When a Cover-up Costs More than the Truth
(This is the last 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.)
“I have long dreamed of buying an island owned by no nation and of establishing the world headquarters of the Dow company on truly neutral ground of such an island, beholden to no nation or society.” Dow chairman Carl Gerstacker 1972 (Exporting Environmentalism).
The above comment by the head of Dow in a1972 speech is extremely illuminating. His company came pretty damned close, in essence buying New Zealand, when they bought into Ivon Watkins Dow in 1964.
Beyond the statistical manipulations and ethical flaws, the infamous 2004-2005 study in which the New Zealand government proved that dioxin doesn’t cause cancer and birth defects, had serious underlying design flaws:
1. The Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR) study diluted any measurable effect size by analyzing cancer, mortality and birth defect rates for all of New Plymouth, rather than limiting their analysis to the 500 families living adjacent to Ivon Watkins Dow. In fact the records they examined only included a tiny cohort of residents with heavy dioxin exposure. The seventies, eighties and nineties saw a substantial number of Paritutu/Motorua residents leave New Plymouth – and New Zealand. Neither Taranaki District Health Board (TDHB) nor the Minister of Health made any effort to trace them and investigate their health outcomes.
2. Both Ministry of Health and TDHB studies (and a 2008 University of Otago study) used residents from other areas of New Zealand as a control. It has already been well established that all Kiwis experienced massive dioxin exposure (through a largely meat and dairy-based diet) in the fifties, sixties, and seventies, which was accompanied by record birth defect and cancer rates and fertility problems. Surely a more appropriate control group would have been Kiwi urban vegans or residents in developed countries that didn’t employ massive amounts of 2,4,5-T to grow food.
Marginalizing and Harassing Local Activists
The deliberate marginalization and demonization of local dioxin activists is also a largely untold story. Both complaining residents and members of the Dioxin Investigation Network (DIN) were repeatedly attacked by the Taranaki Daily News (Taranaki News Ltd coincidentally owned 1300 shares in Ivon Watkins Dow) as paranoid alarmists. They also came under attack from New Plymouth District Council and Taranaki Regional Council members for threatening to New Plymouth’s reputation as a “clean, green” tourist destination.
This repeated portrayal of local activists and the demands they were making on TDHB as paranoid is evidenced by the ambush visit by the TDHB crisis team to DIN president Andrew Gibbs and a diagnosis of obsessive paranoid schizophrenia.
The Government Compromise: Free Health Checks
Gibbs, who has recently had his diagnosis officially reversed by a Canadian psychiatrist, continues to fight to get Dow and the New Zealand government to acknowledge the health problems of Paritutu and Motorua residents. Ironically one month after the University of Otago released a second flawed study “proving” that dioxin exposure wasn’t responsible for their health problems, the government granted Paritutu survivors three free health checks as of July 1, 2008. Gibbs dismisses the government move as a PR ploy, mainly because it denies, without any investigation, the possibility of intergenerational effects (i.e. birth defects in subsequent generations). This directly contradicts a 2006 study showing that New Zealand veterans had DNA damage as a result of dioxin (Agent Orange) exposure in Vietnam (see DNA Injury Confirmed).
The Cover-up that Cost More Than the Truth
The question yet to be answered is why the New Zealand government was so determined to cover all this up. Why spend millions of dollars on PR consultants, a “financial risk” management unit, flawed research and a vexatious Broadcast Standards Authority (BSA) complaint, when it would have cost far less to acknowledge and treat the health problems of the 500 New Plymouth households who experience dioxin exposure between 1960-1973? The ParitutuIWD website (http://paritutuiwd.hostzi.com/ suggests that government admission of dioxin-related health problems would open them to liability – both from New Zealand veterans and Vietnamese civilians exposed to Agent Orange. Because the New Zealand government was a share holder, as well as subsidizing 2,4,5-T production from 1969 on, they are co-liable with IWD.
I think the motivation for the cover-up is much more complex. The US government faces exponentially higher financial liability for spraying tens of thousands of US vets and Vietnamese veterans with Agent Orange. Yet they acknowledged back in the early nineties that dioxin was responsible for major health problems in Vietnam veterans and their children and grandchildren. The New Zealand government, in contrast, continued to suppress the truth and demonize and harass activists for another twenty more years.
As a newcomer to new Zealand, I think the actions of successive governments (both National and Labour) in the dioxin scandal stem from a mindset typical of small countries that depend on volatile industries, such as agricultural exports and tourism, to drive their economy. In addition to extreme weather events and novel pests (such as pseudomonas synringae actinaedae, which threatens to wipe out our kiwifruit industry), New Zealand is subject to the heartbreaking effects of the speculative global commodities market and a high New Zealand dollar. The former can suddenly, and without warning, drop the price of milk and other exports below the cost of production. The latter can wipe out entire markets, in favor of countries with a more favorable exchange rate.
All industrialized countries face massive pressure to allow corporations to externalize (i.e. pass them on to someone else) the costs of the environmental degradation and human health problems they cause. In large economies like the US, there is still scope for the public (usually the federal government) to assume some of these externalized costs. This is far more difficult in small countries like New Zealand, which are desperate for foreign investment to meet the growth targets that will stabilize their overseas debt. Believing our country’s very economic survival is at stake, the government response to ordinary Kiwis who are harmed by foreign companies has become more or less automatic: deny, spin, marginalize and demonize.
(For additional background and sources, see http://paritutuiwd.hostzi.com/?q=node/2).