The pesticides scandal: Government inaction is destroying lives

The new coalition government is being urged to take immediate action on dangerous pesticides
The new coalition Government must do what Labour failed to do in 13 years in power and finally introduce the necessary measures to protect people from pesticides, says Georgina Downs

The use of pesticides has increased dramatically since the Second World War, becoming one of the dominant factors in agricultural production. But this has been a revolution with devastating consequences.

Supporters of chemicalised farming might claim that pesticides have led to increased yields and the capacity to work land more intensively, yet there can be no doubt that such methods are causing serious damage to the environment, wildlife and, above all, human health. 

I have long found it a scandal that the UK Government has, to date, been so unwilling to take action to protect the public, despite all the unarguable evidence of the health risks. Delays, obstruction, lack of urgency and bleats about costs have characterised the official response to the worsening pesticide crisis, largely because of the control that the chemical industry and big agricultural producers have over Whitehall.

But there are at last signs of hope following all my campaigning. New EU laws have recently been passed which should, if implemented correctly by the UK, have a profound effect on the use of pesticides in British farming. As a result of my campaigning in Brussels, the EU legislation contains a number of critical measures for the protection of residents, including a new legal obligation on farmers and other pesticide users to provide residents with information on the pesticides they use; as well as the option for a new legal requirement in the statutory conditions of use for residents to be provided with prior notification before spraying.

Most importantly of all, Article 12 of the new EU directive concerns the prohibition of pesticide use in areas used by the general public or by 'vulnerable groups', a term which is clearly defined in the new EU legislation as including residents exposed to pesticides sprayed in their locality. This is a vital clause.

Agriculture - the 'biggest' villain

Considering that approximately 80 per cent of pesticides used in this country each year is related to agricultural use and that the main poisoning incidents and acute adverse health effects recorded annually in the Government’s own monitoring system are from crop-spraying, then the prohibition of the use of pesticides in the locality of homes, schools, children’s playgrounds, hospitals and public areas is absolutely crucial for public health protection, especially that of vulnerable groups.

The passage of the EU legislation, combined with my own long fought legal battles against the UK Government regarding the lack of protection for the public from pesticides, particularly rural residents, forced Labour to embark on a major consultation exercise about state policy on pesticide use. This process came to an end just before the General Election and the new Coalition Government is due to set out its policy on pesticides shortly.  

Despite the critical measures that are included in the new EU laws there is great concern as to how, or even if, the coalition Government will implement them, as the previous Government continued to rely on voluntary measures only in order to maintain the status quo.

The most scandalous aspect of this is that the case for action on health grounds could hardly be more compelling. It is now beyond dispute that pesticides can have a wide range of acute and chronic adverse effects on human health. The European Commission itself, in pressing the case for the new EU legislation, acknowledged that 'long-term exposure to pesticides can lead to serious disturbances to the immune system, sexual disorders, cancers, sterility, birth defects, damage to the nervous system and genetic damage.'

Chronic health impacts

There has been a significant increase in recent years of a number of these chronic health conditions. According to cancer statistics, around 298,000 new cases of cancer (excluding non-melanoma skin cancer) are diagnosed in the UK each year, and more than one in three people will develop some form of cancer during their lifetime. In 2008, there were more than 156,000 cancer deaths in the UK, and one in four (27 per cent) of all deaths in the UK were due to cancer.

Just as worrying is the incidence of Parkinson’s disease. As recognised by the European Commission pesticides can damage the brain and central nervous system of humans, which is not surprising considering that many pesticides are neurotoxic. In March 2009, one reputable study found that exposure to just two pesticides within 500 metres of a resident’s home increased the risk of Parkinson’s Disease by 75 per cent. According to Parkinson’s statistics, 120,000 people live with Parkinson's in the UK, or 1 in 500 people. Every year 10,000 people are diagnosed with the disease in the UK, in which 1 in 20 is under 40 years of age. There is currently no cure for Parkinson's.

The cost to the UK economy of just a few of these chronic health conditions is massive. For example, in 2008 cancer cost £5.13 billion in terms of NHS costs alone, and the total costs to society in England was estimated to be a staggering £18.33 billion, with these costs predicted to increase to £24.72 billion by 2020.

It has been calculated that Parkinson’s Disease costs the NHS £384 million per year with 78 per cent of these costs being taken up by hospitalisations, and the total cost in the UK of the disease is estimated to be between £449 million and £3.3 billion annually, depending on the cost model and prevalence rate used. Another neurological condition which has been linked to pesticide exposure, Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME) has been estimated to cost the nation £6.4 billion per year. Although there are a number of different causes for these chronic conditions, even if pesticides are only causing a proportion, the costs would still be enormous, particularly when added up with all the health costs of other related conditions, along with all the environmental costs.

For example, the cost of removing pesticides from drinking water alone is estimated to be approx. £140 million per year. It has been estimated to cost approx. a further £4.75 million to monitor pesticides at 2500 surface and groundwater sites. It costs £2 million a year in the UK to check for pesticide residues in food and an estimated £5.4 million for pesticide monitoring in both food and livestock together.

Flawed finances

It is clear that chemical farming is costing the country billions of pounds every year. Yet the former Government’s entire costs analysis in relation to the use of pesticides was hopelessly flawed, as in its pesticides policy, the Labour Government never factored in the massive financial and economic burden that the use of pesticides imposes on the country through damage to human health and the environment.

I have recently written to the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, the Chancellor, and the DEFRA Secretary of State, to stress the need for tough action on pesticides, as the new coalition Government cannot afford to make the same mistake as the previous Government. The current pesticide policy has very significant and long standing cost implications for the Government, and thus the taxpayer, that totals billions of pounds each year, and which will continue to do so unless a different policy approach is urgently adopted. Obviously it goes without saying that the personal and human costs to those suffering chronic diseases and damage cannot be calculated in financial terms.

Ironically, a stated reason that the former Labour Government gave for repeatedly refusing to introduce mandatory measures for public health protection from pesticides was to do with cost implications on the Government and 'the public purse'. Yet, aside from the critical fact that the existing external costs of pesticide use completely dwarfs any potential costs of introducing new measures, there is an additional serious fundamental flaw in the former Government’s continued reliance on this argument.

In the recent Government consultation on pesticides, DEFRA estimated the highest stated cost to the Government from adopting regulatory controls wherever possible, as being £111.51 million.

Spending farce

Yet this is nothing compared to the ridiculous waste of multi billions of pounds of public money during the Labour years, with some of the most farcical being: the reported £200 million of public money spent on doses of the swine flu vaccine never to be used because officials forgot to add a cancel clause to the contract with the pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline; the Welsh language television channel funded with £100 million of public money that showed nearly 200 programmes between February and March 2010 which were watched by no one; in 2009, the Learning and Skills Council gave the go ahead to more college building programmes than they had money for – resulting in dozens of colleges having to write off over £220 million that they had already spent before the mistake was realized; and not to mention of course the reported £5 billion spent by senior civil servants since 2002 on taxpayer funded credit cards, including dining at top restaurants.

Such wasted billions clearly confirm that mandatory control measures on pesticide use could have been introduced many, many, times over by now if public money had been managed responsibly by the former Government, with the priority being given to policy areas that involve public health protection, such as this one.

Following the coalition Government's announcement of the Spending Review that has set departmental budgets for the years 2011-12 to 2014-15, the Government must ensure that the spending cuts due to take place are not used as an excuse for a continuation of the former Government’s inaction over pesticides. This is about public health protection and is thus not a policy area that can be sacrificed, or compromised on, in any way.

Considering the massive health and environmental costs of chemical farming it makes clear economic sense to introduce new regulatory controls on pesticides, and to shift policy towards utilizing non-chemical farming methods in order to reduce dependency on pesticides, which is one of the main aims of the new European legislation. Such action would also go some way towards reducing the deficit as it would save the country billions every year.

In any event, if the coalition Government fails to adopt the mandatory measures required by the new EU laws then it would result in non-compliance, which could lead to infraction proceedings being taken against the UK by the European Commission. This could incur significant financial penalties for the UK. 

The new coalition Government must now do what Labour failed to do in the entire 13 years they were in power and finally put the protection of the health of UK citizen’s first and foremost. In every sense, the Government simply cannot afford not to.

Georgina Downs runs the UK Pesticides Campaign The long running legal case between Georgina Downs and the UK Government over pesticides is now before the European Court of Human Rights.

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