A ground-breaking council commissioned report has given the clearest picture yet of the reasons for ill-health in Runcorn and Widnes. SIMON DRURY takes a look at the 18-month-long project's findings.
A TEAM of researchers contracted by council chiefs to find out what factors have contributed to the record levels of ill health suffered by Halton residents came back with some sobering news.
In March 2002, the Halton Health Partnership commissioned staff from the Department of Geography and the Institute of Health Research at Lancaster University to carry out the 18-month project. The research was completed by August 31, 2003.
Scientific literature and historical documentation were examined and a questionnaire survey was undertaken in six wards - Beechwood, Appleton, Halton Brook, Halton, Castlefields and Mersey.
These wards were chosen following detailed analysis of the 2001 Health, Lifestyle and Community Survey.
In addition, Halton was compared to four similar boroughs -neighbouring Knowsley and St Helens and Hartlepool and Middlesbrough in the North East.
Research revealed that death rates for cancers, heart disease, circulatory disease, stroke, suicide and infant mortality are high in Halton.
Statistics show that the rate of death from all causes in the borough is 20% higher than in the rest of England and Wales.
The highest death rate for all causes other than old age are in Brookfields, Riverside, Norton, Castlefields and Hough Green. The lowest were found in Mersey, Daresbury, Farnworth, Heath and Hale.
The report reveals: 'These analyses show that deprivation, including low incomes and receipt of income support, are strongly correlated with a range of health outcomes.
'Lifestyle factors are also influential, with smoking especially associated with poor self-reported health, angina and bronchitis.'
Researchers also carried out an in-depth investigation into Halton's industry and the legacy of pollution left from the various chemical plants which used to be located in the area.
And they discovered that the area still faces a major problem from cancer-causing air pollution.
A spokesman said: 'The history of Halton contains examples of a particularly wide range of manufacturing processes, especially in the chemical sector, each with its distinctive residues and emissions to the environment.
'Pollution levels in Halton have decreased substantially over the past decade, but when compared to the other areas studied, Halton still experiences a heavier total pollution load and, especially, a heavier load of air pollution. None of the other four boroughs has so wide a range of air-borne chemicals that pose potential carcinogenic or developmental hazards to their population.'
Research also showed that one sixth of land in the borough is 'potentially contaminated'.
'Evidence from recent surveys on different sites reveals that the levels of contamination in many of the soil samples were far greater than the recommended concentrations for residential land use,' the report revealed.
'This evidence confirms that many of the sites identified as 'potentially contaminated' may have significant levels of actual contamination.'
Riverside, Mersey and Halton were identified as the three wards where residents faced the greatest danger from land contamination.
And the report recommends that the council speeds up its risk-assessment process in the three wards if 'the precise risks to human health in Halton' are to be ascertained.
However, despite high levels of deprivation, ill-health and pollution, the survey showed that most people like living in Runcorn and Widnes.
The report noted: 'Residents who were interviewed expressed a strong attachment to the area in which they lived. They were keen to emphasise the positive aspects of their neighbourhood and to stress that they had made a conscious choice to live where they did.'
However, many said that although they felt safe in their communities they were scared of becoming a victim to rising levels of crime.
'Some respondents commented on the unruly behaviour of gangs of youths - though others saw this as normal behaviour - some commented on the lack of police visibility and a few felt that their activities were restricted by fear of crime.
'Some respondents also felt that their community had deteriorated due to an increasing number of incomers and lack of stability and expressed frustration at the behaviour of other people's children and at the degeneration of their communities.'
In conclusion the report said: 'High rates of self-reported ill health are most likely to be reported by those on low incomes, those who are overweight and who have no-one to confide in.
'People who live in Widnes are significantly less likely to report ill-health than those in Runcorn. Our principal finding is that health in Halton is affected by material deprivation and unhealthy lifestyles.'
The report recommends that the council concentrates on promoting healthy eating and encouraging smokers to give up the habit.
It also recommends moves to focus unemployment, raise income levels and improvements to housing.
Dr Daniel Seddon, Halton's director of public health, praised the £200,000 report.
He said: 'This is a fantastically valuable piece of research and will be very helpful for all sorts of groups and organisations throughout the borough when it comes to planning for health and health care.'
Council leader Tony McDermott added: 'While health in the region is improving and potential health hazards in Halton are on the decline, it doesn't mean we can afford to be complacent, there is still much to do.'