Lancet report backs sheep dip campaign

Fordyce Maxwell Rural Affairs Editor

A REPORT published in the Lancet last month concluded: "Our results support the hypothesis that organophosphates contribute to the reported ill health of people who dip sheep."

Some campaigners against OP dips, such as Brenda Sutcliffe and Brian Anderson, have never doubted that. They have argued for years against what they see as a medical, veterinary and health and safety establishment agog with apathy.

The majority of sheep farmers have not helped by insisting that OP dips are the best bet to control sheep scab, an irritating, debilitating, potentially fatal mite infection endemic in the British sheep flock.

The possibility of a ban got as far as parliamentary debate in the late 1990s, but in the teeth of opposition by farmers and the chemical suppliers a compromise was reached - a new design for dip containers and a compulsory certificate of competence to buy or use OPs.

That requirement now extends to all sheep dips including pyrethroids, originally seen as a replacement for OPs and safer to use, but now known to have more lethal side effects if they reach streams or rivers while residues persist much longer in wool.

NOAH, the National Office for Animal Health - representing the makers of chemicals used in health and welfare treatment of livestock and pets - stands by its advice that OPs can be dangerous, but not if all recommended precautions are taken, a view shared by the NFU and the Health and Safety Executive.

Precautions include a suit of protective material, probably rubber, wellingtons, approved non-absorbent gloves and a face shield. Cumbersome and uncomfortable, but - everyone agrees on this - necessary.

The advice is to stick to the rules and there will be no "dippers flu" or any other symptoms of illness.

Common symptoms - as they were when treating cattle with buckets of OP chemical for warble fly - include headache, giddiness, blurred vision, sweating and tremors.

More serious ones, caused by OPs inhibiting the work of the body enzyme cholinesterase, can be convulsions, vomiting, cramps and chest constrictions.

But the Lancet report confirmed most anecdotal evidence that some people are more susceptible than others.

Brian Anderson, now co-ordinator of OP Information Network (Scotland) from his home in Perthshire, had no chance. He suffered severe OP poisoning after drinking water contaminated by dip. Of the Lancet results, produced by researchers at the University of Manchester and Manchester Royal Infirmary, he said: "At last some evidence which I hope will help those farmers who have suffered such neglect at the hands of science. I still receive calls from farmers who have been suffering for more than 20 years without anyone being able to identify the cause of their symptoms."

Sutcliffe, from the 70 acre family farm of Sheep Bank, Littleborough, Lancashire, saw the Lancet report as a possible step forward in a very personal, very expensive, campaign against OPs used in any connection by humans.

That now includes the OP malathion, used in a medically prescribed shampoo to kill nits on childrens hair, and her belief that an OP called cruformate caused BSE in cattle.

Her belief in the evil of OPs has been intense since she and her family became ill, after a communal dipping operation, in 1992: "OP poisoning was confirmed by blood tests carried out at Guys Hospital, London. But the fact that we had nearly died was seen as an irrelevance by government departments,. with no treatment offered or indeed any acknowledgement of our predicament."

She denies that trying to argue - against most scientific opinion - that OPs caused BSE has weakened her campaign against the confirmed effect of OPs on humans.

She claims that more than 900 shepherds have committed suicide - suffering from depression caused by OP poisoning - since 1984, a statistic unconfirmed by any other source.

But her passion, zeal and willingness to spend her own money in pursuit of what she sees as justice is real. She has collected an enormous amount of information on organophosphates not only from Britain, but round the world, can argue on level terms with OP medical or veterinary specialists and refuses to quit.

She said yesterday : "I know that I always see things as black or white, never a shade of grey. But the whole thing is appalling. Its not just a few dead shepherds, its the bodies of children. We must have a full inquiry into the use and licensing of OPs. But this has always been a case for the criminal courts and thats where I want to see it."

So much hidden, she said, so much denied. And in spite of the Lancet report, the denials go on.