PRESS RELEASE – EMBARGOED UNTIL 11.00 AM ON THURSDAY 22nd SEPTEMBER 2005
A Right Royal Poisoning
Leading Pesticides Campaigner “vindicated” by new report on crop-spraying health risks by the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, but states that the key recommendation contradicts the reports own findings
A new report released today by the UK’s most influential environmental body, the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (RCEP) confirms crop-spraying is a potential health risk and that illnesses and diseases reported by people in rural areas could be associated with pesticide exposure.
The RCEP’s conclusions overturn previous Government assertions over the safety of pesticides. If implemented the RCEP’s recommendations would result in an unprecedented overhaul affecting all the Government agencies and departments currently responsible for pesticides.
The outgoing RCEP Chair, Sir Tom Blundell said, “Government policy on exposure of bystanders and local residents is currently inadequate.”………”No one can dispute that those individuals who have reported ill health, which they claim is due to pesticides being sprayed, are genuinely ill. Based on our personal examination of some of these cases and on our current understanding of the effects that pesticides can have on the body system, it is not implausible that there may be a link between pesticide spraying and chronic ill health.”……...”We feel that the protection of the health of the British public needs to be strengthened.”
The RCEP report found that there are significant unresolved issues in relation to the health and exposure elements of the current risk assessment. The RCEP concluded that they did not agree that the evidence could lead to unequivocal conclusions that the system provides adequate protection and that there are no scientific concerns or that it provides full reassurance to the Minister.
The RCEP had been asked by the former DEFRA Minister for Rural Affairs, Alun Michael, to examine the scientific evidence on which DEFRA had based its decision on the risks to people from crop-spraying, as well as its policy on access to information, following a determined and relentless four and a half year campaign by Georgina Downs of UK Pesticides Campaign, (www.pesticidescampaign.co.uk), the leading campaign highlighting the effects of pesticides on people in rural areas (referred to in the RCEP report as “residents” and “bystanders”).
Ms. Downs was the first to identify serious fundamental flaws in the Government’s “bystander risk assessment,” in early 2001 and started presenting a case to the Government for an overhaul of the regulations and legislation governing agricultural spraying.
This included the presentation of a video to key scientific advisors, regulators and numerous Government Ministers that featured a family of mannequins, made up of a pregnant woman, two babies and a young child to illustrate the inherent health risks of crop-spraying near human habitation. This powerful video played a crucial role in forcing the issue right into the heart of the political agenda and has been referred to in the RCEP report.
Ms. Downs also produced a second video, first seen by Government officials in 2003, but who subsequently dismissed it’s content. It featured people from all over the country reporting cases of cancers, leukaemia, non-Hodgkins lymphoma, neurological problems, including Parkinson’s disease and ME, amongst many other illnesses, in rural communities surrounded by sprayed fields. This video was seen by the former DEFRA Minister for Rural Affairs, Alun Michael, shortly before he requested the RCEP study in June 2004 and was subsequently seen by all members of the RCEP.
Ms. Downs states, “The fact that the RCEP have agreed that there are serious inherent flaws throughout the existing regulations and called for a complete overhaul is a positive outcome and obviously I do feel somewhat vindicated. The regulators and scientific advisors on pesticides continue to maintain that a robust system is in place to protect public health. I have continued to argue that this is misleading, as there is insufficient scientific evidence to support these assertions and the RCEP have recognised this in their report.”
The RCEP’s findings are highly critical of both the Government’s key scientific advisors on pesticides: the regulators, the Pesticides Safety Directorate (PSD) and the Advisory Committee on Pesticides (ACP). The RCEP question the independence of the PSD, which receives 60% of its funding from the agro-chemical industry and suggest that the PSD’s current structure seems to be making health and environmental considerations subordinate to pest control. Ms. Downs highlighted the PSD’s inherent conflict of interests in her evidence to the RCEP.
The report also criticises the current lack of involvement of the Department of Health (DOH) regarding the health impacts of pesticides, despite the warnings given in previous official reports, including the highly regarded British Medical Association’s 1990 report “Pesticides, Chemicals and Health” and the Commons Agriculture Select Committee report in 1987. It emerged during the course of the RCEP’s study that, astonishingly, the Chief Medical Officer from the DOH, Sir Liam Donaldson, was not familiar with either of the aforementioned reports.
In a somewhat bizarre turn of events the RCEP’s report exposes the fact that on 2 occasions the PSD did not pass on to Ministers the ACP’s formal written advice, labelled as “Advice to Ministers,” regarding the bystander issue. It was actually the confusion surrounding this issue that resulted in the RCEP having to delay the publication of their report from June to September, as even though the whole purpose of the RCEP study was to examine the scientific evidence behind DEFRA’s policy decisions, the PSD had not passed on the ACP’s advice to the RCEP either.
The RCEP’s recommendations include a new requirement for farmers to warn residents before spraying as well as direct public access on the chemicals being used. Ms. Downs had been calling for both of these since the start of her campaign and states “People have a fundamental right to know the information necessary to make informed and knowledgeable decisions to protect their own health.”
However, despite accepting that there is a potential health risk and that various illnesses and diseases could be associated with pesticides, Ms. Downs points out that the report then completely contradicts its own findings by making recommendations that won’t actually prevent exposure to pesticides for people in the countryside from crop-spraying.
Ms. Downs states “Considering the evidence submitted to the RCEP in relation to the distances pesticides have been shown to travel and the calculated health risks for rural residents and communities living within those distances, then the recommendation of 5 metre buffer zones is wholly inadequate and I remain at a loss to understand how the RCEP could have considered this to be acceptable and protective.”
She points out that a recent study from America that confirmed acute illnesses in children and employees from pesticides sprayed on farmland near schools stated that 7 US states require no-spray buffer zones of up to 2.5 miles around schools.
Ms. Downs states “The RCEP’s 5 metre recommendation will only disappoint rural communities who are likely to see this as yet another independent inquiry that was filled with such promise, but in relation to the overriding key recommendation, has simply failed to deliver. Members of the public deserve to be protected from avoidable and unnecessary exposures and risks to their health. Substantive evidence already exists to demonstrate a serious public health problem and therefore the significance of these consequences requires the adoption of a preventative approach. The UK Pesticides Campaign will continue to press the Government for immediate action and will be writing to Tony Blair to request an urgent meeting.”
Ms. Downs points out that the only way to protect public health and prevent any illnesses and diseases that may be associated with pesticides is to avoid exposure altogether through the widespread adoption of sustainable non-chemical and natural methods as an alternative to chemical pest control.
Notes to Editors:-
Contact: Georgina Downs – Telephone: 01243 773846 – Mobile: 07906 898 915