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Fundamental flaws in the system for approval, regulation and monitoring pesticides

The Royal Commission recently published a report on the possible danger to "bystanders" of crop spraying. This article, by Scotsman farm correspondent Fordyce Maxwell, might be of interest to anyone concerned about the use of pesticides near villages and public areas.

Case against chemical sprays

Fordyce Maxwell, The Scotsman, 3 October 2005

We all make mistakes. Writing dismissively last Saturday about a Royal Commission report on the possible danger to "bystanders" of crop spraying was my most recent.

It is some time since my phone has been as hot, my e-mail system so busy.

I have not necessarily changed my view that the risks of spray use and drift are over-stated, but it is clear that an increasing number of people do think exactly that.

The most concerned know the subject thoroughly, argue their case forcefully and back up their arguments with extensive scientific and anecdotal detail.

They asked for a right of reply and this is it, starting with Georgina Downs, now probably the best-known campaigner for a change in regulations governing crop spraying.

She told me: "You said I think all chemicals are evil. I do not. Nor am I against farmers.

"But I am against public health being put at risk because the government does not want to upset the farming and agro-chemical industries."

She has campaigned steadfastly for change.

"Four and a half years ago, I identified serious and fundamental flaws in the system for approval, regulation and monitoring pesticides."

The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution's report on crop spraying published two weeks ago has now reached the same conclusion.

Her campaign began after she connected her own serious health problems with living for 21 years next to fields in the south of England sprayed regularly with pesticides and she now has evidence from more than 750 individuals who believe that pesticides have caused them health problems.

"The Women's Farming Union was wrong to say when the report was published that only 13 people had been affected. Only 13 were visited by the commission. More than 1,000 gave evidence."

While accepting that it is almost impossible to prove the causes of chronic illness, she believes that "the accumulation of circumstantial evidence against pesticides is overwhelming" and that many more than one million people in the UK could now have been affected in one of two main ways.

A "bystander", as defined in the Royal Commission report, might receive short-term exposure to pesticide drift while a resident living near fields that are regularly sprayed will be repeatedly exposed.

Both, she says, can suffer acute effects including sore throats; burning eyes, nose and skin; blisters; headaches and flu-type illnesses while "substantive evidence" links pesticides to cancers, neurological diseases and birth defects.

She also believes, as several other callers suggested, that the case against pesticides will eventually be accepted as it has been, belatedly, for asbestosis and the miners' affliction pneumoconiosis.

Does that mean she thinks the Royal Commission's report, which noted that "it is not implausible that there may be a link between pesticide spraying and chronic ill-health" and recommended further research and a five-metre field margin for sprays, has done a good job?

No. She believes it vindicates her campaign, but that the main recommendations contradict its own findings.

She said a five-metre zone was a farce when evidence shows that pesticide drift can travel several hundred metres, sometimes several miles: "I have always said the zone should be at least a mile."

The only way to protect public health and prevent any illnesses and diseases that may be associated with pesticides is to avoid exposure altogether, she went on, by adopting "sustainable non-chemical and natural methods as an alternative to chemical pest control".

"Continued claims by the industry that pesticides are safe and that the current system is robust appears to be one of perception, as it is not based on any sound scientific evidence. There is no evidence that the clusters of acute and chronic long-term illnesses and diseases reported in rural communities are not related to pesticides exposure. Substantive evidence exists linking pesticides to the types of illnesses that are being reported."

Barbara Robinson was not against farmers either. Government and vested business interests, she said, "are making us all victims". Those who should be giving best advice are not doing so and the Royal Commission report was wishy-washy and misleading.

In her village near Ipswich, she said that out of a population of 340 she had identified 20 people aged under 60 who in the past three years had suffered from ME, serious allergies or cancers and that East Anglia in general - an intensively farmed arable area - had a higher than average incidence of ME and cancer sufferers.

Farming systems must change, to organic or any alternative that did not involve pesticide use, she argues.

John Coyte, a mainly livestock farmer near Plymouth, accepted that some of us are genetically pre-disposed to chemical effects that others shrug off: "But we" - he suffered cumulative organophosphate poisoning ten years ago and has continuing serious health problems - "are not a small group. All the research on ill effects has been done, but the government and civil service will not reveal it."

It is a formidable case against pesticide use by committed people who believe they are right and also believe they have the evidence, small mountains of it, to back them up.

Farmers, and I, might think such evidence inconclusive. But so is farming's belief that chemicals used carefully are safe for all. As Guy Smith, Essex farmer and staunch member of the Linking Environment and Farming (LEAF) movement, said: "Society is going to ask more and more questions of farmers. We have to try and answer them coherently and effectively. So do not dismiss the anti-pesticide campaign messages, however strongly you disagree with them. Statistically, there is a good chance many of your neighbours could think they have some sort of condition or allergy."

He's right. I've spoken to them

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