Revealed: government knew of farm poisoning risk but failed to act.
Tom Levitt, Monday 20 April 2015.
Documents show officials knew of danger from chemical mandated for sheep dipping that left hundreds of farmers with debilitating health problems, prompting politicians to call for Hillsborough-style inquiry. Government officials knew of the dangerous health risks to farmers using a chemical treatment in the 1980s and 1990s but still refused to end its compulsory use, documents reveal for the first time.
At least 500 farmers across the UK were left with debilitating health problems after using organophosphate-based (OP) chemicals to protect their sheep against parasites, whose use was mandated by government until 1992.
Successive UK governments have claimed they did not know about the dangers farmers faced using the OPs for sheep dipping at that time and also dispute any link between repeated, low-level use of the chemical and chronic ill health, including serious neurological damage.
It has now emerged that government officials were privately warning of the dangers of exposure to even low doses of the chemical and criticising the safety measures offered by manufacturers, prompting calls by senior political figures for a Hillsborough-style inquiry.
A Health and Safety Executive (HSE) survey of farmers, released under an freedom of information request, said that: “Repeated absorption of small doses [can] have a cumulative effect and can result in progressive inhibition of nervous system cholinesterase.”
It also criticised manufacturers for providing inadequate protective clothing and unclear instructions to farmers on how to use the chemicals: “If with all the resources available to them, a major chemical company proves unable to select appropriate protective equipment, what hope is there for an end-user?”
However, in the same month as this report was published internally – May 1991 – the farming minister at the time, John Gummer, was demanding local authorities clamp down on farmers who refused to use the chemical.
“This revelation is explosive,” said shadow health secretary Andy Burnham. “I am 100% convinced that this is a major scandal and that people have suffered in silence and isolation. It shows that the risks were known and yet mandatory dipping continued. There may have been a risk, but they didn’t act. I want a Hillsborough-style disclosure of what was known, by whom and when.”
A number of scientists and medical experts have long spoken out about the use of OP sheep dips and the high number of incidents of chronic ill health within the farming community in the 1980s and early 1990s. Campaigners have previously claimed the government knew about these risks when dipping was compulsory, but The Health and Safety Executive has now become the first government agency to be forced to admit that publicly.
“It’s appalling that this information was never acted upon or passed on to farmers at the time,” said Teresa Layton, whose husband David, a sheep farmer on the Welsh border, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1993 and later confirmed as having suffered OP poisoning. “Luckily my husband is still here today, but he can no longer do anything for himself.
“It’s so frustrating to think of all the things we could have done as a family and with our children which we haven’t been able to do. Now we have grandchildren and it’s heartbreaking seeing David sat in bed or in a wheelchair not being able to hold them. And all because of this sheep dip product that the government and chemical companies knew was dangerous, yet let so many peoples lives be ruined.”
Another victim, former sheep farmer Margaret Mar, a life peer in the House of Lords, has spent the past 25 years campaigning in Westminster on the issue. “I know from private discussions with an advisor at the Department of Health that officials knew about the risks, but couldn’t publicly criticise OPs because they were a government-recommended dip at that time,” she said.
Although the HSE document shows it knew about the risks, a spokesperson said it had “no record” of whether the document was ever passed on to ministers or HSE’s parent department at the time, the Department of Employment. HSE had no comment to make on the document’s contents. Gummer, now Lord Deben, told the Guardian that he did not know whether he had seen the HSE document, but said he had always consulted the “best available science” during his time as a minister.
The government ended mandatory use of OP sheep dips in 1992 and later admitted that since packaging had been redesigned to better protect farmers coming into contact with the chemical, following a temporary ban in 1999, there had only been one reported case of a human adverse reaction arising from the use of organophosphate dip products.
Victim support groups compiled a list of more than 500 farmers who suffered ill health from using OP sheep dips in the 1980s and 1990s (later used by Defra for its own research), but campaigners believe the real number of victims was likely to have been in the thousands.
A spokesperson for the environment department said it still disputed the suggestion that the use of OPs had been a health hazard to farmers. It said its independent advisors, the Committee on Toxicity, had concluded last year that exposure to organophosphates at a level insufficient to cause acute poisoning did not cause anything more than minor and subtle damage to the nervous system.
However, a leading toxicologist said the committee’s review of the evidence on OPs was flawed.
Dr Sarah MacKenzie Ross, from University College London’s review of existing scientific evidence, published in 2013, found 13 out of 16 studies showed evidence of neurological problems following long-term, low-level exposure to OPs.
Burnham said that when parliament returns he will push for an independent inquiry into why farmers were not adequately protected.