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Child's Deformity 'Caused By Dioxin'

Mar 12, 2005 | The New Zealand Herald When Shona was born, she had a third ear and other problems her mother blames on dioxin contamination from living near a New Plymouth chemicals plant.

Robyn, the mother of Shona, who is now 19 and at high school, spent four years of her own childhood living next door to the plant in Paritutu, from 1969 to 1973.

"As far as I'm concerned, the dioxin went to me and my mother and from me to my daughter," Robyn said yesterday.

Shona was born with a growth the shape of a small extra ear on her left ear. She also has impaired hearing, learning difficulties related to mild attention deficit disorder, and puberty started early for her, at 10.

She was regularly in hospital in her first two years of life, to have the extra ear removed and be treated for severe colic.

The Herald has changed their names since Robyn fears criticism for blaming the chemicals plant in a community she believes is divided over the issue.

Anti-dioxin campaigners and some people who have lived in Paritutu blame dioxin from the former Ivon Watkins-Dow plant, now owned by Dow AgroSciences, for a range of birth defects, cancers and other serious health problems.

The Health Ministry on Thursday published dioxin blood test results from 52 people who have lived near the plant between 1962 and 1987, when it produced the weedkiller 2,4,5-T. Levels of the dioxin TCDD were comparable to that found in Vietnam 25 years after the spraying of Agent Orange.

The researchers said inhalation of emissions from the plant was the likely cause of the contamination, but the health effects were unclear.

Robyn said her daughter's learning difficulties had persisted and she was still behind at school.

Robyn's mother said in a written statement before she died of cervical cancer in 2002, that her family's home had no fence on its Ivon Watkins-Dow border.

"We picked and ate puha from this area. We also witnessed frothing liquid seeping from the ground on numerous occasions behind our home [and the 1972] explosion at the IWD plant."

But the ministry dismisses Robyn's claim of a dioxin link. Pesticides adviser Dr Deborah Read said the only birth defect that may be linked with dioxin was spina bifida.

Midwife Hyacinth Henderson reported high birth defect rates from the city's Westown Maternity Hospital in the 1960s.

Taranaki District Health Board reviews found elevated rates of cancer deaths near the plant from 1988 to 1997 and of neural tube birth defects at the hospital from 1965 to 1972. But it said the cancer finding was within the range of normal variation and the rise in birth defects was slight.

Andrew Gibbs, of the Dioxin Investigation Network, said he knew of at least one neural tube defect in addition to the three the board reported, lifting the rate from three times that expected, to at least four times.

The ministry said it would not sue Dow partly because there was no evidence that anyone had been harmed by the dioxin.

But Green MP Sue Kedgley said this was ridiculous because dioxin was a known cause of cancer.

Test findings

Blood tests on 52 people who lived near the New Plymouth chemicals plant for at least one year between 1962 and 1987 showed their average levels of the dioxin TCDD were almost four times the national average.

The highest level in an individual was 15 times the national average.

The Health Ministry said the highest levels could cause three extra cancer deaths in every 100 people.

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