After survival comes getting on with life again

Fordyce Maxwell

BRIAN Anderson’s life changed forever in a few seconds on one October day in 1989. He took a drink from his private water supply in Strathardle in Perthshire and realised, too late, that it was contaminated. He had swallowed almost neat sheep dip, a cocktail of organophosphates and phenols which immediately began to destroy his nervous system.

On 21 January this year, making his painfully slow way round his local supermarket - he has difficulty in walking and spends much of his time in a wheelchair - he took a call on his mobile phone.

His lawyer told him that, at almost the last minute, the insurance company NFU Mutual had withdrawn from the legal action Anderson had brought against them.

He said: "I had to sit down on a chair in Asda to hear the lawyer say ‘it’s not what you asked for or wanted, but it’s the best you are likely to get.’ I had about an hour to make up my mind. I settled. Since then I’ve been in limbo - I know it’s settled after all these years, but there’s no sense of closure, my ill health continues."

There have been many suspected cases of poisoning by organophosphate in sheep dips, but usually the cause was thought to be inhalation.

Anderson suspects that at least 2,000 farmers, shepherds and their families have been affected in Scotland alone, most while dipping sheep in chemicals guaranteed to kill pests and parasites such as lice and the sheep scab mite. But wives who have washed working clothes with dip on them and children exposed to fumes have also been affected. Anderson is probably unique in having drunk the chemical.

During the years in which he has become a lay expert in chemicals used in sheep dips, he has concluded that organophosphates might not be the only cause. It could be phenols, glycol ethers, epichlorohydrin and toluene, the co-formulants in the dip.

He said: "Just because we become paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get us. It’s so complex an illness - my low blood sugar most mornings is close to coma level and my high pulse rate close to a stroke."

His greatest regret is that even at the time he took his almost-fatal drink, a review of dips under a European directive of 1988 was going on. A study, carried out by the Health and Safety Executive in 1991 but never published, identified epichlorohydrin, glycol eithers, Thiram, phenols and solvents - weak acids and powerful disinfectants - as a contributing cause to problems experienced by people dipping sheep.

It was suggested in the review that one particular dip, popular with farmers because it was cheap, contravened 31 standards of safety and quality required by the Medicines Act. But no action was taken to notify farmers and it was re-licenced with phenols removed.

Anderson said: "I think that the Veterinary Medicine Directorate, which was only set up by government in 1990, inherited a large mess and was trying to clear it up. I’m still trying to tie together all the information we have been given over the years to get at the truth. "

He believes that the unpublished survey of 1991 showed the active ingredient of most dips, diazinon, was unstable and became more toxic than expected when it was added to the water in the dipping tank into which sheep are plunged.

It also became increasingly toxic as it got older: "An incredibly complex chemical reaction took place. Used brand new, it was fine - but not when it was several years old, as sometimes happens. The temperature and acidity of the water in the dipper also affected toxicity."

We first spoke some years ago when I wrote an article about my favourite smells on a farm and included sheep dip. He told me, with the good humour that is seldom far away, that not everyone would agree .

"When you said you enjoyed smelling sheep dip, that wasn’t OPs, it was a phenol which the Health and Safety Executive declared genotoxic in 1990."

He also knows, for example, that there was a meeting in February 1991 between representatives of the Health and Safety Executive, the Veterinary Medicine Directorate and the National Organisation of Animal Health , the trade organisation for animal health chemical manufacturers which has consistently argued its products are safe if users follow the instructions.

Anderson says: "Elliot Morley, a senior minister with the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, told Annabelle Ewing, MP, that no minutes of that meeting could be found. They certainly can. I have a copy, and they reveal a greater problem with phenols and solvents as well as unsatisfactory guidance on protective clothing than people were previously aware of."

He finds it difficult to blame farmers. His recent settlement did not include a confidentiality clause, something he interprets as an invitation to be free to criticise publicly the farmer who allowed sheep dip to contaminate his water supply. He does not plan to do that.

"Even after 13 years of hell I sympathise with farmers who have been affected by exposure to sheep dips. They didn’t know what they were dealing with and proper instruction leaflets and guidance were either not given or unhelpful until after many people had their lives ruined."

The poisoning, whatever the specific cause in the dip, has affected almost every part of his body. That includes pain receptors: "I can’t tolerate pain. I had toothache on Christmas Day, spent it in misery, and I’m still recovering more than five weeks later - as much from the cure, because the dentist wouldn’t take the tooth out without giving me a local anaesthetic and that plays havoc with my system. It’s a nightmare."

His aims have changed over the years. Legal claims for compensation for OP or sheep dip poisoning have been almost impossible to push through either by groups or individuals.

"I eventually realised there was going to be no justice, only the law, and decided to get on with my life even if much of it is in a wheelchair. I feel okay within myself, I’m a very young 61 and I work as hard as I am able on the issues which affect me."

A veteran of police forces in Botswana and what used to be Northern Rhodesia, he was once apprehended and interrogated by an officer from BOSS, the South African Police special branch. He survived that and has survived being poisoned.

"The rest of your life depends on how you respond to adversity, to that one moment that changed your life for ever.

" We don’t even have a diagnosis and treatment centre for sufferers, only GPs who don’t recognise the symptoms and have been known to shout at a patient ‘for God’s sake, stop talking about sheep dip’."

He has now given up hope of government or dip makers or what is now the Veterinary Products Committee admitting that mistakes were made, even though phenols were removed from dips in 1993, without any notification to farmers.

"What I’m looking for is government to set up a centre where people can get guidance and treatment. That can’t be too much to ask."