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Key Government Advisors (the ACP) Criticised Over Pesticides

Rural Residents’ anger over Advisory Committee on Pesticides (ACP) response to the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution report on pesticides, as it emerges that the ACP’s current approach could be unlawful

The Government’s main advisors on pesticides, the Advisory Committee on Pesticides (ACP) have today come under renewed fire from rural residents and communities following the publication of the ACP’s response to the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (RCEP) report on the risks to people from crop-spraying.


The Royal Commission’s report published in September last year had concluded that crop-spraying is a potential health risk and that chronic illnesses and diseases reported by people in rural areas, including cancer, Parkinson’s and ME, could be associated with pesticide exposure.

The RCEP report was highly critical of the ACP and concluded that the level of confidence and assurance that had been given by the ACP to Ministers, as well as the public, regarding the safety of residents and bystanders exposed to agricultural pesticides, “represented too sanguine a view of the robustness of the scientific evidence.”
The RCEP report found significant unresolved issues in relation to the health and exposure elements of the current risk assessment. The RCEP concluded that they did not agree that the evidence could lead to unequivocal conclusions, previously given by the ACP, that the system provides adequate protection and that there are no scientific concerns or that it provides full reassurance to the Minister.
However, in the ACP’s response to the RCEP report, published today, the majority of ACP members have stood by the ACP’s previous advice to Ministers that the risk assessment for bystanders used at present provides adequate protection. The ACP’s report, commissioned by Defra, argues that current regulatory controls already ensure a wide margin of safety.
The ACP press release states, “The ACP agree with many of the recommendations in the RCEP report, but differ in their evaluation of the potential for toxic risks to people living next to sprayed land.” “We agree with the Royal Commission that there are scientific uncertainties, but we differ in our assessment of their importance.” The ACP press release states that the ACP think it unlikely that pesticide toxicity contributes importantly to disorders such as chronic fatigue syndrome and multiple chemical sensitivity as suggested by the RCEP. The ACP commentary states that, “…many people do not like pesticides being sprayed right up to the boundary of their property, and that the resultant anxiety may in itself impact on their health and well-being.”
The RCEP had been asked to examine the scientific evidence on which DEFRA had based its decision on the risks to people from crop-spraying, following a determined and relentless five year campaign by Georgina Downs of UK Pesticides Campaign, (, the leading campaign highlighting the effects of pesticides on people in rural areas (referred to in the RCEP report as “residents” and “bystanders”).
Ms. Downs was the first to identify serious fundamental flaws in the Government’s “bystander risk assessment,” in early 2001 and started presenting a case to the Government for an overhaul of the regulations and legislation governing agricultural spraying.
This included the presentation of a video featuring people from all over the country reporting cases of cancers, leukaemia, non-Hodgkins lymphoma, neurological problems, including Parkinson’s disease and ME, amongst many other illnesses, in rural communities surrounded by sprayed fields. Despite that fact that Professor Coggon had repeatedly told Ms. Downs that the ACP needed to see the evidence of what was happening in reality to check if the current system was working, the video was only seen in full by a small handful of members and the ACP subsequently dismissed its content. In stark contrast, RCEP members all saw Ms. Downs’ video in full. The RCEP recommended in their report that the ill-health effects reported by residents and bystanders need to be taken more seriously by Government advisors and regulators.
Ms. Downs states, “The ACP continues to maintain that a robust system is in place to protect public health. This is misleading, is not factually correct and demonstrates the ACP’s continued complacency in relation to the impact of pesticides on human health. To continue to maintain that this is merely a social issue and that many residents are just “believing” or “perceiving” that their health has been affected following exposure to pesticides is grossly insulting and disrespectful to all those suffering ill-health whether it be acute or chronic. Many of the conditions that are reported in rural areas including cancer and leukaemia are devastating diseases that are on the increase, especially in children and even though there could be a number of different causes for any chronic illness or disease, all the causes must be identified in an attempt to try and prevent them from occurring.”
Many pesticides have neurotoxic, carcinogenic and hormone-disrupting capabilities and substantive evidence already exists linking pesticides to various forms of cancer, neurological diseases and birth defects, among other chronic conditions. Warnings on safety data sheets for pesticides can include, “Very toxic by inhalation,” “do not breathe spray,” “do not breathe fumes,” “do not breathe vapour,”harmful: possible risk of irreversible effects through inhalation,” “ may cause cancer by inhalation,” etc.
Ms Downs points out that the total cost to the UK with regard to cancer, ME and asthma alone, is in excess of Ł6 billion per year. It is not known what proportion of the overall costs from damage to health and the environment could be attributable to pesticides. However, Ms. Downs points out that even if only partly, then the cost to the economy and society, as a whole, is clearly substantial, although she stresses that the personal and human costs to individuals suffering ill-health cannot be calculated in financial terms.
Therefore, Ms. Downs states, “The significance of these consequences requires the adoption of a preventative approach, especially in relation to the protection of children and other vulnerable groups.”
In relation to the RCEP’s recommendation of 5 metre buffer zones Ms. Downs states that, “Rural residents and communities will definitely not be protected by 5 metre buffer zones. Therefore this distance is wholly inadequate and has been widely criticised by experts all over the world.”
A leading former UK researcher on vapour, Victor Breeze, who carried out studies between 1983 and 1994, funded by MAFF and PSD states, “5 metres doesn’t bear serious scientific consideration, it wouldn’t give protection from droplet drift (spraydrift) and certainly not from vapour drift, as movement of vapour is more or less unrestricted.”
Therefore Ms. Downs states that much larger distances are required and points out that a recent study from America that confirmed acute illnesses in children and employees from pesticides sprayed on farmland near schools highlighted that 7 US states require no-spray buffer zones of up to 2.5 miles around schools.
Ms. Downs already has an application in the High Court to Judicially Review an earlier Government decision not to act to protect rural residents from exposure to pesticides. However, following investigations by Ms. Downs, it has now emerged that the ACP’s current approach, in itself, could be unlawful. Ms. Downs explains that the EU Directive 91/414 EEC and the UK equivalent legislation (the Plant Protection Products (PPP) Regulations 2005) state that a pesticide shall not be approved unless it has been satisfied that “it has no harmful effect directly or indirectly on human or animal health….”
However, following Professor Coggon’s appointment as Chairman of the ACP in 2000, he produced a document entitled “A Guide to Pesticide Regulation and the Role of the ACP.” This document included an explanation of the legislation both in the EU and the UK. Under the section entitled “The Scientific Assessment of Pesticides,” it states “The legislative framework….is designed with the aim that….(b) no one should develop any serious illness through the use of pesticides.”
Ms Downs states, “The introduction of the word “serious” would appear to reconstruct and thus reinterpret the precise and definite language used in the legislation in relation to the unconditional degree of priority required to be given for the protection of human health. The regulatory system is supposed to protect against any adverse health effects occurring from exposure to pesticides, not simply those that the regulators and scientific advisors deem to be serious adverse effects.”
A letter has recently been sent from Norman Baker, the Liberal Democrat’s front bench environment spokesman, to Margaret Beckett, the Secretary of State for DEFRA, asking for clarification as to whether Professor Coggon had the authorisation of any Minister before introducing the word “serious,” which was subsequently adopted as the interpretation by both the ACP and the Government regulators the Pesticides Safety Directorate (PSD). Indications are that Prof. Coggon did not have Ministers authorisation.
Rural residents all over the UK have expressed anger at the ACP’s dismissive attitude regarding the health effects of pesticides and the arrogance of deciding what should be deemed a serious effect or illness.
Marion Tait, from Cambridgeshire, states, “I have been ill since 1995 after moving to a house beside fields that were intensively farmed. I had all the usual acute symptoms when they sprayed, starting with sore throats and burning eyes. It never occurred to me when I saw the sprayer run up the side of the house that they might be spraying poison and so I stayed out gardening. Eventually I collapsed with ME and have spent the last 10 years mainly bed ridden and in terrible pain. The Government did nothing to protect me and someone should be held responsible for taking my life away and leaving me in this state.”
Her anger is echoed by rural resident, Jan Simpson, who states, “Since moving to Lincolnshire I have never felt so persistently ill. I used to be 100% fit and now I find it hard just to make it through the day. I would like to know whether Professor Coggon would classify the devastating long-term effects I have suffered as serious or not?”
John Elson, from Uckfield, who 17 years ago, was caught in a cloud of pesticides being sprayed over 15 metres away on a nearby field, suffered permanent damage to his vocal chords, which eventually forced him to retire his position as the vicar of a rural Sussex village. Mr. Elson states, The Government have not taken action before probably because it hasn’t happened to anyone’s knowledge in their backyard. I mean if they had the spraying in the fields next to their house and one of their family was affected, I would imagine something would be done pretty quickly.”
Ms. Downs states, “Rural residents and communities deserve to be protected from avoidable and unnecessary exposures and risks to their health. Substantive evidence already exists to demonstrate a serious public health problem and therefore the Government must take immediate action. The only way to protect public health and prevent future suffering from any illnesses and diseases that may be associated with pesticides, is to avoid exposure altogether through the widespread adoption of sustainable non-chemical and natural methods as an alternative to chemical pest control.”
Notes to Editors:-
·         The ACP’s response to the RCEP report will be available on the ACP website at:- (NB. This is ACP’s response to the RCEP report and not the Government’s, which is due to be published in summer 2006)
·         Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution’s report entitled “Crop Spraying and the Health of Residents and Bystanders” is available at:-
·         Ms. Downs submitted considerable written evidence to the RCEP study. She was also an invited speaker at the RCEP public meeting held on September 25th 2004 and gave oral evidence to the Commission members a few months later. Ms. Downs also peer reviewed 4 chapters of the RCEP report
·         Ms. Downs was recently listed in the Farmers Weekly Top 20 Power Players in UK Farming, following the impact of her campaign. Others included in the list were Gordon Brown, Margaret Beckett, Peter Mandelson, Prince Charles, Jacques Chirac and Jamie Oliver. For the full list see:-
·         Georgina Downs campaigns to highlight the effects of pesticide use in rural Britain and has lived next to regularly sprayed fields for 22 years. She was the first to identify serious fundamental flaws regarding the bystander risk assessment and for the last 5 years has presented a case to the Government for a change in the regulations and legislation governing agricultural spraying. She has also produced 2 videos "Pesticide Exposures for People in Agricultural Areas – Part 1 Pesticides in the Air; Part 2 The Hidden Costs" to illustrate chemical exposure and the effects on people in rural areas
·         Ms. Downs has a database of approximately 750 people, compiled since early 2001. The acute ill-health effects that are commonly reported to Ms. Downs by people in agricultural areas include sore throats, burning eyes, nose, skin, blisters, headaches, dizziness, nausea, flu-type illnesses, amongst other things. The most common chronic long-term illnesses and diseases reported include clusters of various cancers, leukaemia, non-Hodgkins lymphoma, neurological problems, including Parkinson’s disease and ME, asthma, allergies, along with many other medical conditions. The RCEP visited a number of people from Ms. Downs’ database during the study. (NB. Under the existing regulatory system there is no monitoring or collection of data on chronic effects, so the full extent of ill-health related to pesticides is currently not known)
·         Contact details for Victor Breeze, Marion Tait, Jan Simpson and John Elson are available via Georgina Downs. Other cases from Ms. Downs’ database are also available upon request
·         Ms. Downs has called for an immediate ban on crop-spraying and the use of pesticides near to people's homes, schools, workplaces and any other places of human habitation and for direct access for the public to all the necessary chemical information. Ms. Downs has highlighted that small buffer zones will be wholly inadequate as they are only in relation to immediate spraydrift and will not be able to protect people from exposure to pesticides in the air, chemical fumes after application, volatilisation, along with all the other exposure factors relevant for people in rural areas. Therefore a much larger distance is required. For further information on Georgina Downs’ campaign see
Contact: Georgina Downs
UK Pesticides Campaign
Telephone: 01243 773846
Mobile: 07906 898 915
Website –