Dioxin days: Rhonda’s story

I might have been a fiction writer in a former life, but these days as a journalist, I mostly deal in facts. The fact is, I grew up in the shadow of a Dow chemical factory, in the suburb of Paritutu, New Plymouth, during all the dioxin years.

I lived there from 1957 to 1971, from age 3 to 17 years. Our house was the first on Simons St.

As the crow flies, it was the closest to the chemical plant – less than 500m away. The house number was 13, but it never struck anyone as being unlucky. Instead, it promised a blessed, good life in a new suburb, on a small but spectacular coastal peninsular, a short walk to the beach or down to the wharf to fish.

Touted as a great place to raise a family, the suburb of Paritutu was indeed a kids’ paradise. We chased pheasants through the lupins and picked lilies from the creeks. Ate blackberries off the bushes and sucked sourgrass stalks. We walked miles to school and dawdled home again. And the sun shone, as it always seems to do in retrospective childhood.

At the time my father bought the property, the land was zoned residential. I still remember his frustration and anger when he was suddenly advised by the local council that everything over our back fence was to be re-zoned industrial. Meetings were held, he and other residents argued, but eventually re-zoning went ahead.

We watched Ivon Watkins Dow Ltd grow box-like on our landscape, followed by VetMed Laboratories, Youngs Rubber Company and an oil tank farm.

My father was very protective of his five daughters. He did his best to keep us safe. Yet never once was he privy to the dangers the Dow chemical plant imposed.

I have all the anecdotes, as every child who grew up in that neighbourhood does. Of the foam that flew on a certain breeze and landed on the lawn, leaving burnt orange circles. Of native bushes that failed on one side. Of curtains that rotted against the sills. Of our mother crying: “Shut the windows. The wind has changed”. Of visitors complaining of the all-invasive stench and wrinkling up their noses, not only at the smell, but at us crazy people, living within breathing distance of some chemical industry.

Why didn’t we move, they asked? “Where to?” our father, a postal worker, replied. Who could afford to move? Who would buy the house, anyway? No, this was it, he said, this was “our” house, and we were there for good. It can’t be too bad or they wouldn’t have let those buggers build that factory there.

My father collected the empty chemical drums that lay around in their puddles of orange sludge, washed them and planted trees in them that wouldn’t survive.

Down on the sand at Back Beach, we walked in the waves where the oily slick from the effluent pipe left orange marks on our skin. Later, my mother served in the Dow canteen, bringing home left-over food. Everything delivered “tasted funny”, but to kids of the 50s and 60s, a raspberry bun was a raspberry bun, a doughnut a doughnut. We ate the food, anyway. When she took on work as a cleaner at VetMed, those of us still at home took turns to help her scrub the black rubber boot marks off the floor.

Miraculously, I escaped the explosion of 1972, though my parents and three of my sisters still lived close enough to eye-witness the blast. I have since learned that there have been two dozen such explosions around the world, and they are all listed as world dioxin-contaminated disasters, but nowhere will you find the Paritutu explosion recorded on a global map.

Ignorance is not bliss, but then sometimes neither is higher learning. Here we are in 2006, and as a diminished family, we’ve come to understand what prolonged exposure to dioxin has done to us.

Journalist Melanie Reid’s remarkably easy to digest, but hard to stomach, 90-minute Let Us Spray documentary has aired (on TV3, October 23). Dioxin is all over the country, but this time it’s in the news. Finally, there is fallout that’s not coming air borne from the direction of IWD.

It’s been proven that the Government knew of the dangers and chose not to tell us. It’s been proven they kept silent and then went so far as to actually manipulate data, gathered from Paritutu residents through serum testing, to ensure the wool was pulled completely over our eyes. The test process itself was flawed. Government policy seems to have been money over people. A multi-national company over native New Zealanders.

The serum testing was nothing more than window dressing, damage control taken to new heights. Why are we surprised? This is the same Ministry of Health which expected us to be happy with the appointment of Professor Allan Smith to take a fresh new look at the study. Smith was caught on camera saying publicly how great he thought that serum study was.

For the record, I didn’t front up for the serum testing, as I already believed it was designed to do exactly what it did – let health officials off the hook instead of making them accountable. But I’ll stand head of the line when it comes to DNA testing. I can no longer deny that dioxin from the Dow factory has damaged me in ways I couldn’t see.

Let’s get personal here. I keep good health. I used to think, somehow, I’d escaped the dioxin threat. Yes, I had a sister who died of cancer at 36. Yes, she’d had a baby who died at 8 months gestation but was delivered full term. Yes, one of those photos taken by midwife Hyacinth Henderson – who suddenly found herself in the midst of a birth defect epidemic and got her camera out – was probably of my unknown and unnamed niece. And yes, my father died of heart disease at 59 and my mother of cancer a decade later, but me? Nope, not me. Never me. Somehow, I remained immune, as my own five children had.

When advised by those in a position to know that my dioxin levels were likely to be higher than those of Vietnam vets directly sprayed with Agent Orange, I shook my head and dismissed the idea. Nope. Couldn’t be. They said other awful things: if my levels turned out to be lower than expected, then it was probably because I’d breastfed all five of my babies, and dioxin is secreted through breast milk. “What do you mean?” I asked. Everyone knows that breast is best. Isn’t it?

Still, I filed all that away and tried to forget about it, which was fine until the next generation appeared. So, talk to me about intergenerational genetic damage. Ask me about heart defects and hydrocephalus, because I’m something of a pseudo-expert now. New members of our family have been born with the exact same conditions as those commonly found in third generation Vietnam vets. I put my hand up to be counted.

By Rhonda Bartle | 5:00 AM Sunday Nov 12, 2006 | nzherald.co.nz
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