A sheep farmer whose health was affected by organophophate poisoning has welcomed the decision by the British Wool Marketing Board to end sheep dipping courses.
Without a recognised certificate new entrants to the industry will be forced to adopt different methods of tackling sheep scab, such as the use of injections and pour-on treatments.
Although the government’s chief scientist warned as long ago as 1951 that organophosphate pesticides (OPs) were dangerous and could be absorbed through the skin or by inhalation, their use in sheep dip became compulsory in the late 1970s.
Farmers were given instructions on using protective clothing. Those that became unwell – symptoms included feeling acutely tired, weak and nauseous, memory loss and blurred speech and vision– initially found it almost impossible to be diagnosed by their doctors.
One of the victims, Brenda Sutcliffe, a Littleborough sheep farmer, faced a wall of silence when she began researching the hazards of sheep dip. She eventually used the US Freedom of Information Act to uncover evidence that some products caused impaired memory and concentration, nightmares and confusion.
She claimed there was a link between OPs and a large number of suicides among sheep farmers. She calculated that in ten years from 1995 more than 1,000 shepherds ended their own lives.
Sutcliffe and other campaigners forced the Health and Safety Executive to issue health warnings and instructions on the use of OPs and bring to an end the compulsory order on sheep dipping.
In 1993 farmers could only continue using OP dips if they gained a training certificate in their use.
But the products remained on the market. Critics noted that the body that continued to approve them contained 11 members – from 17 – with financial or other links to companies that manufactured them. Farmers were not told OPs were a health risk.
Government officials have continued to insist that there is no “definitive” link between OP use and ill health. But OPs have been blamed for Gulf War syndrome among soldiers,
and some former airline crew members believe their ill health is the result of OPs within toxins released into aircraft during flight.
Some passengers have also expressed concern. The Big Issue in the North last year reported on the case of Karen Isherwood from Warrington who became unwell after travelling by plane to Tenerife.
Isherwood’s MP, the shadow health secretary Andy Burnham, is organising a parliamentary meeting and has invited Sutcliffe and another constituent, Margaret Percival.
Percival has been a farmer for over 50 years but temporarily quit in 1989 when she became “too exhausted to work”, after having dipped sheep for many years. She was diagnosed with OP poisoning.
Percival said she was “delighted” that the British Wool Marketing Board would no longer be offering sheep dipping courses, which could hasten the end of the use of OPs in farming.
Colin MacGregor, British Wool Marketing Board training manager, said: “We will no longer be offering sheep dipping courses. This is due to two reasons. There is a low level of interest. Secondly, there is the controversy that the products concerned are causing, and our increasing knowledge of the health concerns that are coupled with the products involved.”
Percival said: “We are still seeking justice for those like myself whose health has been affected by OPs. We have proved these are dangerous products and the very fact that the chemical companies have never sued us – even though we have damaged their sales – proves that to be the case.
“There has been a mishandling of this affair with the government, public health bodies, chemical companies and even solicitors who were supposed to be helping us involved. I’d really like to see some people prosecuted for their roles.”