I thank the Cathaoirleach for allowing me to raise this matter today. I may be stretching his indulgence because it may appear to him that I have raised this matter on many occasions recently. Last week I raised the urgent need for the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources to come up with a plan for the rehabilitation of old mining sites. While the matter I am raising today is related, I ask the Minister of State to take account of the fact that it is also quite distinct.
Gortmore environmental action group, a local community group that is campaigning for the clean-up of the local environment in the Silvermines area of County Tipperary, recently commissioned a scientist, Dr. Rory Finnegan, to produce a report on the matter. Dr. Finnegan specifically examined the figures which have resulted from the monitoring of dust emanating from the tailings pond at Silvermines. That monitoring was jointly conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency and North Tipperary County Council, which are reputable bodies. Dr. Finnegan examined the figures and the synergistic impact of the lead and arsenic dust emanating from the tailings pond.
The Minister of State may not be familiar with the tailings pond, which is a 147-acre site containing tailings, or spoil, from an old mine at Silvermines. The pond is the subject of major concern in the area because its surface is considerably eroded, but I will not rehearse that argument. I urge the Minister of State to examine the urgent need for an epidemiological study to be conducted in the Silvermines area. The study should arise not only from Dr. Finnegan's report, but also from the fact that the incidence of cancer in north Tipperary, particularly in the Silvermines area, is very high.
The Minister of State may have been listening to "Today with Pat Kenny" last Monday morning when a reporter, Valerie Cox, reported on this issue for the RTE. If he was listening to the programme, as I was, he would have been struck by the stories told by a number of residents of the area, who spoke about the incidence of cancer not only in their families, but also in their communities. No family in the area has been untouched by cancer, including some quite rare cancers. A woman in the area started radium treatment this week for cancer of the tongue. There have been many unusual cancers in the area. When the former health board in the region studied the level of lead in the blood of local children, it found that there were elevated lead levels in the area. It is likely that such high levels have been reduced as a result of advice given to the local community. I spoke to the health authorities about the matter.
The matter I am raising this afternoon is entirely separate, however. It relates to the synergistic or combined effect of lead and arsenic, working together in the human system. The combined impact of lead and arsenic is much different from the impact of either on its own because of a chemical reaction between them. The synergistic effect of lead and arsenic can be to damage or suppress the immune system of the person, or to have an impact on his or her haemoglobin levels. I am not a scientist or a medical person, but I have read the report. I have a copy of the preliminary report with me. There are major concerns in this regard.
The people of the Silvermines area are in a unique position. They live in a community in which there is a tailings pond that is so eroded that there is a growing amount of dust in the area. The analysis conducted by Dr. Finnegan showed that the amount of dust being sent into the atmosphere is increasing every month and every year. The figures show there is a major problem in the locality.
I appeal to the Minister of State to take this issue seriously and to allay the concerns of the local community. I ask him not to say that there is no evidence, but to see whether there is something to be examined. An epidemiological study would involve an assessment of the incidence of cancer in the local area, in order to establish whether there is a cluster. I would be the first person to welcome any finding that there is not a cluster — I would be absolutely delighted. I am not saying there is a cluster, but there is a concern that there may be a cluster arising from the impact on human health of all the airborne toxic materials in the atmosphere around the Silvermines area. Such materials have been a feature of the locality for the past 20 years, but they have been particularly severe for the past five or six years. Those who monitor such matters in the area have found that the acceptable levels of lead, arsenic and other heavy metals are exceeded on a constant basis. This must be a matter of concern.
I hope the Minister of State will tell me that this issue is being taken seriously. I demand that the incidence of cancer in the Silvermines area be examined. A comparative study should be conducted to allay our concern that there may be a cancer cluster in the area. I hope the Minister of State will take a positive view of the matter. I thank the Cathaoirleach for his indulgence in allowing me to raise this important matter again.