Ghosts of farming: Britain's forgotten sheep farmers poisoned by pesticides

| 28th March 2012
Sheep dip victim David Layton

David Layton is one of hundreds of once-healthy sheep farmers who have suffered from OP posioning

Government orders to use dangerous organophosphate chemicals left hundreds of sheep farmers with debilitating ill health, Tom Levitt reports on the UK's forgotten pesticide tragedy

David Layton's voice is quiet and trembling. He used to be so busy that he never took a holiday. Life running the family sheep farm on the English/Welsh border was a swirl of constant activity. Today, he can't even get out of bed by himself and relies on the 24-hour care of his wife, Teresa, for every one of his needs.

David is one of an estimated several hundred farmers around the UK who have suffered the consequences of pesticide poisoning. You won't hear much, if anything, about them though. Many were poisoned long ago in the 1980s and early 90s. But for the ones still alive, the suffering goes on. It is a scandal largely forgotten by the government, medical profession and farming industry, each of whom would prefer the remaining victims to quietly pass away into history.

What makes it even more tragic, is that it is a scandal that could have ended before it even started. In 1951, the highly-influential Lord Zuckerman, later to be the government's chief scientist, warned of the dangers of allowing farmers to use the newly emerging organophosphate pesticides (OPs).

Developed as a nerve gas before the 2nd World War, OPs were then being championed as an insecticide for killing bugs and pests that damaged livestock and crops. Zuckerman said the chemicals could be absorbed through the skin or inhalation and, as such, farmers should receive detailed instructions on protecting themselves and that all containers should be clearly labelled as 'deadly poison'. It wouldn't be until the 1990s that this last recommendation was finally implemented.

Farmers ordered to use 'deadly' sheep dip

In an era when government policy was pushing to modernise farming with newly emerging technology and pesticides, the health warnings were soon brushed aside. OPs quickly become vital in tackling sheep scab, a highly contagious disease that causes suffering and weight loss in animals, and resulting loss in production and lambing.

By the late 1970s, sheep farmers were under compulsory government orders to treat their animals twice a year with OPs, individually dipping them in specially constructed baths, full of the chemical to kill the insects spreading the disease.

David remembers helping to dip neighbouring farms' sheep. 'We had the facilities to dip sheep in a big tank on the farm so the neighbours all came to us to get their flock dipped. I must have helped dip thousands of sheep every year, always preparing the chemicals. I suspect I was doing the most dangerous part of the job. Breathing it it for weeks on end but I was never given any instructions about using protective clothing.'

It wouldn't be until much later as farmers like David began to suffer terrible side-affects, that many would realise the dangers using the sheep dips posed to their own health. 'I would never have done such a thing if I had known what it was going to do to me,' says David, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1993 and later confirmed as having suffered OP poisoning. 'It completely ruined my life. I was running this farm with little help and expanding and now I am totally reliant on others for my every need. It's been so difficult for my family to see me like this.'

The earlier Zuckerman warnings weren't the only public record of the health risks of using OPs. In 1981 the health and safety executive (HSE) produced an advice leaflet on how to use OPs describing how the chemical can be absorbed through the skin or inhalation. It warned of the dangers of repeated low-level exposure, explaining how toxicity could slowly accumulate in the bodies of farmers if they did not take precautions and use protective clothing.

But this critically important advice was never passed onto farmers or even doctors, only emerging a decade later during investigations by campaigners and victims. Ironically, officials were often present at farms during the use of OPs, but the role of local constabulary and or health officials was to ensure all sheep were being dipped in the chemical rather than the farmers' own safety.  

Farmers' OP chemical fears ignored

For David's wife Teresa, the discovery that such critical safety information existed but was never given to farmers was devastating. 'Farming is supposed to be such a healthy occupation, outdoors in the lovely countryside and yet there was this dreadful hazard. Its so frustrating to think of all the things we could have done as a family and with our children which we haven't now been able to do. 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.'

Former agricultural journalist Anthony Gibson, who worked for the National Farmers Union for much of the past thirty years, says his employee, the main lobby group for UK farmers, has to take on some of the blame for the lack action of tackling OP poisoning.

Gibson says the growing numbers of farmers reporting illness in the South-West of England in the late 1980s and early 1990s were largely ignored by the farming hierachy at the NFU. 'A lot of sheep farmers were not affected and it was for the greater good of the sheep industry that diseases like sheep scab were kept under control. The NFU high command saw it as a south-west problem and one of "southern softies".' Sir Ben Gill, NFU president at the time, didn't want me to 'rock the boat' on it and go against their pro-government line, says Gibson.

Some go as far as suggesting it was 'sheer snobbery' on the part of the NFU as hill farmers didn't contribute as much to the organisation’s coffers. In the end it was the persistence of a small group of MPs and Lords who convinced the government to accept the evidence of health problems. Paul Tyler, an MP in Cornwall between 1992-2005, says the Conservative government was well-aware of the problem with sheep dips by the early 1990s but was reluctant to ban OP chemicals.

The agricultural minister John Gummer told campaigners that he feared being sued by OP manufacturers, if they could not prove a link between OPs and ill health. In the event, Gummer did end the twice-yearly compulsory order to dip sheep in OPs in 1992, arguing that dipping was 'not effective' in tackling sheep scab. A clever piece of political manoeuvring on the part of the government, suggests Tyler. While bringing an end to the enforced use of the pesticide by farmers - labelling and safety advice was also improved - it did not ban OPs outright nor did it state that they were a health risk. As a result, existing victims were left in limbo about seeking recognition or compensation for their ill health.

The forgotten sheep dip victims

Even today, farmers suffering ill health are in some cases, unaware that it could be linked to their use of OP chemicals. Norfolk arable and beef farmer Peter Dixon used OPs throughout the 1980s, 90s and 00s before suffering worsening health five years ago. ‘I felt ill, lethargic and weak all the time,‘ he says, ’my GP couldn’t work out what was wrong with me.’ It was only after visiting a private physician that he was told his symptoms were linked to OP poisoning. After detox treatment, Dixon has partially recovered, but believes many farmers may still be suffering without knowing the cause.

The difficulty in directly linking chronic ill health and a use of OP chemicals means successive prosecution cases, against the chemical companies and government for failing to pass on adequate warnings to farmers, have also never succeeded. The lone successful legal case was brought by John Amos Hill in 1997, a farm worker who was using the OP pesticide to spray on harvested crops to protect them against vermin while they were being stored. He suffered deteriorating health problems in the days after using the OP spray, eventually collapsing and being admitted to hospital.

John still suffers poor health today and says he was given no warning of the health hazards of using the chemical or protective clothing by his employer. He successfully won his case for compensation against his employer and the chemical company, as this was his one and only instance of using OPs, enabling him to prove the link between using the chemical and his ill health.

After an initial delay, the government did eventually begin commissioning research into the links between exposure to OP chemicals and health problems. Researchers found evidence that even low-level exposure to OPs could damage the nervous system of farmers. They also found that some people may be genetically predisposed to OP poisoning and less able to break down the organophosphate once it gets into their body.

One of the leading researchers into OP poisoning, Dr Sarah McKenzie Ross, says research findings so far are strong enough to justify a review of the use of organophosphates and that victims in the farming sector deserve compensation. However, so far there has been a reluctance by government officials to accept the study findings, with officials insisting there has been 'no definitive' link between using organophosphates and chronic ill-health and that more research is needed.

Many suspect there is a deliberate attempt by the government to 'string out' the research programme long enough to allow the pesticide manufacturers to find alternatives and for compensation to be avoided as victims die. Former farming minister Lord Rooker confirmed as much in a House of Lords debate on OPs in 2009 saying, 'I do not want to be controversial but ones gets the impression of a natural reluctance of the centre to investigate...Why? "Oh, because there are no new cases; because of the issue of compensation; because the science is not quite clear"'.

Lord Rooker, who was working inside the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (formerly the farming ministry), says by allowing products onto the market, however they are used, the Government has a duty of care to farmers and other users of the chemicals. 'It may be that people will say, "we have solved the problem" but there are too many unanswered questions.'


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