Campaign Background

Georgina Downs

In the early 1980s, my parents purchased a piece of land in the countryside on which they designed and built their 'dream home'. They believed this would be a healthy environment to bring up their family and certainly could never have predicted the nightmare it would become.

In 1984, about a year after we moved into the house, a local farmer bought up the surrounding fields to be used for intensive agriculture. We were never warned about the dangers of the chemicals being used and in fact from the age of 11, I would regularly be in the garden when crop-spraying was taking place, with the tractor passing only a few feet away from me.

Throughout the years, I suffered from ill-health, notably flu-type illnesses, sore throats covered in blisters and headaches amongst other things. Not once were we ever told about the pesticides by anyone, so for 9 years we continued to have all windows/doors open in the summer during the spraying season and would regularly be in the garden during spraying.

By 1991 my health had deteriorated to such a degree that I ended up in hospital with severe muscle wastage, muscle weakness and other chronic symptoms. It was then that I started to look at what was in our surrounding environment. I was astonished to discover that the tractor was actually spraying "cocktails" of poisonous chemicals into the air where we live and breathe and even more astonished to find out that a farmer is legally permitted to do so under existing government policy.

Four years ago I started my investigations into the history of crop spraying as I realised that the only way to prevent my family from being poisoned further was to effect change at policy level. I very quickly discovered serious fundamental flaws in the regulations governing the approval and use of pesticides.

The official method of assessing the dangers and risks to public health from agricultural spraying and under which chemical usage is approved, is based on the predictive model of a 'bystander' with the assumption being that there will only be the occasional short-term exposure. This model is dangerously inadequate and bears no resemblance to the actual exposure experienced by people who are living in these sprayed areas, 24 hours a day, every day. This means that there is not and never has been an appropriate or realistic assessment of the risks to public health for people who actually live near heavily sprayed fields and yet crop-spraying has been a predominant feature of agriculture for over 50 years.

Pesticides, by their very nature, are designed to kill living organisms so it is not surprising that these chemicals are highly poisonous substances. Many people have regularly suffered, and reported, serious ill-health effects following exposure(s) to these chemicals.

Illnesses that have been strongly linked to pesticides include various cancers, Parkinson's disease, MS, MND, ME, asthma, allergies and Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, amongst others. Babies, children, pregnant women, the elderly and those with pre-existing medical problems are particularly vulnerable.

Yet there is no legal obligation for farmers to notify anyone of any intended spraying application or to supply information on the chemicals being used, regardless of whether adverse health effects have been suffered.

I was invited to make a presentation to the Government's Advisory Committee on Pesticides in July 2002. I produced a video utilising dummies at the edge of our property to illustrate to the Committee the reality of this situation and to provide evidence that crop-spraying is posing unacceptable risks to public health. When I asked the attendees to raise their hands if they thought that the video had shown an acceptable system for protecting public health, not a single hand went up.

I met with Ministers Lord Whitty (Minister for Food and Farming) and Michael Meacher (Former Minister for Environment) in December 2002 to show them the video and to present the case for a change in the regulations and legislation governing agricultural spraying. Immediate action is required from both the British government and in European legislation as public health is not being protected from the high level of risk inherent in the spraying of over 31,000 tonnes of agricultural chemicals on British farmland every year. Studies have shown pesticide particles located miles away from where they were originally applied. Recent scientific research from California has calculated risks within a 1.5 to 3 mile radius of pesticide treated areas.

There should be a ban on crop-spraying and the use of pesticides near to people's homes, schools, workplaces and any other places of human habitation. The land that is not sprayed could still be farmed using non-chemical management practices. There needs to be a new legal obligation to warn people before any spraying application and to provide all the necessary chemical information.

DEFRA launched a Consultation on crop-spraying in July 2003, proposing the introduction of the above measures. This Consultation resulted in the highest number of responses to a Consultation since DEFRA records began. I met with Alun Michael (DEFRA Minister for Rural Affairs) on December 17th 2003, as he has now taken over the responsibility for pesticides from Lord Whitty.

I produced a second video to accompany my written submission to the Consultation. The aim of the video was to again show the Government the reality of exactly what is happening in the countryside from the continued use of pesticides and other hazardous chemicals in agriculture and the long-term consequences and devastating effects on people living in rural areas. I decided to make the video after receiving emails and letters from people all over the country reporting acute and chronic long-term illnesses and diseases in communities surrounded by sprayed fields.

The most common illnesses reported include clusters of cancers, (especially breast cancer among rural women) leukaemia, ME and asthma. Reports of this nature have gone on for decades.

Therefore the Government and their advisors must recognise and admit the effects pesticides have on human health. Preventing pesticide poisoning is the only way to protect people from pesticide related ill-health. The human rights aspect of this issue is extremely important as everyone has a recognised right to protect their health and the health of their family from harm.

The other key issue is that of responsibility and liability. Whenever I have asked who is liable for people being poisoned by chemicals, everybody blames everybody else. The Health and Safety Executive blames government policy, the government blames Europe or the farmers and others blame the manufacturers. No one is accepting responsibility and there is no legal redress for all the people who have had their health and lives destroyed due to pesticide-related disease. The government must accept that it has a financial responsibility for the risks imposed and damage caused as a direct result of Government policy.

So what of our 'dream home'? We now have to spend every summer shut up in a boiling hothouse which is just unbearable and suffocating, to try and reduce exposure as much as possible to these chemicals. If my dad does go outside during spraying, he has to wear a respirator, goggles and other protective clothing, when he is on his own property and his own land.

The principle aim of pesticide regulation is supposed to be the protection of public health. Therefore the Government has to accept the evidence of what is happening in reality, as maintaining the status quo and allowing this situation to continue is completely unacceptable and cannot be justified on any grounds.

It is time that ministers recognised that, to protect the public's health, they must take decisive action on this issue. Is a breath of fresh air too much to ask for?