The the long battle to get the New Zealand government to acknowledge the major health problems of dioxin-exposed New Plymouth residents (see my last post) first began in 1973. Instead of attempting to understand and address residents’ health problems, the New Zealand government, an Ivon Watkins Dow (IWD) partner though share holdings and subsidies, became the first clients of New Zealand’s first public relations firm (Consultus).
Records show that Consultus was first hired to ensure the ongoing availability and use of 2,4,5-T. A 1981 case study from the international journal PR News – about Consultus’ first PR campaign – is entitled Countering an Activist Campaign to Have a Product Banned from Use. This “media management” response seems to be very typical of New Zealand’s approach to toxic waste management. In the words of one IWD survivor, the goal is to “delay and deny until we die.”
In the mid to late nineties, local activist Andrew Gibbs helped found a new research group, the Paritutu Dioxin Investigation Network. When his de facto partner, a long term resident of Paritutu (the suburb closest to IWD) developed chronic fatigue syndrome and unexplained anemia, her family and friends informed him of the reproductive and immune problems other Paritutu families were experiencing.
Gibbs, alarmed by 1985 Paritutu studies showing dioxin residues comparable to Vietnamese regions sprayed with Agent Orange, tried to get the government to do blood tests on his partner and other Paritutu residents. It would turn out that both National and Labour governments were far more interested in managing public opinion about dioxin.
The Government Gives in to Grassroots Pressure
In 2001, Minister of Health Annette King finally agreed to test the serum levels of 100 Paritutu survivors. When many were found to have elevated dioxin levels, the Labour-led government responded by setting up a Ministry of Health unit to manage “financial risks” related to potential government liability.
Spin, Cover-up, and Statistical Manipulation
They subsequently commissioned a 2004-2005 study by Excellence in Research Australia (ERA) to “analyze” Taranaki District Health Board cancer and birth defect records. The researchers subjected the data to some bizarre statistical manipulations to produce the conclusion the government was looking for, i.e. that high rates of cancer and birth defects in Paritutu and Motorua households were unrelated to dioxin exposure.
For example, they deliberately re-targeted the study design to focus on residents living in Paritutu between 1974-87, who were known to have lower exposure levels based production changes between 1969 and 1973 that reduced dioxin contamination. They also altered 2005 data to make it appear that ongoing exposure occurred between 1974-87, as well as using inaccurate half-life figures to skew pre-1974 results. Finally they excluded high rates of diagnosed cancer between 1970-74 as being too close to the period of toxic exposure, which they misrepresented as occurring between 1962-87, when it actually occurred between 1960-73. See (*) below for actual data.
When these statistical manipulations were challenged in a 2006 TV3 documentary entitled “Let us Spray,” the government and their risk management unit dismissed the bulk of the alleged misrepresentations and blamed others on “typographical” errors.
New Zealand health officials also repeatedly ignored recommendations by ESR and the local ethics review board that they undertake a geo-spatial study of families with elevated dioxin levels. Gibbs eventually undertook his own study of all residents living within 500 meters of Ivon Watkins Dow between 1963-66. He achieved his primary goal – proving that a historical cohort could be identified – at a total cost of $1000. This was in contrast to the hundreds of millions of dollars the New Zealand government had paid Consultus, ESR, their “financial risk” management unit.
The Government Compromise: Free Health Checks
Gibbs continues to fight to get Dow and the New Zealand government to acknowledge the health problems of Paritutu and Motorua residents who worked at or lived adjacent to IWD prior to 1969. In 2008, the government finally granted Paritutu survivors three free health checks (primary care isn’t covered under New Zealand’s National Health Service).
Gibbs dismisses the government move as a PR ploy. Mainly because it circumvents the issue of intergenerational effects (i.e. birth defects in subsequent generations). A 2006 study showed that New Zealand veterans and their offspring suffered DNA damage as a result of dioxin (Agent Orange) exposure in Vietnam.
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 treat the health problems of 500 New Plymouth households.
Gibbs believes an official 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 shareholder, as well as subsidizing 2,4,5-T production from 1969 on, they are co-liable with IWD.
*A look at the Taranaki District Health Board (TDHB) 2002 data reveals a large increase in neural tube birth defects in Moturoa and Paritutu residents between 1965 and 1972. It also reveals that New Plymouth rates of hydrocephaly, hypospadias, spina bifida and anencephaly recorded at New Plymouth Maternity Hospital between 1965 and 1971 were respectively 3.2 times, 3.8 times, 4.2 times and 9.7 times the crude rates found in offspring of US Vietnam veterans:
“The 1966-1972 rate of still-births was 1 in 7 versus the expected N.Z rate of 1.1 still-birth in 100 births. The 1966-72 rate of linked NTD (neural tube development) defects was 1 in 10.5 vs the N.Z range of 1 NTD in 222 to 1 NTD in 400. The 1966-72 rate of birth defect cases was *1 in 7 versus the N.Z expected rate of 1 case in 50 births This conservative rate is based on the 2002 TDHB review of addresses for only 17 of 167 birth defect cases 1965-70 so does not include the other 150 defects or three defects reported by Zone A mothers.” (from link and PDF).
The TDHB data also reveals a significant increase in 1976-85 cancer rates living within 500 meters of IWD in 1963-1966:
“From a Study of 165 Paritutu Zone A 1963-1966 residents living within a 500 metres of Ivon Watkins Building 03 plant:
“1976-85 rate of 0-64 year age group cancer mortality was 4.5 times expected. Five deaths where 1.1 was expected based on mean of 1976 and 1985 NZ census rates. Four of the 5 deaths were in 1981 and 1982. Two in five NZ 1976-85 cancer deaths were in 0-64 ages. All five Zone A cancer deaths were in 0-64 ages. Two 1981 cancer deaths were parents aged 35 and 48 of 1969 and 1970 miscarriage and still-birth cases. There were 13 deaths 1976-85 for Zone A 1963-66 residents with 13.4 all cause deaths expected, 5 were cancer deaths with 2.9 expected and there were 3 lung cancer mortalities where less than 1 was expected (link).”
For more background and historical documents, go to Paritutu Inside the Spin: How the New Zealand Government Rewrote History