Did New Plymouth Manufacture Agent Orange for the Pentagon?
Images from New Plymouth Maternity Hospital
(This is the second of four blogs about the government cover-up of major health problems related to the production of dioxin-related chemicals at Dow AgroSciences in New Plymouth between 1948 and 1987)
It’s fairly common for the US and other European countries to ask New Zealand, owing to our lax environmental regulations, to manufacture and or test hazardous substances that are too controversial in their own countries. In 2005 the former MP and current mayor of New Plymouth claimed to have leaked documents revealing that New Plymouth’s Ivon Watkins Dow (IWD) plant secretly manufactured 2,4,5-T and 2,4 D for the Pentagon for use as “Agent Orange” in Vietnam. When combined, the two chemicals form large amounts of 2,3,7,8 TCDD, also known as dioxin. In 1969, around the same time the US embassy complained about high dioxin residues in beef and lamb exports, the US ended their use of Agent Orange to defoliate Vietnamese jungles. Contrast New Zealand, where the Government introduced a subsidy (in 1969) to encourage increased production and use of 2,4,5-T
Birth Defects: An Early Warning Sign
Meanwhile all kinds of alarm bells should have been going off, owing to a staggering increase in severe birth defects in families downwind of IWD. In the early 1970s, the New Plymouth Maternity Hospital Matron informed the local health department that between 1965 and 1971, one out of thirty newborns hospital had birth defects. These included a strikingly high proportion of neural tube defects commonly associated with dioxin exposure, such as anencephaly (the absence of a brain), hydrocephalus and spina bifida.
During the same period, New Plymouth officials noted that (illegal) liquid emissions had a corrosive effect on drain pipes, and residents who got the stuff on their skin developed orange blisters that never healed. Downwinders complained that the veggies they grew were misshapen. While, as in Love Canal, there was a spate of miscarriages, stillbirths, deformed newborns and kids with chronic health problems.
Declining Sperm Counts and Toxic Breast Milk
During a period that New Plymouth had the highest rate of birth defects in the country, the overall rate in New Zealand was one of the highest in the world. Everyone ingesting New Zealand meat and dairy products during the sixties and seventies accumulated substantial blood and fatty tissue concentrations of dioxin, owing to the massive amount of 2,4,5-T Kiwi farmers used to clear gorse and scrub. There is a presumptive link between this exposure and declining sperm counts and spiking cancer rates Kiwis experienced in the decades that followed. Even more alarming, a 1972-73 study of Dunedin infant published in the Lancet suggested that breast milk (which also accumulates dioxin) was less healthy than formula. In a survey of 1000 children, those breastfed four weeks or longer were twice as likely to suffer from allergies or asthma in later childhood.
The US Bans 2,4,5-T in All Crops But Rice
In 1969, IWD upgraded their 2,4,5-T plants “rudimentary” emission controls to reduce dioxin levels in their air emissions and the herbicide they produced. From 1973 on, after the US banned 2,4,5-T in all food crops except rice, the NZ government required IWD to treat their herbicide with a solvent that reduced dioxin levels levels even further. The fate of the dioxin IWD extracted between 1973 and 1987 remains unclear. Both national and regional agencies were charged with monitoring the dioxin content of IWD’s incinerator emissions. However according to available records, monitoring was sporadic, if it happened it all.
Cancer Rates Climb
Meanwhile studies continued to be published overseas linking dioxin exposure to many of the health problems residents of Paritutu and Motorua (the suburbs closest to IWD) were describing. In addition to birth defects, miscarriages, crib deaths and chronic childhood illnesses, downwind families were experiencing unprecedented levels of brain and spinal tumors, sarcomas, lymphomas, prostate and respiratory cancers and multiple sclerosis, as well as neurodevelopmental (mainly autism, Asperger’s disorder, mental retardation and ADHD) problems in their kids
Economic Viability Trumps Health
In 1972 an explosion at IWD (resulting in a massive ash emissions release), coupled with the documented increase in birth defects, led the Environmental Defense Society to call for a total New Zealand ban on 2,4,5-T production. Following a campaign by Residents Against Dioxin and a second explosion in 1986, a Ministerial Committee of Inquiry was convened. Unfortunately the Inquiry ignored the report by the Health Department of Regional Air Pollution Control officer who performed soil testing in Paritutu and Motorua. His 1985 report concluded that airborne IWD emissions during the sixties had resulted in soil dioxin residues comparable to those of Vietnamese regions sprayed with Agent Orange.
The conclusion reached by the Committee of Inquiry: that New Zealand had no “economically viable” alternative to 2,4, 5-T.
(For additional background and sources, see http://paritutuiwd.hostzi.com/?q=node/2).
To be continued