THE NSW Premier yesterday ordered an investigation into an apparent cancer cluster in Singleton.
Premier Kristina Keneally's request for a Hunter New England Health Service assessment came as environment and health groups demanded urgent Government action to protect Upper Hunter communities affected by fallout from coalmining and power generation.
In response, NSW Chief Health Officer Kerry Chant said a review of data related to Upper Hunter residents who may have been exposed to air pollution would be issued in the next fortnight.
But the Government's moves yesterday fall short of the comprehensive health study that Upper Hunter residents have been demanding for years, though the Premier has not ruled out such a study.
Calls for a full study grew louder yesterday after The Herald and the ABC's Four Corners revealed the possible cancer cluster in Singleton.-5
University of Sydney Professor of Public Health Bruce Armstrong said cancer clusters were a statistical anomaly but, given the rarity of brain tumours, the Singleton case might warrant further investigation.
NSW Cancer Council Hunter branch operations co-ordinator Shayne Connell agreed that more investigation was required into the types of tumours and when they occurred.
"The Cancer Council supports any research into this issue and the health of that community generally," he said.
The Environmental Defender's Office wrote to the Government on behalf of residents last year warning that continued failure to take action in relation to health effects in the Hunter might give rise to a breach of its duty of care.
A full Upper Hunter population health study could cost more than $1 million dollars and take up to four years.
A spokesman for Health Minister Carmel Tebbutt said last night the data to be issued in the next fortnight contained information about illness and deaths associated with respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, as well as the incidence of cancer in the Hunter New England region.
Where available it would include hospital admission rates, and "self-reported" health and lifestyle factors.
It would also be referred to NSW Health's independent panel on air quality chaired by Professor Guy Marks, a leading epidemiologist at the Woolcock Institute of Medical Research in Sydney.
The region's coal and power industries struck a deal with the Government late last year to establish a regionally co-ordinated air quality monitoring network in the Upper Hunter.
The NSW Asthma Foundation's Michelle Goldman said the high incidence of respiratory illnesses in the valley was extremely concerning.
"When you consider the expansion of open-cut mining, it [public health] is a major concern," Ms Goldman said.
Open-cut mines were "an economic goldmine" and major employer, but "the health effects on the community can't be overlooked".
Elizabeth O'Brien, of anti-lead campaigners The Lead Group, said a health study was long overdue.
"Large amounts of metal and radioactive materials are in coal dust," Ms O'Brien said.
"We need to know the long-term effects of inhaling that dust."