23 Jun 2010

Former sawmill workers angry at ministry offer

6:00 pm on 23 June 2010

Former sawmill workers exposed to the dioxin PCP have been told they can have a free annual health check but the Ministry of Health says it can't justify funding tests to determine damage to DNA.

Anger and frustration were expressed by some people when the announcement was made at a meeting in Whakatane on Wednesday attended by about 200 people.

At the meeting, the ministry released a report containing the recommendations of consultants Allen and Clarke, who have proposed a special support service for those exposed to PCP, a timber preservative, when they worked at Whakatane Board Mills between the 1950s and 1980s.

The service will include educating doctors and patients about specific symptoms, and give access to various health and social services. The ministry will also fund discussions about the possibility of research into the potential impacts of PCP on spouses, children and grandchildren.

But it says there isn't sufficient justification to pay for serum dioxin tests or tests of DNA damage.

'Nothing in it' for workers' families

Matia Kohe, who started work at the mills in 1977, says it has taken too long for the Government to come up with not very much, against a backdrop of scientific evidence about dioxins.

And Charrise Hawkins, daughter of a former sawmill worker, says that she and her sisters have suffered from infertifility, skin rashes and depression, and that there's nothing in the announcement for the families of workers.

The campaign group Sawmill Workers Against Poisons, which has been fighting for recognition of workers' health problems for nearly 30 years, says however that the health check is a step in the right direction.

Spokesperson Joe Harawira told Checkpoint that while the package might look like a pittance, the workers now have more recognition than they have ever had before.

Initial compensation offer rejected

Many of those affected developed chronic injuries after inhaling PCP and many have paid for expensive blood tests to prove the severity of their exposure.

The ministry's environmental and border health protection manager, Sally Gilbert, acknowledges that there is a lot of concern among the former workers about the effects of PCP on their families.

The workers rejected an initial compensation package offer earlier this year.