Local residents and others have campaigned for many years for an investigation of high rates of birth defects, cancer, and other illnesses. They have organized protest meetings, marches, and rallies to press their cause.
We should be working with the Vietnamese to go after the companys responsibility, Andrew Gibbs, a spokesperson for the Dioxin Investigation Network, told the Militant in a March 17 telephone interview. The previous evening, he said, he had participated in a meeting of some 160 people, including local residents, former Dow workers, and workers from adjacent sites, to discuss the next steps in the campaign.
The Dow AgroSciences plant, originally Ivon Watkins-Dow, was built in 1960, before the surrounding land was subdivided to become the suburb of Paritutu. It produced agricultural chemicals, including the herbicides 2,4,5-T and 2,4-D, extensively used in farming. Agent Orange is made from a mixture of the two chemicals. Dioxin is a by-product of the manufacture of 2,4,5-T, and is found in Agent Orange. In 1987, the New Plymouth plant became the last in the world to stop making 2,4,5-T after growing concerns, initially raised by U.S. veterans of the Vietnam War, about the health effects of its dioxin by-products, in particular the cancer-causing compound TCDD.
Government denials disputed
The study, conducted by the governments Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR) and reported in March, surveyed 52 people who had lived at some stage in a defined area near the factory. It found that blood levels of dioxin increased directly in relation to how close to the plant they lived and how long they lived there before 1987. These dioxin levels were on average 3.8 times higher than in the population nationally, and in some cases were 15 times higher. Those living closest to the plant for the longest time had levels similar to those found in Vietnamese with dioxin poisoning from Agent Orange. It is estimated that such levels could cause an extra three deaths from cancer for every 100 people. Dow claims the levels found are within the normal range internationally.
The ESR report follows years of official denials that dioxin emissions from the plant may have affected the health of nearby residents. As early as 1965, the nurse in charge of the local maternity hospital, Hyacinth Henderson, became alarmed. It was the number of fetal abnormalities we were having, which I had never seen before, and I had 29 years in obstetrics, she told the New Zealand Herald in an interview last year. Her observations were shared by a local doctor, but the Health Department at the time dismissed her concerns.
In 1986, three years after Dow stopped making 2,4,5-T in the United States, a New Zealand government committee of inquiry refused to stop its use because of its importance in agricultural production. At the time, New Zealand was the heaviest user of the herbicide in the world, with the government subsidizing its cost to farmers.
The Medical Officer of Health for the New Plymouth area said studies had found an increased death rate from cancer and an increased birth defect rate, but concluded that neither was statistically significant.
In December 2004, three months before the ESR report was released, the government was forced to formally apologize to New Zealand military personnel exposed to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. After years of campaigning by veterans, a parliamentary inquiry released in October finally acknowledged that troops were exposed to the defoliant. Until then, official reports had denied this fact, and successive governments had claimed there were no health problems for troops arising from their service there. Since 2001, the Labour government has offered limited financial help to children of Vietnam veterans with certain health conditions. The government has so far stopped short of promising any extra payments to veterans after these latest findings.
Protesters demand compensation
Working people in New Plymouth are now calling on the government to prosecute Dow for compensation. People want the health care theyve been denied for decades, and appropriate treatment, Andrew Gibbs said. For years doctors have told them they are hypochondriacs.
On March 6, some 80 people marched to the gates of the Dow plant, calling for the company to set up a national compensation fund for those affected by dioxin. Those participating included Paritutu residents, Vietnam War veterans, environmental activists, and representatives of Sawmill Workers Against Poisons. The latter group campaigns on behalf of timber workers suffering negative health effects because of workplace exposure to the timber treatment chemical pentachlorophenol (PCP), which contains dioxin.
To date the government has merely offered one free doctors visit to study those affected. Roy Drake, who worked as a contractor at the Dow plant and now suffers from multiple sclerosis, told the Militant that he was one of several hundred people who applied for blood tests during the survey, but were turned down.
Workers previously employed at the Dow plant have significantly higher death rates from cancer, according to a recent World Health Organization study. Only two workers from the plant, however, have been approved for workers compensation as a result of their employment there. Agricultural contractors who sprayed 2,4,5-T on farms also have high blood dioxin levels.
These developments have reignited long-standing claims that Agent Orange was manufactured in New Zealand. During the Vietnam War, the New Plymouth plant was a target of protests because of its connection to the chemical.
In January, Harold Duynhoven, government cabinet minister and member of parliament for New Plymouth, told a Sunday newspaper he had information that the components of Agent Orange were shipped from the New Plymouth wharves in the 1960s to the U.S. naval base at Subic Bay in the Philippines for use in the Vietnam War. He later backed off these statements and the government issued a denial, citing a 1990 parliamentary inquiry that found no conclusive evidence for the assertion. Dow also continues to deny the charge.
Former New Plymouth port watersider Norm Quinlan said, however, that it was well known in the 1960s that Ivon Watkins-Dow exported some chemicals to the Philippines. Vietnam veterans and New Plymouth campaigners are now asking for an investigation into whether the defoliant may have been produced at another New Zealand site with components from the New Plymouth factory.
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