Suspicions of cancer cluster

Misgivings aired . . . Former Dunedin City Council water maintenance staff based at the Midlands St yard say the risks of asbestos were not understood and early precautions inadequate.  PHOTO: CRAIG BAXTER
Misgivings aired . . . Former Dunedin City Council water maintenance staff based at the Midlands St yard say the risks of asbestos were not understood and early precautions inadequate. PHOTO: CRAIG BAXTER

It was a solemn memorial to 14 men taken too soon - photographs of the dead, showing men lost to lung, bowel or prostate cancer, pinned to a noticeboard in the Dunedin City Council's former Midland St workers' yard.

The men worked for the council's water maintenance team, and most never saw retirement - dying in their 50s, early 60s, or in one case a week after retirement.

But an early death was not the only thing they had in common.

They also worked regularly with the city's asbestos water pipes - cutting and grinding, kicking up asbestos dust and sweeping up the mess later.

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And each time another man died, another photograph was added to the board.

Now some survivors say they have been left to fight the council over medical check-ups promised, but not delivered, for two years - a charge the council denies.

The deaths have not been conclusively linked to asbestos, and health experts sounded a note of caution when asked about the apparent cluster this week.

But survivors from the Midland St yard, and the union representing them, have their suspicions.

‘‘I can't say categorically that it was asbestos. What I can say is, when I first saw that wall I was deeply suspicious,'' Amalgamated Workers Union representative Steve Scandrett said.

‘‘It's suspicion of a cluster.''

Workers spoken to, speaking anonymously, said they had been ignorant of the risks, and focused on getting the job done, when cutting into asbestos pipes in the 1980s.

‘‘It was just throw a hunk of cheese cloth over the face, take a deep breath and away you go,'' one said.

Practices had improved since then, but that came too late for some.

‘‘Quite a few of the guys, they just didn't get to retirement ... They all got crook and they died,'' one worker said.

But the council, in a written statement, said it was ‘‘unaware of any deaths of its staff relating to asbestos exposure''.

‘‘If such a cluster existed we would be extremely concerned, but such a cluster has not been identified.''

University of Otago cancer epidemiologist Prof David Skegg cautioned against rushing to conclusions, but said the deaths ‘‘would seem to warrant further investigation''.

Dr Bill Glass, a leading asbestos researcher, agreed but said asbestos had been linked to cancers in other parts of the body, beyond the lung, in the past.

That included less conclusive links to bowel and prostate cancer, as well as others, research had found.

Despite that, New Zealand ‘‘surprisingly'' did not record where in the body malignant mesothelioma was found - unlike in Australia, he said.

‘‘It does raise the question,'' he said.

Dr Keith Reid, medical officer of health at Public Health South, said there was too little information to comment on the Midland St deaths, but cancer remained ‘‘a significant cause of death'', with a sharp increase in cases for those aged 45 to 65.

The uncertainty left the surviving Midland St workers nervously pondering their own health future.

The yard's memorial board was taken down in 2014, when the DCC outsourced its water maintenance work, and some staff, to City Care.

A council spokesman said remaining DCC staff deemed to be at risk, as well as those still at City Care, together with their partners, had been offered medical testing at the council's expense in May last year.

But Mr Scandrett said the checks carried out by a nurse were insufficient, and the council had failed to deliver on a promise of more extensive full medicals carried out by a doctor, including chest X-rays and CT scans if needed.

That was what had been agreed as part of the transfer plan for staff moving to City Care, but it had ‘‘never happened'', and past and present staff and their spouses were still waiting, he said.

The council's spokesman said prolonged delays in talks with the union meant there had been ‘‘some delays in getting staff and ex-staff assessed'', but the DCC took its health and safety obligations ‘‘extremely seriously''.

‘‘They need to get in touch if that's how they feel,'' the spokesman said.

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