Support Service for PCP Exposed Sawmill Workers

( The Ministry of Health have released a report on a proposed special support service for former sawmill workers who were exposed to pentachlorophenol (PCP), a timber preservative used in the 1950s to 1980s.

Ministry of Health Environmental and Border Health Protection Manager Sally Gilbert says the report’s authors Allen & Clarke sought the views of former sawmill workers and their families, Sawmill Workers Against Poisons (SWAP), potential health service providers, and a technical group consisting of epidemiologists, toxicologists, and public health specialists.

“The Ministry of Health has accepted Allen & Clarke’s recommendations and intends to establish a special support service for former sawmill workers exposed to PCP in line with those recommendations,” Sally Gilbert said.

The special support service will include:

* Information and advice for doctors, other health practitioners, and patients about historical exposure to PCP and subsequent health risks;
* A free annual health check provided by a doctor;
* Access to health promotion initiatives, like programmes to reduce cancer risk;
* Counselling and other primary mental health services;
* A service to help people access other social services that they are entitled to; and

The Ministry of Health also intends to fund researchers (including epidemiologists and toxicologists), in consultation with Sawmill Workers Against Poisons, to discuss and if possible develop a research methodology on the question of impacts of PCP on spouses and/or the children and grandchildren of sawmill workers. If a robust research methodology can be developed, a proposal for funding could then be advanced via the usual research funding processes that are available in New Zealand.

“The recommendations balance what we know about historical exposure to PCP and health risk with former sawmill workers’ concerns about their exposure. They also reflect submitters’ concerns about the lack of information available to health practitioners and individuals about PCP exposure.

“Eligibility for the service will be on the basis that an individual worked in a place at a time when exposure is likely to have occurred. The report recommends that people should be eligible for a special support service if they:

* worked in a sawmill where PCP was used; AND
* worked in jobs that used PCP chemicals or if they came into contact with PCP baths/tanks or if they worked with timber that was still wet from the PCP treatment process; AND
* worked in these jobs for at least one year; AND
* are eligible to use publicly funded health services in New Zealand (eg, New Zealand citizens).

“At this stage, there is not sufficient justification for funding serum dioxin tests or other tests to determine damage to DNA. Serum dioxin tests may tell you that an individual has been exposed but that’s all it tells you. There is also no strong evidence to suggest that PCP causes genetic damage. We also know that former sawmill workers have been exposed to PCP so doing more tests is not going to help people get well.”

The report does not support former sawmill workers getting faster access to treatment services than other New Zealanders who might have the same needs.

“We believe it is only fair that all New Zealanders who develop a health condition receive treatment on the basis of clinical need, not why they became sick. Any treatments provided to people must also be safe, of high quality, and effective”.

The Ministry, and Allen & Clarke, would like to thank all of those who have provided information and recommendations as it has assisted us in developing the most appropriate service to support those sawmill workers who have been exposed to PCP.

“We hope the services will be available by the end of the year. Further information is available on the Ministry’s website at or by calling 0800 288 588”, Sally said.

Background information
PCP is a chemical that was used as an anti-sapstain treatment in the New Zealand timber industry between the 1950s and 1980s. The chemical was used at certain stages in timber processing only and has not been used in the industry for over 20 years.

Research by McLean et al (2008) has shown that most former sawmill workers had low exposure to PCP and had mortality rates similar to or less than, national death rates. However, about 10 percent of former sawmill workers were more highly exposed to PCP or worked for more than 10 years in the industry. While their numbers were too small for an assessment of specific health problems, the findings suggested a possible increase in physical and neuropsychological conditions for these workers. This also includes a small non-significant increase in cancer mortality similar to that found in other studies on dioxin and health outcomes. Former sawmill workers exposed to PCP also had higher levels of some kinds of dioxins in their blood than the other people in the study and other New Zealanders.

The exposure to PCP is a historical issue: the timber industry does not use PCP any more: the chemical was phased out from the 1980s.

The Ministry of Health asked Allen & Clarke to:

* look into what exposures to PCP took place in the New Zealand timber industry;
* review the evidence on the health conditions associated with exposure to PCP;
* interview a range of experts and interested parties over the types of services that might be available to and/or required by former sawmill workers;
* develop criteria for who should be able to access any support service (if one is proposed);
* make recommendations on the scope of a support service (if one is proposed); and
* make recommendations on education and information needs for health professionals helping former sawmill workers.

In August 2009, Allen & Clarke released a consultation paper, A special support service for former sawmill workers exposed to pentachlorophenol. This paper set out options for possible services and requested that interested parties consider whether the proposed options would meet their health needs and expectations. One hundred and eighteen submissions were received and have been reviewed. In December 2009, Allen & Clarke released its analysis of submissions and initial directions report.

Media Release 23 June 2010 from Ministry of Health.