Outbreaks of rare diseases and tumors are appearing in clusters around New Zealand, close to chemical factories. Why doesn’t the Government want to investigate? SIMON JONES discovers what the authorities don’t want you to know:
Walk down any street in New Plymouth and you will probably hear a mixture of coughing and spluttering. Look inside any school and there appears to be more special needs children than is the norm for a city the size of New Plymouth. It’s often been said that everyone knows someone with a serious disease, whether it be cancer or multiple sclerosis.
Bad luck? Possibly, but for the last 15 years a group of residents have turned scientists to uncover what they say is a national health scandal – and one which, despite the government and media’s persistent attempts to ignore, won’t go away.
They may sound like conspiracy theorists in overdrive – and there is little in the way of official evidence and health statistics to back up what they say. But here is the frightening thing: If, in this real-life game of Fact or Fiction?, only 10 percent of what the residents say is true, we have a huge health scandal on our hands – the magnitude and implications of which are unimaginable.
The story centres around one of the city’s major employers, the Ivon Watkins Dow Plant.
Since the early 1960s, and up until 1987, it manufactured the 2,4,5T herbicide – which contains the deadly dioxin also used to form Agent Orange – a weapon of huge destruction in the Vietnam War.
In New Zealand and around the world 2,4,5T is used to kill scrub, gorse and blackberry. In Vietnam, with concentrations of dioxin much higher, it had the same effect – to the extent where it devastated the country’s crops and caused major health problems amongst veterans, including cancer, multiple sclerosis, while creating learning difficulties amongst the vets’ children.
Is it just coincidence that many in New Plymouth – and in areas around New Zealand, where this herbicide was extensively sprayed, complain about the same health problems?
For years governments, both here and overseas, turned a blind eye to the damaging effects of dioxin, refusing to admit that there was any link between Agent Orange and health problems suffered by vets.
Yet recently, in a draft report leaked to the Washington Post, the US government upgraded dioxin to a ‘human carcinogen’ – in other words a substance which is a major cause of cancer, as well as birth defects and infertility.
Only a pending lawsuit by New York restaurant owners, who claim the link to cancer will scare away customers, has blocked publication of the report.
The US Environmental Protection Agency notes that emissions of dioxin have plummeted from peak levels in the 1970s, but still pose a significant threat to some who ingest it – mostly in food, especially food of animal origin.
John Moller, the president of the Vietnam Veterans Association, says it is ironic that some of the 3,800 Kiwi vets who served during the war came home to find that they were still partly exposed to chemicals associated with Agent Orange either by living in New Plymouth or areas where the herbicide was sprayed.
“The New Zealand government says that because of the few figures involved and the time span it is not worth running tests on veterans now.
“That’s rubbish because the government has given $200,000 to the nuclear test veterans association for research and legal fees. Their exposure happened before Vietnam and their figures are much smaller.
“The government has buried its head in the sand for too long,” he says. “For example, when an enquiry was finally instigated, they took samples from native forest but not the Pine forest where 2,4,5-T was heavily used.
“The problem with dioxin exposure is that there is a 30-year envelope. The historical effects are only beginning to come through now.”
The US government invented 2,4,5T in 1941 to be used as a weapon of war against Japan. Later, with concentrations lower, it is intended to control unwanted vegetation, most of which is found in Taranaki, Northland and Gisborne.The manufacture of 2,4,5-T is said to have started in New Zealand around 1962 and by 1970 the number of birth defects in New Plymouth doubled and the number of cases nationwide started to riseMORE