'You’ve got to think it’s environmental': Questions over cancer deaths


Campbell Stephenson can't shake the feeling that something in the environment contributed to his younger sister Georgie's death from leukaemia.

His mother, Robyn Jones, is also convinced that where the family has lived for generations – on Victoria's Bellarine Peninsula – somehow played a part in Georgie's illness.

The 26-year-old nurse from Barwon Heads died in September 2017 following a second bout of acute myeloid leukaemia; her first diagnosis was in 2014.

Five of Georgie’s peers have also died, mainly of blood cancers and mostly in the past three years.

They include a former classmate from Barwon Heads Primary School, who died in his mid 20s, in 2016. For a time, their families lived in the same street.

Two men in their early 30s who grew up nearby died, one in 2015, the other in 2016, after multiple bouts of lymphoma. Another local in his 20s had a brain tumour and died in 2016. A pupil at Georgie's primary school died of a childhood leukaemia in 1999.

Campbell and Robyn know of scores of other young people – more than 20 in Georgie's age group who also grew up in the area – who have had similar illnesses.

They suspect that dieldrin, a chemical that was widely used by farmers on the Bellarine Peninsula, then banned more than 30 years ago after a major contamination scare, could be a factor.

And they want answers.

A few months ago, Robyn received the autopsy report into Georgie’s death. It says she died of natural causes: from a brain haemorrhage, a complication caused by treatment for cancer. But for Robyn, there was nothing natural about her daughter’s passing.

Georgie was first diagnosed in January 2014 after seeing a GP for a rash and a sprained ankle when she returned from the Falls Festival over the New Year.

She was admitted to the Andrew Love Cancer Centre at Geelong Hospital and went straight in for chemotherapy. Her sister Briony became her bone marrow donor.

Acute myeloid leukaemia grows quickly, with few warning signs. It is relatively rare in young people, especially women. The same condition claimed the life of Victorian golfer Jarrod Lyle in July after his third battle with the disease.

Georgie received a bone marrow transplant at the Royal Melbourne Hospital, then moved back to the Bellarine Peninsula. While in remission she worked at the new Epworth Geelong private hospital.

In 2016, just weeks after her father’s sudden death from a heart attack, she became unwell after taking part in a fundraising swim.

She thought it was the flu, but it was much worse. Her leukaemia was back.

Campbell donated his bone marrow. But after the transplant, she was plagued with complications.

When it came, the end was sudden, and harrowing. “One Sunday night just out of nowhere she got a brain bleed,” Campbell said.

Georgie went into intensive care and had surgery, but the bleed continued to rupture, until it claimed her life.

After her daughter's death, Robyn pushed the doctors for answers about what could have caused her illness.

“My other daughter was a bit worried that it might be a family thing, hereditary, and the doctor said 'No, it’s just bad luck',” she said.

“We asked what caused it, and all doctors can tell you is they believe that people become subjected to some form of chemical. They don’t know where or what or how, but that’s as much as they can tell you really.

“But that high incidence of blood-related cancers, you’ve just got to think that it’s environmental.”

Campbell agrees: "That many people in a small area with similar blood cancers, that would be something to research, I would have thought."

The chemical
Robyn first heard about dieldrin while Georgie was undergoing chemotherapy.

"I was talking to an old guy at the hospital about the dieldrin, and he said ... 'It doesn’t break down'."

Dieldrin caused a major health scare in the 1980s, and the Bellarine Peninsula was at its epicentre. But that has been largely forgotten.

The chemical is a form of synthetic organochlorine pesticide – as are DDT, heptachlor, chlordane and aldrin.

Dieldrin was first introduced into Australia in the 1940s. It was sold in household products such as Hortico Dieldrin Dust, Shell Dieldrex and Yates Garden Dust.

The pesticide was widely used by potato farmers, many of whom also ran cattle, who applied the dust to control worms and weevils.

It was banned in Australia in 1987 after beef exported to the US and Japan tested positive for excessive levels of dieldrin, leading 200 Bellarine Peninsula farms to be placed under quarantine.

Fifty-one Victorian farmers whose properties were contaminated by dieldrin, most of them from the Bellarine Peninsula, shared in $1.75 million in state government compensation in 2004.

They sued because they had used the chemical on the advice of the state's Agriculture department, which was aware of its health risks from the early 1970s (when it was banned in the US and many other countries).

Organochlorines persist in the soil for decades. They are toxic to humans and animals, and "very highly toxic" to most aquatic life, according to the federal Department of Environment.

Many hectares of former farmland across the Bellarine Peninsula, and in Barwon Heads, has been developed for housing in recent decades.

In 2016, 18 scientists from eight countries – including Professor Lin Fritschi from Western Australia's Curtin University – reviewed the carcinogenity of compounds including dieldrin for the International Agency for Research on Cancer.

"They are extremely persistent in the environment and in humans and animals. Dieldrin ... was classified as probably carcinogenic to humans," the review found.

While it had been investigated in relation to breast cancer, there was "limited evidence" of an association, the scientists said.

However, they found "sufficient evidence" of a link between dieldrin and cancer in some animals used in laboratory testing.

Other studies – including one in 2014 on non-Hodgkin lymphoma – have investigated dieldrin in relation to blood cancers, but did not find an association.

The science is inconclusive.

But for Robyn, and Campbell, the questions remain.

"Answers would be good," she said. "And to prevent this happening to other people."