More pesticide protection necessary

Existing safeguards protecting the public from potential health risks of exposure to pesticides are far too weak according to an expert report.

The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution launched its special report on Crop Spraying and the health of Residents and Bystanders which calls into question previous assurances that properly applied pesticides are safe and posed no threat to people or the environment.

Sir Tom Blundell, who had been chairman of the commission during the study, told reporters that Government policy was inadequate.

“There is significant uncertainty in the science available about whether crop spraying can cause ill health and whether some members of the public are being exposed to high enough doses of pesticides from normal use in farming to make them ill,” he said.

“Until research clarifies the extent to which the public is at risk from crop spraying, we recommend that extra precautionary measures are taken by government.”

They accepted the situation had echoes of the BSE crisis about it, when science suggested a risk but could not give a 100% guarantee that there would be a problem.

The current gaps in scientific were repeatedly highlighted by Blundell and his colleagues, who said the degree of confidence in safety shown by advisory committees and Defra’s Pesticides Safety Directorate (PSD) was unwarranted and surprising.

While they acknowledged the difficulties in making a direct link between exposure to pesticides and illness, they said the balance of evidence suggested it was more likely than not that pesticides did pose a health risk.

The commission highlighted the dangers associated with spray drifting out of fields and onto neighbouring land where it might be inhaled, absorbed by the skin or even unwittingly ingested by vulnerable members of the public.

Among the report’s recommendations were more robust procedures within the NHS, where, it claimed, GPs often lacked the specialist knowledge of toxicology and referral routes for suspected cases were not well mapped out.

Another suggestion was a five metre buffer zone which should not be sprayed where fields border on residential property or other at-risk locations such as schools and hospitals.

The suggested buffers proved controversial, to those sitting on both sides of the agricultural fence.

Farmers claimed they were unworkable and dangerous, potentially leading to the proliferation of toxic plants and fungus such as the highly poisonous ergot that can grow on untreated wheat, barley or rye.

Anti-pesticide campaigners dismissed them as nothing more than a token, pointing to American research that suggests pesticides can drift well over a country mile.

Georgina Downs of the UK Pesticides Campaign told reporters: “The recommendation of five metre buffer zones is wholly inadequate and I remain at a loss to understand how the RCEP could have considered this to be acceptable and protective.”

The commission defended the buffer, saying it would provide at least some protection and was a workable solution while more detailed research came up with a distance based on sound, accurate science.

By Sam Bond

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