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Delimara power station and health risks

I would like to contribute towards the current public discussion as to whether there is a link between the Delimara power station and the occurrence of cancer and health problems in Malta. I do this in my own personal capacity as a practising scientist with experience in environmental risks arising from pollution.

Cancer is known to be caused by a multitude of factors
- Victor Axiak

Cancer is known to be caused by a multitude of factors, including environmental exposure to a range of pollutants (including infectious agents such as viruses) and un­healthy lifestyles (such as smoking, low physical activities, drinking alcohol and unhealthy eating). Throughout a lifetime, an individual is often exposed to more than one agent, the combined effects of which are difficult to predict.

To complicate matters, cancer may arise years after the beginning of exposure. Furthermore, genetic factors may lead to predisposition towards certain types of cancer in certain families, though even in such cases, such predisposition may be related to a triggering effect of a multitude of environmental factors. So it may be argued that there are two types of cancers: those which may be prevented and those that may not.

The overall rate of incidence of cancer in Malta is surprisingly low when compared to those of other countries. Nonetheless the interpretation of such ranking needs to be done with caution since there may be competing causes of death.

For example, Dr Neville Calleja (The Times, January 26, 2011) argued that heart disease (the top killer in Malta) could be reducing the number of people who die of cancer, since they die of cardiac problems first. But all in all, it seems that the health authorities are doing their best to improve the fight against cancer through screening programmes, diagnosis and treatment facilities.

Nonetheless there is no room for complacency since the available projections suggest that cancer cases in Malta are expected to rise by 49 per cent by 2030, according to the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF). This will place Malta among the top countries for new cases of cancer in Europe.

The WCRF has identified a number of factors leading to such projections, including an ageing population and the social habits of the Maltese, especially smoking, eating habits and reduced levels of physical activity leading to obesity and alcohol consumption.

In my opinion, there may be other factors leading to a potential increase in cancer rates in Malta, include wrong and myopic policy decisions in the transport and energy sectors.

The complexity of factors which increase the risks of cancer, the relatively small size and high population density of Malta, the relative mobility of our population, the high intensity of traffic in most localities, especially during the summer months and during weekends, all contribute towards rendering the situation extremely complex. There is no doubt that under these conditions, epidemiological studies would find it difficult to statistically link the occurrence of rates of cancer in different localities with any single source of risk.

This has been amply proved by studies in Malta (such as those reported in the press last week). On the other hand, it’s more likely to prove the link between lung cancer and smoking, as well as the link between working with asbestos and the risks of having asbestosis which may lead to types of lung cancer.

Yet the difficulty in establishing epidemiological and statistic links between cancer incidents and a single source is not in itself proof that that a particular source will not cause cancer. To make such claim would be a travesty and a gross abuse of statistical science.

Can the use and combustion of heavy fuel oil at Delimara power station increase the risk of cancer and other health problems? Yes it can. And such conclusion is not based on epidemiological studies, but rather on other scientific approaches, including laboratory exposure experiments (on mammals other than humans, to complicate matters). According to various publications, heavy fuel oil may cause cancer prior to combustion and may pose health risks during handling and storage.

On being combusted in a power station, the emitted components may also constitute to environmental and health hazards. Combustion of natural gas produces less of such emissions. Evidently the best policy option to reduce environmental and health risks is to switch from the combustion of heavy fuel oil to that of natural gas.

Unfortunately, the fact that the Delimara power station is equipped with emission abatement equipment, in an effort to ensure compliance with EU emission standards, is not a fool-proof strategy.

The prevalent local social and cultural environment allows for no real distinction between regulating authorities and their political masters, and the culture of responsibility and accountability is almost non-existent at all levels. Under such circumstances, I would rather place my trust in the option to burn a ‘cleaner’ fuel at the power station than in the technological capabilities to ‘clean up the act’ after burning a more risky fuel.

It is true that there are other local sources of risks for cancer and other health problems, such as transport and certain lifestyles. The question is: can we do something about them? The answer is yes. It is up to us to change our day-to-day behaviour to reduce such risks (stop smoking, eat healthy, do exercise, reduce alcohol consumption).

It is up to our policy makers and politicians to take the right decisions regarding increasing the efficiency of public transport so as to reduce the use of private cars, and to switch the Delimara power station to burn natural gas, rather than heavy fuel oil.

Victor Axiak is a professor of biology at the University of Malta.

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