Sheep dip 'put health of farmers at risk'

By Robert Uhlig, Farming Correspondent
THOUSANDS of farmers who believe their health was damaged by a sheep dip chemical the Government ordered them to use could seek compensation following new research.

The Government-funded study of more than 400 farmers found that those who complained of poor health after using sheep dip containing organophosphates were twice as likely to have a genetic variation that affected their ability to break down the highly toxic chemical.

Until 1992, farmers were required by law to dip sheep in organophosphate-based dips as part of a programme to eradicate sheep scab.

Thousands of farmers complained of illnesses ranging from mood swings, suicidal feelings and headaches to limb pains, muscle-wastage, exhaustion, poor concentration and disturbed sleep.

Successive governments refused to acknowledge the danger, even though government scientists warned more than 50 years ago that organophosphates, which are closely related to nerve gas, were too dangerous to be released on the open market.

The National Farmers' Union, whose insurance arm might face a massive potential liability if members were to sue, offered little support to members whose health was so badly affected they had to give up work.

The research by Professor Nicola Cherry and colleagues at Manchester University found some people have slight differences in the gene that plays a central role in tackling the chemical when it gets into the blood.

The researchers, whose findings are published in The Lancet, said farmers who reported poor health were almost twice as likely to have specific alterations in the gene regulating the blood enzyme.

Professor Cherry said the work backs up previous research suggesting repeated exposure to sheep dip can make you ill.

She added: "The results provide support for those who believe repeated exposure to organophosphates may cause chronic ill health."

Elizabeth Sigmund, co-ordinator of the Organophosphate Information Network, which represents nearly 800 farmers who blame sheep dips for their poor health, said the study was "of great significance".

She added: "Two previous reports that suggested organophosphates damaged health were not taken seriously by the Government. But this study has been government-funded and is good science - they cannot deny its conclusions."