Question for Oral Answer: Dioxin Exposure – New Plymouth

13 Apr 2005  NZ Parliamentary Question Time

sue-kedgely-question-time5. SUE KEDGLEY (Green) to the Associate Minister of Health:

Will the Government offer free medical checks and free medical treatment to people who lived near the former Ivon Watkins-Dow plant in New Plymouth between 1962 and 1987, and therefore have elevated levels of potentially cancer-causing dioxin in their bodies; if not, why not?

Hon PETE HODGSON (Associate Minister of Health): Free hospital services are available to all New Zealanders already, as the member knows. If the member is referring to primary health services, free visits were offered to about 30 local residents in February. To date only four have taken up the offer.

SUE KEDGLEY: Why, when Viet Nam veterans are given free medical treatment for health problems caused by their exposure to dioxin, are residents in New Plymouth who have been similarly exposed to elevated levels of dioxin over many years not offered the same medical treatment?

Hon PETE HODGSON: The member will be aware that our history is littered with programmes that give thanks to veterans for their active service — this being one of them. But I remind the member that when we did give 30 people who knew they had higher than normal levels of exposure to dioxin access to free medical primary care, only four of the 30 took up the offer and the other 26 did not.

MARK PECK: What were the steps taken when releasing the Paritutu serum dioxin study to ensure that people were well informed and supported?

Hon PETE HODGSON: Everyone in the study was contacted and individually briefed. Briefings were also given to district health boards, general practitioners, medical officers of health, the Paritutu community health liaison committee, and other stakeholders.

ROD DONALD: Can the Minister confirm that two reports written by the Institute of Environmental Science and Research have found that people who lived near the Ivon Watkins-Dow plant between 1962 and 1987 have levels of dioxin in their bodies that are as high as the levels in some Vietnamese who were sprayed with Agent Orange, and comparable with levels in people from Seveso, in Italy, the site of a disastrous incident; if so, when will he admit that this must be one of the worst examples of dioxin contamination anywhere in the world at any time ever?

Hon PETE HODGSON: No, I cannot off the top of my head confirm either the figures or the comparative figures. My best guess is that the Seveso event was somewhat more serious, but there is no doubt that the New Plymouth event is a matter of great concern and a matter of ongoing research.

SUE KEDGLEY: Can the Minister confirm that the 30 people he referred to who were offered medical treatment were those who had their blood serum levels tested, and that there are, in fact, many thousands of people whom the Institute of Environmental Science and Research report confirms were living within a radius of 2 kilometres of the plant and are likely to have significantly elevated levels of dioxin in their bodies; why is he not offering all of those thousands of people free medical treatment?

Hon PETE HODGSON: I can confirm that the number of New Zealanders with raised serum dioxin levels will be far higher than the few people who were part of the most recent study. I myself am almost certainly one of them, having gotten through veterinary school in part by spraying 2,4,5-T to control gorse. The really important thing to remember about dioxin exposure is that dioxin exposure and various subsequent cancers, for example, are very loosely linked, and that the science — the epidemiological activity to try to get a closer linkage, or not — is still continuing. We simply have very, very few links between certain levels of dioxin exposure and certain types of cancer.

SUE KEDGLEY: Can he confirm that the Institute of Environmental Science and Research report found that dioxin levels in the blood serum of the exposed group were, in fact, higher than those of a similar group in Seveso, and does he agree, therefore, that it was premature for the Minister of Health to state in a letter sent to residents in New Plymouth in 2000 that a comparison of the levels around the Ivon Watkins-Dow plant with those in Seveso would clearly demonstrate that the levels released at the plant were very low, and will he, therefore, be correcting that information sent to the people of New Plymouth?

Hon PETE HODGSON: I am not able to confirm comparisons between Italy and New Zealand off the top of my head. I certainly can confirm that the levels of dioxin amongst workers at the Ivon Watkins-Dow plant exceed the levels of dioxin amongst residents living around the plant, and my best guess is that the dioxin levels currently in the blood of the President of the Ukraine would be far higher still.

SUE KEDGLEY: What other evidence does this Government need before it honours a promise that was made by the public health director, Don Matheson, to residents in a community group meeting 2 years ago — namely, that if there is proof that Ivon Watkins-Dow caused the problem, the Government would seek recompense and sue it? Now that the report has confirmed that there is evidence, will the Government be suing Ivon Watkins-Dow?

Hon PETE HODGSON: The case for suing Ivon Watkins-Dow is a very modest case indeed, and therefore would almost certainly fail. I think it is more important to work out not what is happening to dioxin levels but what is happening with birth defects in New Plymouth compared with the rest of New Zealand, and with cancer levels in New Plymouth compared with the rest of New Zealand. Both of those reports are likely to come to us, and to be made public, mid-year.

ROD DONALD: Does the Minister agree that if the Government does not sue Ivon Watkins-Dow, it will send a terrible message to multinational corporations that they can come to New Zealand, pollute our local environment, poison our local residents, and get away scot-free — indeed, with the assistance of the Government of the day?

Hon PETE HODGSON: Can I say to the member a little more directly that we have advice that the chances of success, if we were to sue Ivon Watkins-Dow, would be slight indeed. We operate by the rule of law, and if a court case will not succeed there seems to be little case for undertaking it.

SUE KEDGLEY: Is one of the reasons why the Government is reluctant to sue Ivon Watkins-Dow the fact that Governments in the 1960s and 1970s spent millions of dollars subsidising the chemical 2,4,5-T, which, of course, has given rise to this problem; and is the Government concerned that it could end up as a co-defendant in any legal action?

Hon PETE HODGSON: No and no.

13 Apr 2005 | Parliamentary Question Time Oral Question | NEWS-2005-M04-13-001
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