Steel, dust and lung cancer could go together, it seems.
For the women of the dust-choked South Australian steel town of Whyalla are vulnerable to lung cancer, it has been found.
A new report by the state Government has shown lung cancer occurs significantly more in Whyalla - home to a OneSteel plant that manufactures 1.2 million tonnes of steel annually - than in towns with similar size and industry.
Children were more likely to be admitted to hospital for respiratory infections in Whyalla than in other regions in the state, including the lead-smelting town of Port Pirie, Port Augusta, Port Lincoln, Mount Gambier and Victor Harbor.
Asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and chronic hepatitis were also unexpectedly prevalent compared with the other towns.
The report found reasonable evidence of "biological plausibility" for the diseases found in relation to iron-rich dust exposure.
But state Health Minister John Hill sought to allay fears the red dust emitted by the OneSteel plant caused high lung cancer rates.
"There is no clear connection between the incidence of red dust and the pattern of these illnesses in the community," he said.
The report found 32 more cases of lung cancer, largely among women, in Whyalla between 1999 and 2004 than would be expected in towns with similar size and industry, but other types of cancer were at normal levels. Whyalla was not "significantly more likely" to have higher exposure to smoking or alcohol than the comparison towns.
Women were more likely to have lung cancer in Whyalla than in the other towns, making up 47 per cent of diagnoses between 1999 and 2004 compared with 33.9 per cent in similar sized towns.
Most of the lung cancer victims lived in western Whyalla, away from the OneSteel plant in East Whyalla, a fact Hill seized on.
"The evidence confounds the theory that red dust is the cause of these diseases," he said.
He said western Whyalla was poorer than other parts of the town, referring to previous studies that linked low socio-economic status with health problems.
No occupational data was included in the report, which was based on statistics from the South Australian Cancer Registry and the Whyalla hospital's records.
Acting South Australian Chief Medical Officer Paddy Phillips said that was a significant omission.
"Occupation is one of the biggest things we can't account for," Professor Phillips said.
Whyalla, a steel-producing centre since the 1930s, recorded 21,417 residents in last year's census, with about a quarter financially dependent on the OneSteel plant.
New indenture conditions agreed between the company and the state Government will restrict the number of days the steelworks can emit elevated levels of PM10 dust.
The dust particles remain in the air for days and are spread far from the plant by the wind.
The plant exceeds its dust emission limit 30 days a year, but will reduce that to 10 days next year and five days a year by 2011.
OneSteel must report to the Government monthly on its compliance and explain any breach of the emission limits.
Mr Hill said the Health Department would conduct a survey of 2000 Whyalla residents on lifestyle and other factors that could explain the high cancer rate.
Ted Kittle, chair of the Whyalla Red Dust Action Group, said he did not know why the cancer figures should be so high in West Whyalla.
"It (West Whyalla) is 11km from where we are in the red dust zone in East Whyalla," he said. "It can't be anything to do with the plant."