10 years of warnings
By KAREN COLLIER and MARK DUNN
16dec99 Herald Sun
ALUMINIUM giant Alcoa was warned at least a decade ago of lethal cancer risks in
A medical specialist at Melbourne's respected Peter MacCallum cancer hospital
sounded alarm bells over potential cancer and chronic asthma dangers in 1989.
Cancer expert Dr Cyril Minty warned pot room and other workers at the Portland
and Point Henry smelters could develop the diseases if they continued to work in
the same conditions for a long time.
His comments were included in a report in The Sun on May 1, 1989.
The newspaper article sparked demands from Alcoa for a printed retraction, with
the company saying it "emphatically rejects" there was any risk of smelter workers
developing cancer because of their working conditions.
This week, the company revealed it had warned 3000 workers they faced a risk of
cancer from long-term exposure to coal tar pitch, and arranged mass medical
The manufacturing giant yesterday denied playing down potential health dangers,
saying it still had no direct evidence its Australian workers were at higher risk of
cancer than the general community.
The comments came as lawyers said they were investigating reports from 50
smelter workers who feared they may have developed cancer at work.
Maurice Blackburn Cashman partner John Price warned the industry to brace for
potential compensation claims of millions of dollars if a cancer time-bomb
Company spokesman Brian Wills-Johnson insisted the plants operated according to
national safety regulations, including the use of respiratory masks, barrier creams
and routine cleaning of clothes.
Union officials expect to hold urgent meetings with the company tomorrow.
The Australian Manufacturing Workers Union is demanding independent, paid
medical checks, newspaper advertisements warning of potential risks and full
copies of research.
"The calls are coming in thick and fast from frightened people around Australia,"
union organiser Mark Light said. "We are desperate for more information."
Alcoa has told thousands of present and former Australian workers who worked in a
certain section some may face long- term risks of developing lung and bladder
cancer after a review of overseas research.
A 1995 study found Canadian workers exposed to the coal tar pitch over 40 years
faced up to 2per cent extra risk of the illnesses.
About 3000 workers who have worked in a section of the Point Henry and Portland
plants exposed to the substance have been informed of the potential health
hazard in letters.
Medical checks are expected to begin within weeks.
Alcoa has also ordered stringent new controls worldwide that limit unprotected
exposure levels to coal tar to a quarter of those required by Australian occupational
health and safety authorities.
Mr Wills-Johnson said the Canadian Alcan study had been regarded as a
benchmark and denied the company had been slow to react to it.
Alcoa's review of the research concluded a small increase in cancer risk could be
expected at lower levels of exposure than had previously been accepted.
Mr Wills-Johnson said a medical study of Alcoa staff by Monash University over the
past three years had not so far shown any excessive rates of any cancers.
Australian workers had been exposed to much lower levels of coal tar pitch, a
substance used in part of the smelting process and operated with more modern
technology than the Canadian site.
But Alcoa had decided to act conservatively by issuing letters suggesting health
checks for workers who spent at least a year in the electrode areas of the plants,
The comments came as unions called for a federal inquiry into health standards in
the aluminium industry and a further crackdown on exposure standards.
Australian Workers Union state secretary Bill Shorten urged federal Workplace
Relations Minister Peter Reith to oversee a national investigation.
A spokesman for Mr Reith said occupational health and safety was largely a state
responsibility but his office would consider submissions through the National
Occupational Health and Safety Commission.
Martin Jennings, president of the Australian Institute of Occupational Hygienists,
said Alcoa and other aluminium producers had been evaluating the dangers for
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