Government won’t sue Dow – for now

Mar 11, 2005

People who lived in the New Plymouth suburb where the weedkiller 2,4,5-T was produced carry up to 15 times the national level of dioxin in their bodies, but the Government will not sue the company involved.

The average level in the blood of 52 participants in a study published yesterday was 3.8 times the national average.

They live or have lived within 2km east and 1km south of the plant. The results confirm interim findings published last September.

Anti-dioxin campaigners and affected residents called for compensation yesterday, but the Government offered one free visit to a doctor for study participants.

After the Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR) analysed the blood of 52 people who have lived in Paritutu, near the Ivon Watkins-Dow chemicals plant, now owned by Dow AgroSciences, health officials said yesterday the dioxin levels in some matched those in areas of Vietnam sprayed with Agent Orange.

ESR said the elevated levels of a particular dioxin, called TCDD, were most likely from inhaling “fugitive emissions” from the plant, rather than from the burning of chemicals. Eating leafy vegetables such as lettuce – but not root vegetables – and fruits, including apples from backyard gardens, probably also contributed.

The Health Ministry’s Director of Public Health, Dr Mark Jacobs, ruled out suing Dow, for now.

“Based on information we have available now, the advice is there isn’t grounds for us to pursue legal action against Dow. And if we did that, it would be very unlikely to be successful.

“In the future, with additional information we would continue to review that issue.”

Dow welcomed the ESR report, saying it “reinforces that there is no indication of a health problem for residents living near the company’s plant in New Plymouth”.

The ESR report says that among questions remaining unanswered by the study is the potential health impact on those “significantly exposed”.

Dr Deborah Read, chairwoman of a ministry technical group studying organochlorine chemicals, said the average dioxin levels for those who had lived in the study area closest to the plant for at least 15 years were similar to levels found in some people – but lower than in others – tested in Vietnam in the 1990s following the Agent Orange spraying in the late 1960s.

She said levels as high as in those longer-term Paritutu residents could cause up to three extra cancer deaths in every 100 people.

The study found that those with 15 or more years’ residence in the area between 1962 and 1987, when the plant stopped making 2,4,5-T, had on average 14.6 parts per trillion of TCDD dioxin.

The national average for the same age and gender mix is 2.4.

Those with less than 15 years’ exposure were, at 3.2 parts per trillion, more than twice the expected level of 1.5 for an age- and gender-matched group from national data.

Several other studies are planned or underway:

* Comparing New Plymouth death rates and incidence of dioxin-related cancers to national rates, expected to be completed in June.

* A comparison of New Plymouth and national birth-defect data for links to dioxin.

* A planned study of the health of up to 1600 current and former workers at the plant.

Dow’s 2,4,5-T was the most heavily used spray for gorse and blackberry on New Zealand hill-country farms from 1962 to 1987.

The company said yesterday that although the blood dioxin levels found might be above the New Zealand background level, they were well within the normal range found internationally. “This should be very reassuring to the community.”

Andrew Gibbs, of the Dioxin Investigation Network, welcomed the workers’ study, but said the Government had taken too long to do the blood study of residents. It should have been done in the 1980s.

“People have been missing out on healthcare and recognition.”

Green Party health spokeswoman Sue Kedgley said the Government must offer help to all who had lived near the plant, including free annual medical checks and free treatment. It should also offer free blood tests.

By Martin Johnston | Mar 11, 2005 | nzherald.co.nz | NEWS-2005-M03-11-001
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