Cancer cluster linked to smokeless fuel

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The Independent Online
PUBLIC health officials in south Wales are investigating a series of cancer-related deaths among former workers at a British Coal smokeless fuel plant.

The inquiry by Mid Glamorgan Health Authority was prompted by an alarming cluster of cancer deaths and illness among former workers at the Aberaman Smokeless Fuel Phurnacite plant in Abercwmboi. Already 60 widows and several cancer sufferers have joined forces to campaign for compensation. The investigation could affect thousands who were employed by British Coal or its subsidiary Coal Products Limited, as well as blast-furnacemen in the steel industry.

"It was very strange that the only time we met up with colleagues was at funerals where someone had died of cancer," said Malcolm Cook who initiated the campaign.

A former worker at the Phurnacite plant in the Cynon Valley, Mr Cook noticed a pattern of illness and death among former colleagues. Concern grew when several children fell ill after playing on a tip filled with toxic waste from the plant.

At its height the plant employed a thousand men whose job was to extract pollutants, including benzene, from coal to make Phurnacite briquettes. Part of the industrial process was to burn the coal in large ovens, sometimes using chemicals to extract the benzene. Men could be working over a smoking oven for 16 hours to clean crusted anthracite. Although helmets and overalls were issued in the mid Eighties, they did little to halt inhalation or ingestion of fumes.

The consultant in communicable disease control for Mid Glamorgan Health Authority, Doctor Arun Mukerjee, is heading the cancer investigation at the request of local MP Ann Clwyd. "I take it very seriously. A cluster of 70 cancers in a small area like the Cynon Valley is a serious complaint," she said.

The association between smokeless fuel plant workers and cancer is not new. A report by British Coal's own medical service to Coal Products Limited states: "Analysis of mortality over 12- and 13-year periods had shown some excess lung cancer mortality and some evidence that the excess was related to work on or near the coke oven batteries ... there had been indications of excess mortality from some other causes also, notably bladder cancer and cancer of the buccal cavity and pharynx." Other research has indicated excess mortality from cancers of the stomach and prostate and again bladder cancer, among workers in coal carbonisation, gasification and tar industries.

Mr Cook has unsuccessfully tried to involve the coke section of his union, the National Union of Mineworkers, in the campaign. Now he has asked miners' president Arthur Scargill to intervene, and the Trades Union Congress is also studying the deaths.