Those sun-drenched dioxin days

Kevin and Audrey Peters lived for almost 40 years under the wind that blows above and around the former Ivon Watkins Dow chemical plant.

Kevin’s gone now. Cancer.

“So many of Kevin’s workmates died of cancer,” says Audrey. “So many of our neighbours … there would be one person in every home, who died. Kevin was always a fit man, never an ill man.”

Now Audrey Peters, 70, is asking questions. She wants to know if there is dioxin in her system. She wants to know if it killed Kevin and if it will harm her great-grandchildren.

The questions come after TV3 documentary Let Us Spray, by reporter Melanie Reid, asked why the Government was so close to Ivon Watkins Dow. Why did the Government seek so much company help in controlling chemical production from the 1960s to the 1980s? Why did New Zealand allow the New Plymouth plant to continue producing and using 245T, with its dioxin byproduct, until 1987, when the rest of the world shunned it years earlier? Why did studies into birth defects in the 1970s operate within rules that undid them before they even started? Why did recent studies into dioxin levels in the body deselect those most affected? Why did there appear to be so many mistakes in a Ministry of Health study, released last December?

The reaction in New Plymouth to the October 23 documentary was electric. The questions over the Ivon Watkins Dow plant were suddenly reasonable, when for so many years campaigners in the Dioxin Information Network group had been labelled – among other things – “apocalyptic radicals” in the local newspaper.

Health Minister Pete Hodgson is dealing with only one of the issues Reid raised – criticisms of the ministry’s study into dioxin levels. Hodgson accepted as an “independent” reviewer of the study a scientist who had already publicly endorsed it. Yet again, the people of Paritutu rolled their eyes.

Audrey Peters was never an “apocalyptic radical”. She was a mum who worked in a shoe shop, had a miscarriage in 1958 after moving to Paritutu and another in 1961. She was a greyhound racer who puzzled over a litter of pups that all died, covered in tumours. She’s a great-grandmother who is scared for the babies she holds. She’s a woman who enjoyed good health but has recently suffered nerve damage to her legs, which has taken away pleasures such as gardening.

Audrey watched Kevin die of cancer and then found her own health was fading. His death certificate lists the cause of his death on May 12, 2004, as “pseudomyxoma peritonei”. It’s rare – so unusual, it is often not diagnosed. It’s called “jelly belly” because of the mucus build-up it causes inside the abdomen, squashing other organs.

“You can’t eat, and Kevin loved his food. He lost his appetite. I was always wracking my brains over things to cook.”

Some days, still, Audrey drives past the home she shared with Kevin for so many years. She drives past the wharf where he worked and the chemical plant which made its controversial herbicides for years.

A sharp wind gusts over the waves breaking on Sugerloaf Rocks. If you throw sand in the air, it lifts on the wind and blows towards the tiny settlement of Paritutu.

For so many years, particles smaller than sand went the same way, carried from Ivon Watkins Dow. On a westerly, they lifted up over the tank farm and beyond Mt Moturoa Domain, where one of the highest concentrations of dioxin was found in a soil test. They carried over Scott Rd, which leads up to the domain, and over Kevin and Audrey Peters’ home.

And they reached the house where Tony Kendall, 39, grew up. Kendall has a long list of illnesses. At 36, chronic fatigue and hypersensitivity were joined by a new one – cancer. After surgery and chemotherapy, the Hodgkin’s lymphoma is now in remission.

“This is Hodgkinsville,” says Kendall, who is convinced his childhood is to blame for his illnesses.

Jeanette Hermanns, 63, has non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. She and husband John lived on the corner of Scott and Simons Sts. It’s her second time with cancer. She beat it in her 40s, lost John to cancer in 1992 when he was 59. Her dioxin level was tested in 2004, and the result was many times higher than normal. She has eight grandchildren. One died with half a heart chamber and “her insides all twisted”. Then, she again contracted cancer.

“I’ve never smoked or drunk in my life. You always think: why?”

John Hermanns’ name appears on a list of Ivon Watkins Dow workers from 1980 involved in a Ministry of Health study on health effects. Another former worker, Neil Herdson, has circled the names of those who died and recorded their ages. There are a lot of young dead men.

That 1980 study, carried out by the Ministry of Health with the company’s involvement, claimed to have found nothing conclusive. It did report that workers in direct contact with 245T were more likely to have high blood pressure, although it suggested nothing more than monitoring.

Yet Ministry of Health files from 1977, obtained by the Herald on Sunday, show that officials were already well aware of a link between high blood pressure and exposure to high levels of dioxin.

Little wonder the people of Paritutu believe only what they can see – loved ones dying around them.

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