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Massey Magazine Issue 13 November 2002

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Professor Neil Pearce

Agent Orange lessons relevant to NZ dioxin difficulties

WELLINGTON – Lessons learnt about the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam will have direct relevance to the ongoing dioxin debate in New Zealand, says the Director of Massey’s Centre for Public Health Research.

Professor Neil Pearce is the only Southern Hemisphere-based member of the 14-seat Steering Committee for the Vietnam Environmental Conference, to be convened in Stockholm next year. This conference will be the first time the long-term environmental consequences of the war have been discussed in an international forum. The Steering Committee includes leading scientists, officials of non-governmental organisations and a Member of the Swedish parliament. The countries represented include New Zealand, Vietnam, Sweden, England, Canada and the United States.

Professor Pearce is also researching environmental and public health aspects of production of pesticides contaminated with dioxin at New Plymouth’s Ivon Watkins Dow plant in the 1970s. He has been a public commentator on the recent Ministry for the Environment’s report on environmental dioxin contamination.

“It should be remembered that the major constituent of Agent Orange was 245-T, which was contaminated with dioxin and was manufactured by Ivon Watkins Dow throughout the Vietnam War period for agricultural use in New Zealand,” says Professor Pearce.

“This Vietnam Environmental Conference will bring together the world’s leading researchers on chemical defoliants - and their effects on public health and on ecosystems – so I’m sure these discussions in Stockholm will have direct relevance to the dioxin debate in New Zealand.”

Professor Pearce visited Vietnam in 1995 as a member of a committee of inquiry sent by the United States Congress. This inquiry followed the end of the American 20-year embargo on Vietnam and signalled a thaw in relations between the two countries.

“Because the embargo had restricted contacts with Vietnam, this was one of the first times the subject had really been addressed by scientists. We saw a lot of examples of cancers and deformities, but not much formal research had been done that asked whether these problems were occurring more often than was expected, and whether they were associated with dioxin exposure,” says Professor Pearce.

“So I welcome this new initiative - the international scientific community can now start helping the Vietnamese address these issues.”

Professor Pearce says the conference is also timely because of public concern about environmental dioxin exposure in New Zealand, and about the health of New Zealand’s Vietnam veterans – and the recent acknowledgement of these concerns by the New Zealand Government. The committee includes several specialists who have been tracking the health of veterans in both Vietnam and the United States.

He believes that participation in the conference will also enable New Zealand to acknowledge its involvement in the war, in turn strengthening relations with Vietnam.

“I believe that as participants in the Vietnam War we have an ongoing responsibility to see what the long term effects of spraying Agent Orange have been in Vietnam, and what can be done about it.”

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