Sep 9, 2004
A report on the effects of exposure to dioxin from Ivon Watkins-Dow’s chemical plant is today expected to overturn 30 years of assurances that residents had nothing to fear.
The residents have claimed for years that the plant’s emissions caused birth defects, cancer and other diseases.
A Health Ministry team has been in the affected area preparing for today’s release of the study into contamination from the long-closed chemical plant which made the herbicide 2,4,5-T.
The dioxin came from the former Ivon Watkins-Dow – now Dow AgroSciences – plant next to the New Plymouth suburb of Paritutu, which made 2,4,5-T from 1960 until 1987.
The Herald understands the study out today reveals a serious public health problem and will contradict previous assurances that residents had little to fear from dioxin exposure.
The acting head of public health, Doug Lush, is in the town with about eight ministry officials
Dr Lush met New Plymouth mayor Peter Tennent and other regional leaders last night, but refused to make any public comment.
Green Party health spokeswoman Sue Kedgley said she understood the study would show the level of contamination in the blood tests of residents would suggest the Government is facing a “serious health problem”.
Prime Minister Helen Clark is understood to have been briefed up to three weeks ago.
Officials have also been expecting that Dow AgroSciences may seek a court injunction stopping the report’s release.
The company’s general manager, Peter Dryden, refused to comment last night on that possibility, or on the report’s contents.
The Government and the ministry were also refusing to comment yesterday.
The study looks at who may have been exposed during the 1960s and 1970s. Blood from 50 participants has been tested.
The first phase of the study, made public in March last year, said that when the next phase was revealed, people might want to know their results.
If high contamination was found, that should be “communicated with care” by a health professional.
Ms Kedgley claimed there had been a “30-year cover-up” of the effects of the plant on the health of nearby residents.
“Everyone for 30 years has been trying to minimise, downplay or deny that there’s any risk.”
New Plymouth MP and minister outside the Cabinet Harry Duynhoven said yesterday that he had not seen the results of the study.
“Like everyone else I’m waiting,” he said.
Dioxin can cause cancer and has been linked to reproductive failure and birth defects.
It is a byproduct of making trichlorophenol, one of the chemicals used in the weedkiller 2,4,5-T.
Dow imported trichlorophenol until 1969, when it started making it locally.
Former midwife Hyacinth Henderson, aged 87, and now living in Dunedin, says she saw many birth defects when she worked at New Plymouth’s Westown Maternity Hospital.
Between 1965 and 1971 she recorded 167 birth defects out of 5392 babies born there.
She told the Herald yesterday that they had abnormalities she had never seen before and she had been in obstetrics for 40 years.
“Some of them were horrific … There were two anencephalics, which means there is no brain or the brain is sheared off above the eyebrows. There were a large number of bone deformities such as clubbed feet and things like that.”
Phil Cassin, a retired GP living in Queensland, worked at Opunake until 1967 and delivered about 200 babies a year.
Between 1963 and 1967, he had three cases of major congenital deformities and cancers that occur, respectively, in one in 1 million cases, one in 100,000 cases and one in 30,000 cases.
He believed the cause of the deformities was the combination of the weedkillers 2,4,5-T and 2,4-D (together known as Agent Orange) and background radiation from French nuclear tests in the Pacific.
Ms Kedgley said there were parallels with Vietnam veterans and Agent Orange.
By KEVIN TAYLOR | nzherald.co.nz | Sep 9, 2004