Uncovering a cancer cluster in Tasmania

Tomorrow's Children

Poppy Lopatniuk

2012

Tomorrow's Children can be purchased from Lucy Lopatniuk, ph (03) 6245 1557 or 0418 322 674, email lucylopat@hotmail.com

Bronwyn Williams reviews 85 year old Tasmanian activist Poppy Lopatniuk's book about the Tasmanian Department of Health's cover up of a cancer cluster around an old toxic landfill on the eastern shore of Hobart.

I met Poppy recently – the happy recipient of a luncheon invitation, graciously extended to a friend of a friend. I was welcomed into her calmly ordered home, and fed an excellent carrot soup, and blueberry muffins.

Poppy's book, Tomorrow's Children, was devoured in a few hours. It is as engaging and compelling as its author, and tells a story that is both joyful, and deeply disturbing.

Poppy's childhood in country north-west Tasmania was a happy, carefree time, and her recollection is clear. The reader slips into the narrative of these years like tired shoulders into a warm, cossetting cardi. They are enveloped in something comforting and undemanding, and an irrepressible smile takes hold of their expression.

Poppy's account of her young adult years in New Norfolk, and her adventures on the high seas between Sydney and Marseilles reveal a fearless, free-spirited young woman, with a keen sense of the world, and a faultless capacity to observe and recall. Following her journeys through Europe and the United Kingdom, I was in awe of her recollection, and her unassuming storytelling, and a little envious of her ability to take life's adventures in her stride. To travel far from the safe haven of a loving home, and find out for herself just how big the world really is.

On her return, Poppy met and married her husband, Stefan Lopatniuk. Stefan was a Ukrainian migrant to Tasmania – a man whose childhood was as sad as Poppy's had been happy. Poppy and Stefan began their life together in North Hobart, and then, in 1965, with three small girls, they moved to the beachside suburb of Howrah, on Hobart's eastern shore.

Poppy had strength and resilience in spades, but the move to Howrah would eventually test every scrap of those attributes. The family's new home in Correa Street was adjacent to a still-functioning landfill site. The establishment of the tip in a residential area had been strongly opposed by local homeowners, and Poppy refers to a builder who recalled "the excavation of car tyres, plastic items, bottles and household appliances, and the presence of a black gooey substance", as new homes were built near the site. The site was later to become, and remains, Wentworth Park.

At the age of nine, Poppy's youngest, her son Peter, was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukaemia – a blood cancer rarely seen in children. After four years of intensive treatment, Peter was declared to be in remission "with as much chance of the illness re-occurrring as any other healthy person would have". Nineteen years later the leukaemia returned, and Peter did not survive the second assault. Poppy's despair at his death is palpable. "Such heartbreak", she says. "It took all my powers to keep on an even keel."

In the years after Peter's diagnosis, Poppy saw several of her neighbours – young, healthy adults with families – succumb to an array of cancers. She documented at least 40 cancer diagnoses, 13 of which were blood cancers, in the two small streets either side of the landfill area at Wentworth Park. Her daughters suffer from rare auto-immune conditions, and her grandson was diagnosed at age five with a million-to-one craniopharyngioma brain cancer in 1998. Within a few short years, Poppy endured the deaths of her husband and son, and witnessed the life-changing diagnosis of cancer in her grandson.

It was more than enough sadness to fell the spirit of most women, but not Poppy. The heavy burden on her soul is apparent, as she copes with the decline of her beloved husband with dementia, and the failing health of her son, and the challenges facing her daughters and her grandson. She is sorely tested, but her quest to find answers to the distressing cluster of major health issues afflicting residents of Wentworth Park continues undeterred.

When her son was first ill, Poppy considered a link between toxic waste dumped at the landfill site and her child's rare condition. The public health authorities showed no interest in her ideas. As more and more unusual cancers, and other rare conditions began appearing in neighbouring families, the connection became more plausible.

For over 30 years, Poppy has struggled with government at all levels in an untiring effort to find the truth. For many of those years she suspected that contaminated and highly toxic used oils were illegally dumped at Howrah tip. An investigation of the Wentworth Park cancer deaths was aired on Judy Tierney's ABC Lateline program in 2003 and revealed that, unknown to residents, the tip had been used as a repository for used oils, and it was legal to dump them. Anything, it seemed, could be left at the tip, with no apparent concern for the welfare of nearby residents.

Poppy details her encounters, over many years, with the Department of Health and its staff, with Clarence City Council, and with politicians of varying stripes. Her recall is meticulous – the narrative is clean and factual, and absent of any rancour. It is unnecessary. The responses of those in power speak volumes, epitomizing an absence of empathy and an inadequate 'ignore it and it might go away' attitude.

'Official' statistics recorded in the state Cancer Registry were paraded smugly before all those of diminished faith in the Tasmanian health system. The Howrah postcode area showed no significant increase in the incidence of cancers related to the landfill site, they said, and an anxious populace was assured there was no need for concern.

The hollow assurances of the government fail to acknowledge that their figures take no account of localised clusters of disease, and the fact that many of the affected Wentworth Park residents were diagnosed after they left the area. Poppy's pursuit of more relevant figures remains a key element of her quest.

Poppy Lopatniuk is a true Tasmanian, born and bred – a woman who delighted in the bucolic wonders of her childhood home, and the idyllic life it offered. A woman who has taken her time on this earth firmly in hand − embraced its joys, and borne its perversity with unfailing grace. She is now 85 years old, and the quest chronicled in Tomorrow's Children continues. Her parting comments are perhaps the most telling: "These days I have lost that pride and enchantment in being a Tasmanian. Through mistrust and disillusionment I now live in a no man's land of unassuaged loss and unanswered questions."

I commend her slim, beautifully written work to all who see virtue in the pursuit of truth.