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Dioxin fallout close to home

By Paul Titus

A recent television documentary on the effects of dioxin poisoning on workers and nearby residents at the Ivon Watkins Dow chemical factory in New Plymouth struck a nerve with Methodist presbyters Revs Brian and Marion Peterson.

Brian and Marion lived half a kilometre from the factory (now called Dow Agro Sciences) from 1972 to 1988, and Brian worked in factory for more than 12 years. This included seven years in the plants where base phenols and the herbicides 24D and 245T were manufactured.

It is now widely known that dioxin, one of the ingredients in those herbicides, damages human DNA. It can cause cancers, reproductive problems, heart disease and diabetes. The damage to DNA can be passed on between generations resulting in birth defects in the children, grandchildren, and even great grandchildren of those exposed.

“I am fortunate. I am healthy,” Brian says, “but Marion’s health has not been good. While we were living in Paritutu [a suburb near the plant] we lost two children pre-birth, one of whom had serious birth defects. We had two other healthy children but our granddaughter has very significant food allergies and health problems.

“Doctors are having extreme difficulty getting any satisfactory results to these health issues. We are concerned that altered DNA and the effects of dioxin may be causing her health problems.”

In October the TV3 documentary Let Us Spray explored the issue. It stated that during the Vietnam War 44 million litres of 245T and 24D were sprayed on the jungles of Vietnam as ‘Agent Orange’. Over three decades 20 million litres were sprayed in New Zealand to control gorse and other weeds.

The government of New Zealand subsidised the use of these herbicides, and they were produced and used here well after they were banned in other countries. Production ended in the United States in 1979 but continued in New Plymouth until 1987.

Because dioxin does not break down and is concentrated in animal fat there are concerns that it contaminated New Zealand’s food chain, especially before permissible levels were cut in 1971.

The TV3 documentary claims Ministry of Health studies into the effects of dioxin have obscured the issue, often by not testing those potentially most affected.

This has been Brian’s experience. He explains that the blood serum test to determine dioxin levels in the body is specialised, expensive, and not widely available.

“I tried to get tested years ago when they tested the local residents but was not eligible because I worked at the IWD site. Then under an Otago University study I was not tested because I lived outside Taranaki. I have now been informed that I can be included in a Massey University study next year,” Brian says.

“But at this point it will not include Marion or the rest of our family. This is just as important because tests on residents have shown that they had four to five times the exposure as other people.”

Andrew Gibb and Neil Herdson are members of Chemically Exposed Paritutu Residents Association (CEPRA), a community group that is trying to get government action on the issue.

Neil was a union official and represented chemical workers at the plant. He says workers there were worried about the large number of their workmates who died of cancer at a young age.

“Only about 60 people worked in the actual chemical plants at a time. Over a five year period 13 of my colleagues died. This was not a systematic study, just general knowledge. However, Professor Neil Pearce from Massey University did a 30-year study of Ivon Watkins Dow workers. He found those who worked in the 245T plant when Brian did, have a 69 percent higher chance of dying of cancer than the general public,” Neil says.

Interest in the issue has shot up in New Plymouth after the TV3 documentary was shown. CEPRA now wants to raise $500,000 to get DNA testing for exposed residents and workers.

Andrew says most of those affected are like Brian. They don’t want compensation; they want the government to acknowledge what has happened to them and pay for their medical treatment if required.

“The Crown has treated us with callous indifference. We have been portrayed as nutters. But we have been supported by veterans of World War II and Vietnam. Those are men who were prepared to die for their country but here people were being used as cannon fodder for the productive sector.

“Now people of different political persuasions are uniting on this issue in New Plymouth. It is creating a sense of community,” Andrew says.