• 06 FEB 07
    • 0

    #642: Update on the Toowong breast cancer cluster

    This morning (Feb 5) the expert panel investigating what is apparently the world’s largest breast cancer cluster at the ABC broadcast building in Toowong, Queensland, Australia, issued their findings to date on the Radio National Health Report. The interview titled: “The inside story – breast cancer incidents at the ABC’s Brisbane offices”, starts off with: “Today we have the inside story about the cluster of women diagnosed with breast cancer in the ABC’s offices in Brisbane. It has sparked enormous interest and may well be a world first with significant implications for women everywhere. Health Report host Dr Norman Swan was a member of the Independent Panel which investigated this and on the programme he and his fellow panel members discuss what they did, what they found and what it might mean.”

    The interview is available for listening at: http://www.abc.net.au/rn/healthreport/default.htm

    On January 11 an independent report
    (http://www.emfacts.com/papers/toowong.pdf) was sent to the ABC”s legal council, the trade union acting on behalf of the affected women, and the ABC”s expert panel. This report recommended that a full investigation be carried out in regards to ELF magnetic fields. Four attachments were included with that report (not attached here), including a Microwave News article “When Enough Is Never Enough-A Reproducible EMF Effect at 12 mG” and a 1997 Australian Senate discussion paper, “The Breast Cancer/EMF connection: Melatonin, Tamoxifen, 50-60 Hz Electromagnetic Fields and Breast Cancer”.

    The report was prepared for the ABC expert panel because preliminary remarks and statements by panel members clearly indicated they were not adequately evaluating extremely low frequency (ELF) magnetic fields as a possible factor in the cancer cluster.

    From today’s Health Report interview (link above), however, it is apparent that those recommendations were not considered. According to panel head, Dr. Bruce Armstrong, even though they found a 6-fold increase in the risk of female breast cancer, a risk that increased with years of time at the building, they found nothing that they could link with the cluster. ELF magnetic fields were briefly raised and then dismissed as being unlikely even though the panel still does not have a report that details what the ELF levels actually were in the areas where the women worked.

    Even though some of the affected women had called for EMF measurements be taken in the studios, when the firm EMC Technologies surveyed the building in May 2005 they only measured RF levels in the building and failed to take ELF magnetic field readings. Such an omission is inexcusable considering that one of the women specifically asked to measure the EMF levels on a wiring cable tray close to her desk. This omission did not seem to bother the expert panel and it was not until December 18 2006 that the Australian Radiation & Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA) visited the building and took ELF measurements.

    Such a survey would have been a straightforward process and writing up a report for the expert panel should have been an urgent priority for ARPANSA. However as of Feb 2007 ARPANSA still has not released its findings. Why the delay?

    All we have presently, apparently, is a bit of waffle from ARPANSA about not finding any increase in ELF magnetic fields ‘which are not normally encountered in that type of industry’ [telecommunications]. It seems that the expert panel is going by this vague statement in dismissing ELF. It would have been better if they patiently waited until ARPANSA eventually gets around to releasing its findings and then the picture may be clearer.

    An interesting part of the Health report interview is when Dr. Armstrong mentioned the possibility of shift work in illuminated environments being a factor. He goes on to mention the issue of melatonin suppression / pineal gland / suppression of melatonin leasing to increased breast cancer risk.

    So we have recognition of the melatonin hypothesis in relation to light-at-night but surprisingly no mention was made that ELF magnetic fields are also very much a part of the melatonin hypothesis. As for the shift work issue my understanding from a Brisbane Courier-Mail journalist who has interviewed most of the women involved, is that they did not do shift work at night. However seven of the women did work in the same area of the building- the news area, which would contain a great deal of ELF emitting electrical equipment.

    This all reminds me of the saying about not seeing the 500-pound Gorilla in the corner of the room. The obvious factor to examine is seemingly avoided by the expert panel for some reason.

    A cynic could conclude, rightly or wrongly, that since the expert panel was selected and commissioned by ABC management a bias may exist in the panel not to expose ABC to litigation through a class action by the affected women if a link with an environmental factor in the building were identified. The shift work explanation is no-risk for ABC because that is a universal practice and could not be blamed on anything particular to the building. If EMF/melatonin suppression/increased risk of breast cancer was included however that could be another matter.


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