Thank you Greens! Now other parties too must keep us safe from pesticides

A tractor spraying unknown chemicals in the British countryside. Photo: Billy Ridgers, author provided.
A tractor spraying unknown chemicals in the British countryside. Photo: Billy Ridgers, author provided.
The Green Party manifesto, published today, pledges to enact long overdue restrictions on the use of toxic pesticides to protect rural residents and children from adverse health impacts, writes Georgina Downs. Now all political parties must follow where the Greens have led.
It is an absolute no brainer that no pesticides should be sprayed where people live and breathe, especially babies, young children, pregnant women, people already ill or disabled, and the elderly.

The Green Party has today published its manifesto for the General Election, and it contains one especially welcome promise - to protect people from exposure to toxic pesticides. On page 14 it pledges to:

"Secure protection of rural residents and communities from exposure to pesticides sprayed on nearby crop fields and prohibit the use of pesticides in the locality of homes, schools and children's playgrounds."

Rural residents all over the country who live in crop sprayed areas will be delighted to see the Green Party's manifesto pledge. It is heartening to see a political party actually standing up for the citizens in this country, especially those most vulnerable, rather than the usual big business interests.

This is a policy area that should be a priority for all political parties and which cannot be compromised on, as it involves public health protection. After all, the primary duty of any Government is to protect its people.

So far, the Greens are the one and only party that has vowed to act. Therefore the UK Pesticides Campaign calls on all the political parties to pledge to take action on this issue considering the catastrophic failure, to date, to protect rural residents from the cocktails of poisons sprayed on crops, and throughout every year.

Serious failures in assessing pesticide risks

The failure to protect residents is as a result of fundamental failings in the way that pesticides have been approved.

To date, the official method used by regulators for assessing the risks to people from crop spraying - and under which many thousands of pesticide products have been approved - has been based on the model of a short term 'bystander', occasionally exposed, for just a few minutes, and to just one individual pesticide at any time.

This means that pesticides have been approved for decades without first assessing the health risks for people who actually live in crop sprayed areas. The real life exposure for residents, as opposed to a mere bystander, is both repeated acute and chronic exposure over the long term, it is cumulative, and is to mixtures and cocktails of pesticides used on crops.

There are approximately 2,000 pesticide products currently approved for agricultural use in the UK alone. Each product formulation in itself can contain a number of active ingredients, as well as other hazardous chemicals, such as solvents, surfactants and other 'co-formulants'.

This includes the astonishing fact that there has been no assessment at all before the approval of any pesticide for babies and children that live in the crop-sprayed areas, nor pregnant women, or people already ill.

A scandalous and illegal experiment with lives and health

It is an absolute no brainer that no pesticides should be sprayed where people live and breathe, especially babies, young children, pregnant women, people already ill or disabled, and the elderly.

Considering how many millions of citizens will be living in this situation then this is, without a doubt a public health and safety failure on a truly scandalous scale - especially considering the absolute requirement in EU law (a law honoured strictly in its breach) that pesticides can only be authorised for use if it has been established that there will be no immediate or delayed harmful effect on human health, including for residents.

The absence of any such risk assessment for residents means that no pesticide should ever have been approved for use in the first place for spraying in the locality of homes, schools and children's playgrounds.

Further, unlike operators, residents will not be in filtered cabs and/or have any personal protective equipment, and in any event, they would obviously not be expected to wear it on their own property and land.

Rural citizens have been put in a massive guinea pig-style experiment and for which many of us residents have had to suffer the serious, devastating - and in some cases fatal - consequences.

There are so many horrific stories of people being poisoned from crop spraying near to their homes, and many involve children.

Despite this, both the previous Labour Government and the current Conservative / LibDem Coalition have failed to act to secure the protection of rural residents in the UK from toxic pesticides.

The Coalition did announce in December 2013 that it was going to change its policy for assessing the risks to people from crop pesticides (although the stated changes were still woefully inadequate), and DEFRA confirmed that the changes due to take place could lead to some pesticides being withdrawn, and affect new ones coming through the system. But it has since failed to implement any of the promised changes.

A truly enormous public health issue

This cannot be construed as merely a 'green' issue, as it is actually a serious public health issue of major importance which affects millions of people across the country.

Reputable scientific studies and reviews have concluded that long-term exposure to pesticides can disturb the function of different systems in the body, including nervous, endocrine, immune, reproductive, renal, cardiovascular, and respiratory systems.

The pesticide manufacturers product data sheets themselves can carry various warnings such as "Very toxic by inhalation," "Do not breathe spray; fumes; vapour," "Risk of serious damage to eyes," "Harmful, possible risk of irreversible effects through inhalation," and even "May be fatal if inhaled."

Cornell University's teaching module 'Toxicity of Pesticides' clearly states that, "Pesticides can: cause deformities in unborn offspring (teratogenic effects), cause cancer (carcinogenic effects), cause mutations (mutagenic effects), poison the nervous system (neurotoxicity), or block the natural defenses of the immune system (immunotoxicity)."

It goes on to warn that "Irreversible effects are permanent and cannot be changed once they have occurred. Injury to the nervous system is usually irreversible since its cells cannot divide and be replaced. Irreversible effects include birth defects, mutations, and cancer."

There has been a significant increase in recent years of a number of such chronic health conditions. According to latest cancer statistics an estimated 14.1 million new cancer cases and 8.2 million deaths occurred worldwide in 2012.

And in the UK 331,487 people were diagnosed with cancer in 2011, around 910 people every day, and 161,823 deaths from cancer were recorded in 2012. It is now 1 in 2 people who will develop some form of cancer at some point in their lives.

Just as alarming is the incidence of Parkinson's disease - a progressive, neurodegenerative disease that has been repeatedly linked to pesticide exposure in scientific studies.

One such study published in March 2009 found that exposure to just two pesticides within 500 metres of residents' homes increased the risk of Parkinson's Disease by 75%. Currently 127,000 people live with Parkinson's in the UK, or 1 in 500 people. There is currently no cure.

Other parties must now match the Greens' pesticides pledge

Whichever party or parties forms the next Government here in the UK, they must as a matter of urgency secure the protection of people in the countryside by prohibiting the use of pesticides within a substantial distance from homes, schools, children's playgrounds, and other areas where such high exposure is likely to result.

Small buffer zones won't protect anyone considering how far pesticides are known to travel. Scientific studies have found pesticides miles away from where they were originally applied. For example, a study in California found pesticides as far as three miles away from the treated areas - and calculated health risks for rural residents and communities living within those distances.

Another study involving nearly 700 Californian women showed that living within a mile of farms where certain pesticides are sprayed, during critical weeks in pregnancy, increased by up to 120% the chance of losing the baby through birth defects. 

It is an absolute no brainer that no pesticides should be sprayed where people live and breathe, especially babies, young children, pregnant women, people already ill or disabled, and the elderly.

Rural residents constitute a large proportion of the voting public. The leaders of all political parties canvassing for votes in the hope of forming the next Government need to remember that the first duty of any Government is to protect its citizens, especially those most vulnerable, rather than the multi-billion pound pesticides industry and big business.

I would like to say thank you to the Greens for being the one party that has so far pledged to put an end to this public health scandal. Quite aside from the human suffering these measures would prevent, they would also save the NHS - and taxpayers - vast sums of money.

We must all hope that the other parties will now also follow suit. Better still, let's all put our sitting MPs and Parliamentary candidates on the spot, demanding that they commit to taking action if elected!



Georgina Downs is a journalist and campaigner. She has lived next to regularly sprayed crop fields for more than 30 years, and runs the award-winning UK Pesticides Campaign.

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