewart: Absolutely correct. The alarm bells should go off if you see cancers that are common but emerging in a much younger age group which characterised breast cancers in Queensland or cancers of a very rare type, a single rare type. Those are the really conspicuous alarm bells but the fact that in your street someone developed breast cancer and another person had colorectal cancer and a third neighbour had prostate cancer that’s unlikely to mean that your street is burdened with some exogenous cause or outside cause of cancer.
Is the Atherton Fire Station event likely to be a cancer cluster? Well, the expert in the ABC (Swan was part of the committee that assessed the St Lucia cluster) appears to be saying “No”.
This is one of those times when you wish one arm of the ABC would talk to the other. As cancer overtakes other diseases, and increasing numbers of us die from it, the odds will favour more of these beat-ups. The consequence will be premises being vacated and destroyed for no good reason, and insurance premiums taking a hike, for nothing.