Little was normal about the Vietnam War, least of all the aerial spraying of millions of litres of Agent Orange, a defoliant containing varying amounts of dioxin. The aim was to deny Vietcong and North Vietnamese forces jungle cover and food. So effective was it that spraying continued for a decade until 1971, when it was found that Agent Orange contained a particularly dangerous form of dioxin, which caused cancer in rats. The legacy for those sprayed was blood with abnormally high dioxin levels. Similar levels, it has now been revealed, to those of some of the people who lived near the Ivon Watkins-Dow chemical factory in New Plymouth between 1962 and 1975.
A Ministry of Health report has made it clear this situation is far from normal. The people in the Paritutu area who were tested have, on average, three times the normal level of dioxin in their blood. Yet, according to Dow AgroSciences, the plant's current owner, there is not even an issue. No one tested, it said, had been found outside the range of what would be considered normal background levels of dioxin in other studies.
This, quite palpably, is nonsense. But it is the type of nonsense the American chemical giant has been trotting out for 40 years. For as long as the residents of Paritutu have been concerned that emissions from the factory were causing cancer and birth defects, Dow, aided and abetted by poorly directed or under-resourced inquiries, has offered bland assurances.
Now that an authoritative study has established what appears to be conclusive proof, Dow seems in no mood to change. It is, of course, in its interests to deny and deny. Any concession that its activities contributed to high dioxin levels would be the equivalent of an admission of liability. And as long as it can pursue this line, the better. Production of the herbicide 2,4,5-T stopped in 1987, and many of those worst affected are nearing the end of their lives. Given time, much of the issue will resolve itself.
Dow's approach makes good bottom-line sense. But, ethically, it is lamentable. Continued denial will put it in the same ballpark as James Hardie, the Australian company that has so disgracefully sought to shirk the burden of asbestos-related claims.
Dow would go some way to correcting the injustices of the past 40 years if, once the ministry's interim results were confirmed, it were to establish a fund sufficient to compensate the residents of Paritutu. It has been part of a similar deal before. In 1984, it and other American chemical companies, without admitting liability, paid US$180 million ($276 million) to Vietnam veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange.
For Dow, Paritutu is part of an increasingly hostile environment. More claims are arising from Vietnam, and the latest research links dioxin exposure with diseases such as cancer ever more strongly. The time has come for the company to deal with the demons of its past.