Study focuses on effects
of PCP exposure
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Ongoing health problems among timber workers
exposed to industry chemical PCP are to be investigated by the
Centre for Public Health Research and led by Professor Neil Pearce.
The project, funded by the Ministry of Health, aims to ascertain
whether timber workers exposed to the PCPs (pentachlorophenols)
are dying earlier, getting cancers more often and suffering more
chronic health problems, including fatigue, nausea and neuropsychological
Professor Pearce says the study addresses concerns expressed
by former timber workers in the past decade about a range of
chronic health problems they have experienced.
“These workers were exposed to PCPs through its use as
an anti-sapstain fungicide in sawmills. Because of uncertainty
over whether these
health problems could be attributed to past PCP exposure, the
Government has made funding available to commission research
aimed at clarifying the issue,” he says.
Administered by the Health Research Council, the $520,000 study
will compare timber workers’ death rates with national
rates, and estimate the size of any risks attributable to PCPs.
It will also involve a survey of current health problems in a
random sample of former timber workers. The project advisory
committee includes representatives of the Forest Industries Council,
the unions representing former timber workers, Sawmill Workers
Against Poisons (SWAP), the Ministry of Health, the Ministry
for the Environment, ERMA, and OSH.
Serum samples will be taken from a random sample of former timber
workers to validate exposure. Workers involved in wood treatment
processes or in handling treated timber are known to have significant
exposure to PCPs, which have contained contaminants and by-products
including various types of dioxin. Jobs with potential for heavy
exposure include handling of sludge formed in the bottom of dip
tanks and any process involving the heating of PCP including
burning treated wood or welding structures contaminated with
From the 1950s through to the late 1980s PCP was widely used
in the New Zealand timber industry, and almost all freshly sawn
timber treated to prevent sapstain fungi. The Department of Conservation
estimates almost 600 sites in New Zealand are contaminated.
The organic chemical can be released into the atmosphere from
treated wood and transported to surface water and soils. It is
also released into the atmosphere from factory waste disposal,
entering the soil as a result of spills, disposal at hazardous
waste sites and its use as a pesticide. The compound can be present
in fish or other food species and its levels are monitored by
the USA Food and Drug Administration.
People are exposed to PCPs through contaminated drinking water,
the inhalation of contaminated air and through the handling of
treated timber, textiles, leather and paper products. PCP is
completely and rapidly absorbed by the digestive tract where
it enters the bloodstream, and accumulates in highest concentrations
in the liver, kidneys and brain.
Professor Pearce was part of a team to undertake a preliminary
study of the effects of occupational pentachlorophenol exposure
for the Wellington Medical Research Foundation in 1998. He says
the current project work fits well with the increasing number
of other occupational health projects underway at the Centre.
These include: research on occupational causes of bladder cancer,
leukaemia, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and nasopharyngeal cancer;
studies of cancer in workers exposed to dioxin pesticide production
or through work in pulp and paper mills; the work on occupational
health in Mäori being carried out by Professor Chris Cunningham
at Te Pumanawa Hauora; research on shiftwork and fatigue by Professor
Philippa Gander at the Sleep/Wake Research Centre.
10 September, 2004