THE IMMINENT publication of a new study by scientists at Liverpool University could cast doubt over claims in council-commissioned research that Halton's shocking cancer death rate is the result of unhealthy lifestyles and not chemical contamination in the ground, air and water.
The effect of chemicals such as organochlorines and hormone disrupting substances in the soil at Widnes and Runcorn and in the waters and sediment of the Mersey Estuary could be causing far worse damage than previous studies ever made out, according to the new research.
As the borough goes all out to the encourage people to quit cigarettes and eat more vegetables in a bid to combat cancer ADRIAN SHORT asks whether experts have been barking up the wrong tree and should instead be looking at the borough's status as the historic homeland of chemical manufacturing for the past 300 years as the answer to Halton's cancer problem.
WORRYING research by experts at the University of Liverpool suggests chemical contamination in the environment could play a far bigger role in causing cancer than previously feared.
The new research is of particular relevance to Halton which is the historic home of the alkali chemical industry and a key centre for organocholorine manufacture and many other chemical manufacturing processes.
Three centuries of manufacturing activity has led to a legacy of severe land contamination which is proportionally greater than any other area of the UK and the precise constitution of the contamination in some areas remains unclear.
New research at Liverpool University has found endocrine disrupting or carcinogenic chemicals including organochlorines found in pesticides, plastics and from PVC manufacture can have cancer-causing effects even at minute concentrations.
In recent years, the Weekly News has focused on research which suggests that contaminants in the Mersey have altered the sexual characteristics of flounders and other fish populations with the animals often exhibiting hermaphroditic (cross-gender) characteristics such as ovarian cells in male fish testes.
Previous studies have concluded that it took relatively high concentrations of certain pollutants to produce life-threatening effects and findings of the Lancaster University report rejected contamination as a significant factor in cancer rates in Halton.
A report issued by the council this year also rejected the widespread belief that pollution from the industrial processes in Halton are responsible for ill health.
The 'official' view in Halton is un-healthy lifestyles - people eating too many chips and pies, smoking and drinking and not taking exercise are the main causes of cancer.
But the Liverpool scientists have conducted a systematic review of recent studies and literature concerning the environment and cancer, and has been supported by the Cancer Prevention and Education Society.
Professor Vyvyan Howard and John Newby, from the university's Department of Human Anatomy and Cell Biology, also found that genetic variations, which can predispose some people to cancer, may interact with environmental contaminants and produce an enhanced effect.
Prof Howard said: 'Organochlorines (OCs) are persistent organic pollutants (POPs), which disperse over long distances and bioaccumulate in the food chain.
'For humans the main source of OC exposure is from diet, primarily through meat and dairy products.
'Children are exposed to dioxin, a by-product of OCs, through food; dioxin and other POPs can also cross the placenta and endanger babies in the womb.
'Breast-fed infants can be exposed to OCs with endocrine disrupting properties that have accumulated in breast milk.
'Our research looks at involuntary exposure to these chemicals in the air, food and water.
'Environmental contaminants - in particular synthetic pesticides and organochlorines with hormone-disrupting properties - could be a major factor in causing hormone-dependent malignancies such as breast, testicular and prostate cancers.
'Preventative measures for these types of cancer have focused on educating the public about the danger of tobacco smoke, improving diet and promoting physical activity.
'We should now, however, be focusing on trying to reduce exposure to problematic chemicals.'
The research team has also looked at anecdotal evidence, from practising physicians in pre-industrial societies, which suggests cancerous disease was rare among particular communities, such as the Canadian Inuits and Brazilian Indians.
The findings are pointing to cancer being a 'disease of industrialisation'.
Prof Howard said: 'The World Health Organisation estimates that 1-5% of malignant disease in developed countries is attributed to environmental factors; but our re-search suggests this figure may have been underestimated.'
Jamie Page, chairman of Cancer Prevention and Education, said: 'This research is very important and suggests that there are links between chemicals and cancer.
'It is our opinion that if progress is to be made in the fight against cancer, far more attention and effort must be made to reduce human exposure to harmful chemicals.'
Prof Howard's findings will be published in the Journal of Nutritional and Environmental Medicine.
Disaster linked with baby deaths
THE Chernobyl disaster in 1986 could have had a influence on baby deaths in Halton, according to research by a leading statistician.
John Urquhart has analysed baby death statistics for the Merseyside area and calculated that the reactor meltdown and explosion which sent a swathe of radioactive fallout across Europe may have caused a 60% increase in infant mortality rates in the area.
The findings are based on the figures for babies who died before their first birthday.
Statistics from across 200 hospital areas found that Merseyside, Bristol and Northern Ireland were among the areas worst affected due to chance weather patterns in the wake of the incident.
Merseyside suffered heavy rain contaminated by fallout.
The main constituent of the fallout was the radioactive isotope iodine 131.