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, (, 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:-

  • The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution’s report entitled “Crop Spraying and the Health of Residents and Bystanders” will be available on their website following the press launch

  • Ms. Downs submitted considerable written evidence to the RCEP study. She was also an invited speaker at the RCEP public meeting held on September 25th 2004 and gave oral evidence to the Commission members a few months later. Ms. Downs also peer reviewed 4 chapters of the RCEP report

  • Ms. Downs' initial response/reaction to the Royal Commission’s report highlighting what the Royal Commission’s findings really mean for rural residents and communities, represented by the UK Pesticides Campaign, will be available on her website shortly

  • Georgina Downs campaigns to highlight the effects of pesticide use in rural Britain and has lived next to regularly sprayed fields for 21 years. She was the first to identify serious fundamental flaws regarding the bystander risk assessment and for the last 4 and a half years has presented a case to the Government for a change in the regulations and legislation governing agricultural spraying. She has also produced 2 videos "Pesticide Exposures for People in Agricultural Areas – Part 1 Pesticides in the Air; Part 2 The Hidden Costs" to illustrate chemical exposure and the effects on people in rural areas

  • Ms. Downs has a database of approximately 750 people, compiled since early 2001. The acute ill-health effects that are commonly reported to Ms. Downs by people in agricultural areas include sore throats, burning eyes, nose, skin, blisters, headaches, dizziness, nausea, flu-type illnesses, amongst other things. The most common chronic long-term illnesses and diseases reported include clusters of various cancers, leukaemia, non-Hodgkins lymphoma, neurological problems, including Parkinson’s disease and ME, asthma, allergies, along with many other medical conditions. The RCEP visited a number of people from Ms. Downs’ database during the study. (NB. Under the existing regulatory system there is no monitoring or collection of data on chronic effects, so the full extent of ill-health related to pesticides is currently not known).

  • Ms. Downs has recently met with the new DEFRA Minister responsible for pesticides, Lord Bach, to highlight the inadequacies of the current regulations and monitoring systems for pesticides, including the serious fundamental flaws regarding the "bystander risk assessment." (NB. This follows on from previous meetings with former DEFRA Ministers Lord Whitty and Michael Meacher in December 2002 and Alun Michael in December 2003 regarding the "bystander" issue).

  • She has called for an immediate ban on crop-spraying and the use of pesticides near to people's homes, schools, workplaces and any other places of human habitation and for direct access for the public to all the necessary chemical information. Ms. Downs has highlighted that small buffer zones will be wholly inadequate as they are only in relation to immediate spraydrift and will not be able to protect people from exposure to pesticides in the air, chemical fumes after application, volatilisation, along with all the other exposure factors relevant for people in rural areas. Therefore a much larger distance is required. For further information on Georgina Downs’ campaign see

  • Ms. Downs has an application in the High Court to Judicially Review DEFRA's previous decision not to introduce no-spray zones around agricultural land to protect rural residents from pesticides, along with DEFRA's failure to adopt an adequate system for public access to information regarding the chemicals that are sprayed/applied. The application is currently "stayed" pending the outcome of the Royal Commission's study

  • Ms. Down’s campaign is currently featured in the October 2005 launch edition of “Lifescape” magazine. See for further information

  • Ms. Downs' campaign has been supported by Samuel Epstein, Professor Emeritus Environmental and Occupational Medicine, University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health and Chairman of the Cancer Prevention Coalition; Zac Goldsmith and the Ecologist magazine; Michael Meacher MP, (Former DEFRA Minister for the Environment and one of the Minister’s Ms. Downs originally presented the case to); Norman Baker MP, the Liberal Democrat’s front bench environment spokesman; Caroline Lucas MEP and the Soil Association amongst others

Contact: Georgina Downs – Telephone: 01243 773846 – Mobile: 07906 898 915

Email: Website –