The Labour Department says it has had no complaints from people who worked at New Plymouth’s Ivon Watkins-Dow chemical factory, even though they are likely to have been exposed to far higher dioxin levels than residents in the surrounding suburb of Paritutu.
A Massey University epidemiologist who has made several studies of the weedkiller 2,4,5-T, Professor Neil Pearce, said yesterday it was “bizarre” that the Ministry of Health had arranged special help for the Paritutu community when nothing had been done for Ivon Watkins-Dow (IWD) workers.
“We don’t have production worker [dioxin] figures for New Zealand, but my guess is that they would be at least 10 times what we are seeing in the community,” he said.
“You have the bizarre situation where there is quite a lot being done to help the community and nothing being done to help the workers who had the highest exposures.”
Dr Pearce was part of an international study of 22,000 chemical workers and sprayers in 12 countries in the late 1980s and early 1990s, which found dioxin in chemical production workers at rates of up to 400 picograms (trillionths of a gram) of dioxin for each gram of blood.
The same study found 53.3pg of dioxin in every gram of blood in contractors spraying 2,4,5-T in New Zealand – five times the level of 10.8pg/g found in people who lived in Paritutu in this week’s report from the Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR).
But the Taranaki manager of the Labour Department’s Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Service, Brett Murray, said his office had never received a complaint from anyone who had worked at the IWD plant.
“I am available to go and speak to any workers should they require it, but we haven’t had any contact.”
Dr Pearce said the international study found a 29 per cent higher risk of dying from cancer among production and spraying workers, compared with up to a 10 per cent greater risk estimated by the Ministry of Health for people who lived in Paritutu for at least 20 years between 1962 and 1987.
But even among the 1038 people who worked at the New Plymouth factory between 1969 and 1987, cancer usually took many years to develop.
“If you worked in that industry in the 1980s for a reasonable length of time, you probably have a bit under a 1 per cent chance of having had cancer by now because of that exposure,” he said.
“But if that increased risk carries on into the older age groups where cancer becomes a lot more common – and we don’t know if it does – then the effect will be a lot higher than that.”
He estimated that the number of dioxin-related deaths from cancer among people who lived in Paritutu during the affected period “would be more in single figures than triple figures”. (The Herald incorrectly calculated the extra deaths yesterday at up to 139).
Although his study also found high dioxin levels among 2,4,5-T contractors, Dr Pearce said contractors and farmers who sprayed the weedkiller on their farms were also less likely to get cancer than IWD workers. “As a whole, farmers have a slightly lower risk of cancer.”
He said a study he co-authored in 1981 found that the rates of congenital defects and miscarriages among families exposed to 2,4,5-T were not statistically different from those in the average family.
By SIMON COLLINS | 5:00 AM Saturday Sep 11, 2004 | nzherald.co.nz