Simon Collins

Simon Collins is the Herald’s social issues reporter.

Dioxin response slow despite sinister signs

By SIMON COLLINS

Taranaki hill-country farmer Bryan Hocken burst into a committee of inquiry hearing in August 1986 wearing the black singlet, shorts and backpack he wore to spray his gorse with 2,4,5-T.

He said he spent whole months spraying his Tarata farm and never used a mask.

"You get blow-back. It woofs all over you. Your skin is reeking. You don't go near the tomatoes, they'll shrivel up," he told the inquiry. But he pleaded with it to let him carry on.

"2,4,5-T is our bread and butter. It's a wonder chemical, cheaper and far more effective than other chemicals," he said.

Eighteen years later, Mr Hocken, 55, was at the Stratford stock sales this week, apparently none the worse for wear.

"He's still fit and well," said his wife, Helen Hocken. "He fell off his bike last year, but he still has his own teeth. None of us have had any ill effects."

Ivon Watkins-Dow (IWD), the New Plymouth company that made 2,4,5-T, kept on making it for four years after Dow stopped making it in the United States in 1983 because New Zealand farmers believed they could not do without it.

The committee of inquiry reported three months after Mr Hocken's protest that New Zealand was "the heaviest user of 2,4,5-T in the world", but declined to stop it.

"To recommend this latter course of action [a ban], without proof that long-term exposure to these compounds is harmful, may place an unnecessary financial burden on the farming community and could unfairly deprive IWD employees of their livelihood," it concluded.

At the time, 2,4,5-T was the country's most heavily used weedkiller. Between 500 and 600 tonnes of it were sprayed every year on gorse and blackberry on marginal hill country where every extra square metre of grass yielded a few extra dollars' worth of sheepmeat and wool.

IWD started making it in New Plymouth in 1948 and moved to its present site near Paritutu in 1960.

As early as 1965, the nurse in charge of New Plymouth's Westown Maternity Hospital, Hyacinth Henderson, became alarmed at the number of babies being born with horrific deformities.

"It was the number of foetal abnormalities we were having, which I had never seen before, and I had 29 years in obstetrics," Miss Henderson, now 87, said this week from Dunedin, where she now lives.

In the six years from 1965 to 1971, she recorded 167 birth defects out of 5392 babies.

"There were 12 anencephalics, which means there is no brain or the brain is sheared off above the eyebrows. There were 15 hydrocephalics [with fluid in the brain], five microcephalics [with small brains] and 16 with defects in some other part of the spinal column such as spina bifidas.

"There were 12 congenital heart deformities. There were a large number of bone deformities such as club feet and things like that,"she said.

"There was one baby born with misplaced digits. I had never seen anything like that before. It was all those things that almost frightened you when you saw them.

"Another one was born with a huge tumour on its face. There were babies born with tumours like that. It was extraordinary. It was terrible for the parents."

Miss Henderson swapped notes with Opunake general practitioner Phil Cassin, who delivered 200 babies a year.

In the five years from 1963 to 1967 he had three cases of major congenital deformities and cancers that normally occur, respectively, only once in every million births, once in 100,000 and once in 30,000 births. There was also a case in 1974, after he left.

"Three were cancers. One was a congenital heart formation that results in the heart having three chambers instead of four. None of them lived," he said from retirement in Queensland this week.

"There were others that were almost as rare ... So although it was only a small number, there was something going on that was causing major problems."

Dr Cassin did not have time to write up his cases until after he retired in 1994.

Miss Henderson did report to the Health Department at the time, but got nowhere.

"The reaction from the Health Department was that they considered that we had the highest abnormality rate in New Zealand but they thought perhaps I was more conscientious in my reporting than other people, and nothing was done," she said.

Eventually, New Zealand officials were forced to react - not to the local evidence, but to evidence from Vietnam, where 2,4,5-T and 2,4-D were combined in a lethal spray called Agent Orange which US Vietnam veterans blamed for deformities in their babies and cancers which the veterans themselves suffered, often many years after the war ended.

Despite the stamp of approval from the New Zealand committee of inquiry in 1986, Ivon Watkins-Dow stopped making 2,4,5-T at New Plymouth the next year. Farmers were offered a new spray called Grazon.

Yet still health officials did nothing.

Finally, in 1999, residents formed the Dioxin Investigation Network and found that more than 100 out of 183 families in the Paritutu area had "serious illnesses".

Taranaki medical officer of health Patrick O'Connor investigated.

In 2001 he reported that the death rate from cancer in the Moturoa area, which includes Paritutu, was 6 per cent above the national average between 1988 and 1997. But he said this was within the normal variation expected by chance.

He found that birth defects in the area from 1988-99 were actually below average.

In a follow-up study a year later covering the years 1965-72 at Westown Hospital specifically, he found an above-average rate of babies born with deformities of the neural tube, the hollow structure in the embryo from which the brain and spinal cord form.

Three babies were born with neural tube defects in families living near the IWD factory, compared with an expected rate of one. But he concluded that this was "of uncertain statistical significance".

Another study for the Ministry for the Environment, also in 2002, found dioxin in soil near the IWD plant at twice the level recommended by international guidelines. But it found that this posed a "negligible" health risk to residents.

But in the same year the Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR) began a major study of dioxin levels in the blood of Paritutu residents. The results of this study, released yesterday, finally vindicated the concerns first raised by Hyacinth Henderson 39 years ago.

* Yesterday's Herald reported that Miss Henderson recorded only two cases of anencephaly between 1965 and 1971. The correct figure was 12.

Herald Feature: Dioxin

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