Burn a piece of toast and you create cancer-causing dioxins. Most of us are exposed to “background” levels of this type of chemical, of which there are 20-30 different types, found in many man-made pollutants from industrial waste to cigarette smoke, explains Professor Neil Pearce from Massey’s Centre for Public Health Research.
The World Health Organisation recognised dioxin as a carcinogen in 1997.
“But the exact risk depends on the amount.
“If you smoke two packets of cigarettes a day you have a greater lifetime risk of developing lung cancer than someone who smokes one cigarette a day.”
Because of their jobs or where they live, some people have been exposed to much higher levels.
New Zealand farmers were the world’s heaviest users of the herbicide 2,4,5T, encouraged by government subsidies of up to 50 per cent.
It was sprayed all over the country to kill gorse, which had such a stranglehold on choice pasture land.
Farm production rocketed but there were early warning signs of a potential downside to the magic chemical cocktail.
From at least 1965, the company Ivon Watkins (later Ivon Watkins Dow), which made most of 2,4,5T used in New Zealand at its New Plymouth factory, knew it contained the most toxic dioxin, TCDD – a key constituent in the military defoliant Agent Orange used in the Vietnam War.
In 1977 and 1982, Ivon Watkins Dow modified the production process to reduce the contaminant levels.
Levels dropped from 950 micrograms per kg in 1971 to 4.7 in 1985, but it was impossible to fully eliminate TCDD from the product.
Production stopped in 1987.
The Health Ministry has acknowledged the exposure may have resulted in a 10 per cent increase in cancer deaths in the New Plymouth area.
Dioxin Investigation Network spokesman Andrew Gibb reckons the number of deaths is much higher: he alleges the wrong tests were done on the wrong groups of people, “diluting” the results.
“During community consultation, we repeatedly expressed concern that historical matters would not be addressed by studying largely different residents 25 to 30 years after exposure took place. “We were told the health effects of historic exposures would be addressed by a second-tier investigation, but this has never happened.”
In addition to deaths from cancer, many women have reported miscarriages and birth defects.
“Parents and grandparents carry this burden of guilt for exposing their children to this poison, even though they didn’t know.”
In addition to the stress of ill health, the people of Paritutu have to deal with skepticism from others in the community.
“I think some people were worried about property values, but we’re not talking about Paritutu now, but the fallout from something that happened decades ago.”
As Dow’s “de facto silent partner”, the government had a moral – if not a legal – responsibility to look after the victims, he said.
ACC said seven claims by ex- Dow workers had been accepted and six declined.
“None of the port workers have got anything although they were steeped in it for years… it’s gut wrenching watching how these people have suffered,” Andrew Gibbs said.
Green MP Sue Kedgley said victims and their children should be entitled to the priority specialist treatment offered to Vietnam veterans affected by dioxin-based Agent Orange.
The government also owed them an apology as it actively encouraged the herbicide’s manufacture.
“It doesn’t take a lot to say sorry, but it would mean a lot to affected residents who had suffered enormous stress and ill health as a result of three decades of denial of this environmental disaster.
“Until the government apologises for this sorry saga, there will be no closure.”
However, the Government is adamant it will not be offering victims an apology, nor will it be seeking compensation from Dow, as some have suggested.
At a public meeting in New Plymouth last week, Associate Health Minister Damien O’Connor said the Government would rather spend money on people than on a legal case that was unlikely to succeed.
Deputy director of public health Fran McGrath said Dow had not acted illegally by the standards of the time.
“I have a lot of sympathy for the people affected, but at this point, this health support service seems to be the most important thing for addressing their concerns.”
She said people should be reassured there was no evidence that dioxin’s carcinogenic effects were intergenerational, although it was possible unborn babies could be affected.
“We’re talking about very rare cancers, so even an elevated risk results in only very small actual increase in cases.
“There is some evidence there have been some health impacts. . . this is a very pro-active approach rather than focusing on history.”
However, it is history that is the source of pain for Paritutu people.
Canterbury University researcher Bruce Wildblood- Crawford, who has interviewed many people exposed to dioxin for his work on environmental justice, said governments tended to focus on the present.
“That’s understandable, but one of the reasons people have been affected so badly is because of the historic injustice involved.
“They feel ignored.”
He said the Government was to be commended for doing something to help, which was more than most had accomplished.
“Personally, I think the Government should apologise, but it won’t because of liability issues.”
Dow Agrosciences spokesman Tony Jaques, an external “issues manager”, said it was not appropriate for the company to comment on the ministry’s decision to launch a health support service for people exposed to dioxin.
“Residents are properly the responsibility of the Health Ministry – it’s a public health issue.
“Our concern is with our current and former workers and ensuring their safety.”
He said Dow was pleased the independent study by Otago University, funded by Dow, showed no adverse health effects among current and former workers.
Blog Editors Remarks
Now the Truth about Dioxin
Interview with Dr. Linda Birnbaum, (EPA Toxicology Division Director) 2004; In 2010 she is director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences
What is dioxin? : How toxic is it? : Does it cause cancer?
Director of the National Institute of Environmental
Linda S. Birnbaum, Ph.D., D.A.B.T., A.T.S.
Director, NIEHS & NTP
Tel (919) 541-3201
Fax (919) 541-2260
P.O. Box 12233
Mail Drop B2-01
Research Triangle Park, North Carolina 27709