Key Points:

The Ministry of Health is offering a major health support programme to Taranaki residents who have an increased risk of cancer after exposure to high dioxin levels from a herbicide plant.

The level of support is a turn-around after Health Minister Pete Hodgson last year ruled out dioxin blood tests for residents of the New Plymouth suburb of Paritutu.

The minister said they if they were tested, all New Zealanders should be tested -- at a cost of about $8 billion. Instead the residents were offered a voucher to visit their GP.

The ministry said today all Paritutu residents would be asked about what health services they needed to manage the effects of the exposure of the herbicide, 2,4,5-T.

A 2005 study found that people who lived close to the Ivon Watkins-Dow plant between 1962 and 1987 were likely to have dioxin levels on average four times higher than the general public.

In some groups the level was as much as seven times as high.

Public Health Medicine senior adviser Douglas Lush said the ministry wanted to ensure services were provided that would help manage the possible heath effects of the dioxin exposure, and address the community's concerns.

He said the ministry considered the results of the 2005 blood serum study, and the possible related health effects.

"It is clear from this study that in the past some Paritutu residents were exposed to dioxin at levels significantly above those of the general New Zealand population, and that based on international findings this may cause increased rates of disease, in particular cancer."

Dr Lush said those thought to be at increased risk were residents and former residents of Paritutu who lived for at least 15 years within 400m south and 1km east of the plant during the years the plant manufactured 2,4,5-T between 1962 and 1987.

The ministry proposed a health support programme that would include an early intervention programme -- which could provide an initial health assessment and annual follow-up visits -- and ongoing health information and technical support for clinicians and other health professionals serving dioxin exposed residents.

The ministry was also interested in considering whether the programme should include people exposed historically to dioxin through other means, such as former timber workers who worked with the timber treatment chemical pentachlorophenol.

The project was put out to tender late last year, and consultancy firm Allen & Clarke Policy and Regulatory Specialists were appointed to develop it.

Allen & Clarke are to start work immediately and the project will be completed by October 2007.