The Green Chain | The Jackal

23 Aug 2011

The Green Chain

I watched a great doco last weekend called The Green Chain, which was all about Sawmill Workers Against Poisons (SWAP), an organization comprised of and for people affected by chemical exposure in Sawmills and Pulp and Papermills.

SWAP is also concerned with the environmental impacts of toxic waste and has identified many contaminated dumpsites around New Zealand.

The main toxic substance that has affected many thousands of sawmill workers and their families is Pentachlorophenol (PCP), which was widely used in the timber industry for years as a cheap treatment for sapstain, a fungal infection commonly found in softwoods such as pine.

The process creates a number of toxic impurities such as tetrachlorophenol, hexachlorobenzene and several types of dioxins and dibenzofurans. The main route of absorption is through the skin. PCP exposure corresponds to an extra risks of cancer from 20 to 140 times greater than normal. The current acceptable level of exposure is now 10-6 ppm, effectively amounting to no safe level of daily exposure.

Despicably the consequences of working with this chemical were known well before it became widely used. But it wasn't until 1986 that some workers made the association between their ill health and exposure to PCP. The owners of treatment plants simply allowed their workers to come into contact with the highly carcinogenic substance, with little or no protective clothing, all the while knowing that many of them would become sick and die.

The government owned many of these despicably run businesses, and are ultimately liable. That’s why they’ve been doing everything they can to cover up their negligence. You would expect a sympathetic and robust response to the families affected... not so. The workers who have become unwell because of exposure to PCP are given one free health check per year and that’s it. No proper health plan, no compensation, not even an apology.

New Zealand has the highest rate of cancer in the world. Many areas that experience increased cancer rates such the Waikato Lakes and the Bay of Plenty have or had large Sawmill and Papermill industries, which result in contaminated waste by-product. People are still becoming unwell because most of the waste remains improperly disposed of.

The workers who were directly exposed have not received compensation because ACC says they cannot pin point exactly when exposure occurred, with anybody who worked with PCP for less than a year automatically ineligible for compensation. Those affected also need to prove that their health problems are a direct result of their work, thus ACC claims that there are many things that could be the cause of their cancers.

It’s a disgusting manoeuvre to limit liability. Compensation has never been granted despite many health reports and irrefutable evidence that the sawmill workers ill health is a direct result of their exposure to PCP. The government is simply waiting for these people to die, which will under current law ultimately absolve them of their responsibility.

It’s not only the workers who are affected though; their families also bear the cost of their fathers and husbands unknowingly working with dangerous substances. As well as loosing and having to look after their unwell loved ones, saturation of work clothes resulted in cross contamination, meaning that many wives and children are also adversely affected.

Because of damage to the workers DNA, there will be hereditary health problems for these families, meaning their children will suffer ill health many years after the Pesticides Board banned pentachlorophenol in New Zealand in 1994, some twenty years after its dangers were first known to the government.