Elizabeth Campell

Lethal Legacy

Back-beach-with-plant-at-the-top-of-the-cliffDriving along the coast road out of New Plymouth past Back Beach you would never think that a silent killer permeated the air and soil between the mid to late 60s till the late 80s, leaving a lethal legacy for generations to come. Locals will tell you that in some areas every household has been affected; but for years, despite the mounting weight of evidence, health authorities have denied there is a problem. This changed recently when the New Zealand Government was finally forced to admit that there is a serious problem and has begun moves to assist the families who are dealing with health problems spanning, in some cases, four generations.  But is it too little too late?

I’m writing this as a result of a recent visit home. Something that should have been joyful and fun turned into a dreadful reminder of a situation I have tried not to think about over the years, but I now realise that our story must be told as often as possible to honour those whose suffering has been hidden, and in the hope the it might reduce the chances of it happening again somewhere else.

During this trip I caught up with three women I had gone to high school with. As the four of us sat down to chat we did the usual, “and what’s so and so doing?” only to find that a large percentage of our peers, including one of us, had lost babies, or had babies with birth defects, or had some serious health problem, or had died for rare illnesses. So how did this all come about?

The lucky generation?

We were part of the lucky generation where anything seemed possible and the only spectre on our horizon was the Vietnam War, and as we were all at high school it was not really a personal issue unless a member of our family was over there. Or so we thought.

mt-taranakiWe lived in the suburb of Paritutu, in New Plymouth, Taranaki; an idyllic place that offered great surf beaches and a magnificent mountain at our back door. It was a fantastic place to grow up, and we made the most of it. We swam and surfed at BackBeach on our rugged West Coast, it was our favourite hang out after school. We weren’t concerned about the slimy orange outfall from the once beautiful Herekawe Stream, and didn’t think too much about it other than to miss the whitebait we used to catch. Oh and there was the smell from the Ivon Watkins-Dow (IWD) chemical plant across the road, but we were used to that, as many of us lived in the environs of the plant.

IWD manufactured 245T and 24D; chemicals that were used extensively throughout New Zealand to clear gorse. A by-product of these chemicals is Dioxin, one of the most toxic substances on the planet. Dioxin is so toxic levels are measured in parts per trillion.

During the Vietnam War we were led to believe they were shipping these chemicals, the constituents of Agent Orange, to Vietnam, and although the Government of New Zealand and IWD denied for many years that Agent Orange was manufactured at the plant, it was common knowledge in the neighbourhood at the time that IWD was producing defoliant and that the components were made in New Plymouth and mixed together in Vietnam.

back-of-IWD-bordering-the-housesThere were signs that would ring alarm bells today but at that time we had no terms of reference to warn us of the danger. Several times a week we would get home from school to be assailed by the extremely unpleasant chemical stench. This smell permeated everything; washing on the line, our skin, the whole neighbourhood and it even rotted curtains where they hung. One of the most memorable signs for me was the masses of foam coming from the Herekawe Stream after a high tide or storms. This foam floated around the streets in great clouds, like something out of a Sci-Fi movie, and children played in it thinking it was bubble bath. When this foam landed on the lawn it left brown dead grass and at times it even damaged the paint on cars. It has always astonished me that the foam is seldom mentioned in articles about the contamination.

Our parents trusted the government, trusted the scientists, believed that the Americans were the good guys, and didn’t question. They were proud of our city’s part in the war effort, after all the chemicals just took the leaves off the trees so that our troops could see the enemy; we had no idea of the devastating affect Dioxin would have on the Vietnamese, our returning servicemen and ourselves. It is a reflection of the times, we were naive about international politics and people took things very much on face value.

My first memory that something was wrong was when the Carnation Flower Farm at the end of our street suddenly lost all their plant stock. The owner started asking difficult questions, denials were made and we were reassured that there wasn’t a problem. In later years this family has been seriously affected by health problems common to those who worked at the plant and the other businesses nearby.

Birth defects

I moved away from the area and didn’t think anything about it again until my best friend from high school lost a baby to cancer. She’d had twins; one of whom died shortly after birth, her poor little body devastated by cancer before she had even drawn breath. I was later to learn that there were eight pairs of twins born over a two month period in the region and my friends surviving daughter was the only one of those 16 babies to survive. It was postulated that it might have something to do with spraying along the coast.

Soon stories started to get about town about birth defects. In the late 60s a matron at the maternity hospital was deeply concerned about an enormous increase of babies being born in Taranaki with horrific birth defects. She documented these instances and presented six years of data to the health authorities who responded that there probably wasn’t a problem in the area and that the information was more likely to be due to her meticulous record-keeping. Nothing was done!

There were reports of illegal dumping of waste from the plant in or close to residential areas. There were continual cases of birth defects with apparent links to spraying of 245T and 24D. Yet regardless of signs to the contrary both IWD and health authorities continued to deny that there was the slightest possibility of a problem.

We started to notice that a lot of people we knew were sick, with symptoms similar to those who had returned from Vietnam. There were clusters of cancer and leukaemia in the area and at times it seemed that there was someone seriously ill in every family, especially those homes that were in the path of the westerly winds. Many of the men who worked in the plant and their families were by now experiencing severe affects of exposure to dioxin that was crossing generations. Still the Government was in denial and defending its and IWD’s position.

When I returned to New Zealand in the late nineties I heard that the Department of Health was testing past residents for Dioxin levels, but as a lot of us were no longer living in Taranaki, or even New Zealand for that matter, it was difficult to see how any data resulting from these tests could be conclusive unless a concerted effort was made to trace former residents and test them, and of course what about those who were already dead. Also not all those who applied were accepted for the trials, my friend and a neighbour who had lost babies were among those who applied but were not chosen to be tested.

Two years ago my friend sent me an email to tell me she had Bowel Cancer, we talked about the our days at Back Beach, the smell, the foam, stealing fresh peas and tomatoes from both our father’s gardens and eating them in the sun as the westerly winds blew the cloud of toxins from IWD overhead. We talked about real estate values plummeting and people having to declare the dioxin levels in the soil before selling their homes and we talked about the dead and the dying.

She told me that a group had been set up to fight for help for the families worst affected (Chemically Exposed Paritutu Residents Assn. CEPRA), run by people who had the courage to stand up and face the overwhelming machine of denial, one of whom was her cousin who had worked at the site and was now crippled with MS. I contacted that group and discovered things that broke my heart about people I grew up with or knew, I was also told that there had been 12 cases of Motor Neuron Disease in a 1km radius of the plant (I have no documentation to support this). My mother and a friend from high school were amongst those 12 and although I knew that New Plymouth seemed to have an inordinate number of cases of this rare disease I had never connected it to the plant.

Let Us Spray

Late in 2006 TV3 broadcasted a documentary titled “Let Us Spray” by award winning journalist Melanie Reid; I was back in Perth but thanks to the wonders of the internet was able to watch it online. What I saw left me enraged and stunned at the complicity between IWD and the New Zealand Government to cover up this shameful conspiracy of denial. The documentary clearly shows that Dow Chemicals were aware that Dioxin would cause severe systemic problems:


   This material is exceptionally toxic; it has tremendous potential for producing Chloracne and systemic injury…

…I am particularly concerned with persons using the material on a daily repeated basis…

Dow US Internal Memo 1965  

and yet they continued to produce these chemicals, with Government subsidy into the late 80s. The documentary team also discovered that the findings of The Ministry of Health Report on dioxin poisoning were seriously flawed when they had the results checked by a forensic accountant. The re-calibrated results showed that instead of the dioxin levels of Paritutu resident being 4 times the national average, as indicated by the report, they were in fact closer to 7 times the national average. It is not within the scope of this article to go into the complexity of this information, but I recommend anyone who has lived in the area or lives in areas with dioxin contamination, to view the documentary (a link is available at http://www.dioxinnz.com).

I suggested to my friend that she write her story and that of those she knew, but she no longer had the energy or the emotional strength to do so. At time of writing she was sitting in Palmerston North receiving radiation treatment and there are four others down there with her who had lived in Paritutu. So I am writing my version of the story, her’s would have been more powerful as she lived in the area all her life and remembers those who have gone and their stories.

Researching this has been a sobering exercise because the people involved are not strangers in a news item; they are friends and acquaintances from my youth. I opened one article to discover the story of a woman I had worked with and who was my mentor and friend when I was in my twenties. She lived in the path of the westerly winds and her husband, a strapping wharfie, wasted away from a rare form of cancer, she is experiencing nerve damage to her legs and is fearfully asking whether there is dioxin in her system and what affect the exposure has had on her great grandchildren.

The people of Paritutu have been marginalised and vilified by health authorities and the local media for years. Those I have spoken to don’t want massive compensation payments, they just want recognition of their plight, and for someone to stand up and admit that they knew the risks to public health but continued to produce this deadly chemical in our backyard even after the rest of the world banned it. They want to know that their health needs will be taken care of, and be reassured that their descendants will be looked after and won’t have to fight for recognition.

This situation is not unique, it happens all over the world in one form or another. How long will our governments protect multinational companies who disregard public safety? How long will people be left to struggle with the affects of corporate irresponsibility? How long before there will be accountability?

The message is loud and clear, you cannot rely on governments to do the right thing, they regularly put the economy before public health, and you certainly can’t depend on the multinationals to care about our health. So when they come riding into your town promising jobs and prosperity to the community remember the people of Paritutu; look closer and speak out when you see the risks or if all else fails move to somewhere else.

I wrote this mainly to express my grief and to release the pain to the Universe, but it was also for those without a voice that have had to deal with the illness, fear and frustration all these years!

For those wishing to find out more about this issue visit http://www.dioxinnz.com/, the official website of CEPRA (Chemically Exposed Paritutu Residents Assn.). They have the latest information, including the preliminary findings of the Government funded enquiry and a copy of the documentary “Let Us Spray” is available on the site.

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