Former timber workers say there’s no need for new dioxin study

A group of 20 men wander into a cold Whakatane garage coughing and spluttering and head towards their seats.

Most of them have some type of illness – headaches, depression, cancer, diabetes or ulcers they just cannot explain.

As fit young men 20 and 30 years ago, they worked in forestry and sawmills round the upper North Island.

Now men such as 46-year-old Kere Akuhata, who was at the Whakatane mill for 13 years, worry about whether they will live to see their grandchildren.

Mr Akuhata sits staunch on his chair, then his eyes well up and he apologises as he explains that his spine is fusing into one large growth.

A member of Sawmill Workers Against Poisons (Swap), he says the chemicals he and his workmates handled throughout their sawmill careers from the 1960s to the 1980s are killing them.

The worst chemical of the lot, pentachlorophenol, or PCP, an organochlorine full of dioxins, was used to prevent sapstain – a fungal infection – in freshly sawn timber from the 1960s until 1988.

It was absorbed through the skin of many workers, affecting various systems in the body.

The dioxins in PCP are toxic, causing health problems from severe skin rashes to liver toxicity and possibly cancer.

The men in this garage, all members of Swap, say they have been exposed to 48 chemicals throughout their working lives, including PCP.

They are nothing unusual to look at. Then you hear their stories: Mr Akuhata and his fused spine; Michael Puketapu, who worked at the Waipa sawmill, had a “rotten kidney” that had to be removed; Tom Savage, who worked at the Tasman mill, has unexplained ulcers; Bob Dargaville, who worked at Kinleith and Pukepine, has nasal cancer.

They lift their trousers to expose purple legs, or rub their heads as they explain that they still get headaches, caused, they say, by the chemicals they were exposed to all those years ago.

They have not received compensation – some still battle with ACC to have claims accepted – and now the Government has announced another study into the health of former timber workers.

The $520,000 project, headed by Massey University’s Professor Neil Pearce and administered by the Health Research Council, will involve a random batch of former timber workers.

It will include taking blood samples to test for exposure to PCP.

Swap spokesman Joe Harawira says they welcome the study, but evidence that PCP has harmed them is already available.

In 2001, a medical study of 62 former sawmill workers found PCP was the probable cause of health problems in about a third of cases.

“Information on PCP has been available to the Government since the early 1990s. Goodness knows why we’re still trying to address this now.”

Mr Harawira says studies in New Zealand and overseas have shown the health dangers of the foul-smelling liquid.

Many of the men sitting in this garage were not just exposed to it, they went home at the end of the day soaked in it; they ate their lunch beside tanks of it; they rolled cigarettes with hands wet from it and took treated-timber offcuts home to burn on their fires, he says.

In 1988, the New Zealand timber industry voluntarily stopped using PCP after potential health and environmental effects were recognised.

Contaminated sites from sawmills still dot the country and will cost millions to clean up, but men such as Mr Akuhata still fight for recognition that the chemicals they worked with harmed them.

Carter Holt Harvey says it welcomes the new study into PCP exposure.

Spokeswoman Bridget Beaurepaire says the company will participate in the study with a representative sitting on the advisory committee.

And the men gathered in this Whakatane garage on a Tuesday morning are here to talk about the new study, their cases with ACC and a further study being proposed by Massey university cytogeneticist Al Rowland.

Dr Rowland has studied nuclear test veterans and now wants to investigate any long-term genetic effects on sawmill workers exposed to PCP.

Social researcher Gwenda Monteith-Paul, who sits as a Swap representative on the Health Research Council, says these men do not need more research to tell them what their health issues are – they need someone to help.

“You can be researched out of existence. Once everybody’s dead, it’s ‘How sad, too bad, never mind’.”

Mr Harawira says this testing regime will be the last.

The former wife of nasal cancer sufferer Mr Dargaville wonders “why we have to go on fighting like this?”

She has returned to live with her estranged husband because he can no longer look after himself.

Mr Harawira says they need the study to reinforce their case.

“The shoe has always been on the other foot,” he says.

“Maybe after this we’ll be wearing the big shoe.”

Professor Pearce says this study is different from previous work done on former sawmill employees.

It is the first systematic study of the health issues they face, he says.

It will compare the death rates of former timber workers with the general population and estimate the size of any risks attributed to PCP.

Whatever way you look at it, the study and solutions have been a long time coming for these men.

Professor Pearce, who also heads Massey University’s Centre for Public Health Research, blames the delay in dealing with the sawmill workers’ health problems on a shifting of responsibility for employees’ health.

When the Labour Department’s Occupational Safety and Health took over the role from the Ministry of Health in 1991, workers’ health dropped off the Government agenda, he says.

But Mr Harawira believes that the Government is starting to take notice, as shown by research into groups such the nuclear test veterans, Vietnam War veterans and the potential dioxin poisoning from the Ivon Watkins-Dow chemical plant in New Plymouth.

A visit from the Ministerial Advisory Panel on Work-Related, Gradual Process Disease or Infection late last year has indicated people are listening, Mr Harawira says.

The panel has a direct line to ACC Minister Ruth Dyson.

He says sawmill workers are forced to take the long road for compensation anyway because they do not have the money to fight it in court.

Mr Harawira wants the Ministry of Health, the Ministry for the Environment, ACC, OSH, the Whakatane District Council, Environment Bay of Plenty and Carter Holt Harvey to work together to find a solution for the former workers.

People such as Mr Akuhata, who can remember taking PCP home to pour round the edges of his garden to keep the weeds down.

And Mr Puketapu, who worked at the Waipa mill mixing PCP.

His eyes are red and weep. He says they have been like that since he worked at the mill.

One of his kidneys has been removed because “it was rotten”, and he still suffers headaches.

Mr Puketapu says he would go home at the end of a working day dry-retching, and eventually left the mill because he was too sick to work.

Tom Savage says doctors cannot understand why his stomach flares up in ulcers.

And Mr Dargaville is still battling to get ACC cover for his nasal cancer.

“We’d like to say we’ve gone past the blame stage,” Mr Harawira says.

“It’s not about money any more.

“It’s about our health, the health of our kids and our grandchildren.”

By NICOLA BOYES | 5:00 AM Monday Sep 27, 2004 | nzherald.co.nz
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