The use of pesticides by farmers is damaging the health of residents of Billinge, St Helens. That’s the claim of former health practitioner Gillian Broughton, who has lived in the village for over 25 years.
The former fell walker began collecting neighbours’ names after she and her son became seriously unwell following a local walk in June 2009. Broughton is convinced that a chance encounter with farm labourers using a public footpath on Garswood Road to spray nearby fields was behind the pair’s illnesses. According to Broughton: “I smelled what can best be described as Jeyes cleaning fluid and saw a team of three dressed like spacemen using a tractor to pull up the roots of a tree. They had large white drums from which they spraying what looked to me to be rabbit warrens at the side of the farmer’s field. I felt sorry for the rabbits.”
Fourty eight hours later she collapsed, “I never got out of bed for the next few weeks as I had a constant headache, couldn’t eat, felt totally confused and even thought i was suffering from dementia as my short term memory was so poor.” Her son Paul, aged 31, was able to briefly carry on working but following two massive rectal bleeds he was off work for almost six months. He is now back at his job as a gas fitter. Gillian however has never returned to work and complains of feeling constantly tired.
Broughton’s doctor diagnosed her with labyrinthitis, an inflammation of the inner ear. He sent her to a number of NHS specialists including a cardiologist. Nothing abnormal was discovered.
She then approached two other doctors, Barry Durrant-Peatfield and Sarah Myhill, to see if she could find out more.
Durrant-Peatfield holds diagnostic and treatment advice clinics across the UK. His attempts to help people understand their metabolic illnesses have brought him into conflict with the General Medical Council (GMC), and he quit the body after they threatened to have him struck off as a registered medical practitioner.
Myhill has practised in Llangunllo near Knighton, Powys since 1990. In this time she has seen hundreds of farmers and estimates that “one in three have been poisoned to such an extent that it’s affected their health in one way or another.” Throughout 2010 and 2011 Myhill was forced to practise medicine under severe restrictions from the GMC. Since 2001 she has faced the prospect of 7 Fitness to Practise Hearings, all of which have been cancelled with no case to answer.
Following private laboratory tests, both doctors concluded Gillian had been chemically poisoned. As this can switch on allergies Broughton, who avoids diary products, asked her primary care trust if she could receive treatment from the Brakespear private hospital that specialises in this field. She was refused. Myhill had recommended taking vitamin B12, which plays a key functioning role in the brain and nervous system and the formation of blood.
Broughton says: “My doctor ended my prescription after he read about Dr Myhill and the GMC. Since then i have purchased the product privately at a cost of around £200 a year. My son helps pay for this and other medicines as I am now living on benefits.” She’d like to go back to work and feels she is recovering slowly, estimating that she is now around 50% functional compared to just 20% three years ago.
Broughton wrote via a solicitor to the owner of the field close to Garswood Road. He has denied causing her health problems and she seems unlikely to be able to prove a direct link. She would, though, like to prevent others following in her footsteps. She has give out leaflets locally and to parents dropping off their children at the local school to ask “if they may be suffering from pesticide exposure from crop spraying.’
She has subsequently been contacted by a number of people. Christine Hughes has lived on Royden Road, Billinge since the 60s. In 1994, aged 53, she got breast cancer, since when she has experienced bladder cancer and, two years ago, a second illness with breast cancer. She says: “Gillian is not the first person to raise this as a concern. In the 90s the local vicar’s wife surveyed the road and found that 12 women from just eighty houses had cancer. We live backing on to fields where pesticides are commonly used.
“When I got the leaflet I rang Gillian. What concerns me is that my doctor has never really tried to find out what might have caused my cancers and has simply asked me if I smoke or drink. I also think the parish council should call a meeting to discuss this issue.”
Billinge Parish Council did not respond to The Big Issue in the North’s request for comment.
Claire Wildman, who lives in the nearby village of Rainford, contacted Gillian Broughton after her 58 year-old mum died of acute myeloid leukaemia (AML). This is a rare form of cancer associated with the chemical industry and which was made infamous following the subsequent deaths of many thousands after the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster in 1986. According to Claire her mum “had always thought that the strong smells which came from the fields from spraying could not be doing anyone any good.”
However, months after her mother’s death, Claire claims that when she attended an open meeting of Rainford Parish Council the concerns she raised were heavily cricitised by councillors.
Claire is aware of three other local cases of AML and feels more should be done to inform “people of the dangers of pesticides.’ Christine Hughes agrees and would “like to see farmers make residents aware of the days when they are going to be spraying.”
This is a priority too for Georgina Downs from Sussex who has run a vigorous campaign for over a decade to highlight the dangers of pesticides, which were estimated in a 2008 World Bank report to kill 355,000 people worldwide each year. Downs herself was left seriously unwell following spraying in the fields next to her home.
Broughton contacted her to seek advice before she started leafleting. According to Downs the Billinge resident is “one of thousands who have contacted me nationally in the last eleven years. It is heartbreaking to hear what so many people have had to suffer through no fault of their own, especially those who have been poisoned because their houses adjoin fields that are regularly sprayed with mixtures of toxic chemicals.”
Downs’ campaign has been calling for a ban on the use of pesticides in the locality of residents’ homes, schools, playgrounds, and public areas. Ms. Downs states, “There has never been any assessment in the UK of the risks to health for the long-term exposure for those who live or go to school near pesticide sprayed fields. Under EU law the absence of any risk assessment means that pesticides should never have been approved for use for spraying in the locality of homes, schools, children’s playgrounds and public areas. Therefore the use of pesticides in the locality of such areas must be banned without any further delay.”
Four years ago Downs won a landmark legal ruling in the High Court that the UK Government’s pesticide policy did not comply with European legislation. This was bizarrely overturned by the Court of Appeal when her arguments were substituted by a Government funded report from 2004. Downs’ legal case is now before the European Court of Human Rights.
Georgina Downs’ UK Pesticides Campaign is at www.pesticidescampaign.co.uk