Pesticide buffer zone based on bad science

Comments made by the Government's Advisory Committee on Pesticides on a report published by the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution last autumn have cranked up the debate on public health risks caused by agriculture.

The ACP has released its response to the RCEP’s findings and while there is broad agreement on many issues it is the disparity in key areas which leaps from the page.

In September 2005 the RCEP published its views on the risks associated with pesticide use in the UK’s farming industry (see related story).

It called for rural GPs to be better briefed on recognising possible poisoning, the wider NHS to look at the way it dealt with toxicology, mandatory training for agricultural workers who used spraying equipment and regular MoT-style tests for the equipment itself.

The report also recommended that farmers should be obliged to put up notices informing the public when spraying was to take place.

But the suggestion which dominated the headlines then and now was that there should be a precautionary five metre buffer zone separating sprayed crops from residential areas, schools, hospitals and other well-used public areas.

This would be put in place while more evidence was collected to determine the as-yet uncertain risks.

While the ACP has agreed that more training for medics and farmers would be wise and statutory notices were desirable, it dismissed the call for buffer zones saying there was no scientific evidence for implementing them.

The ACP report calls the idea a “disproportionate response to scientific uncertainty.”

“We agree that there are scientific uncertainties in these areas that warrant further research but we think that they are minor and no greater than the uncertainties that exist in other areas of human health risk assessments for pesticides or for many other health hazards,” says the report.

It argued that exposure might, on a rare occasion, exceed recommended levels, particularly if somebody was stood right next to a spray boom as it passed, but as recommended levels were well below true safety levels there would be no significant danger.

The report does concede, however, that while the science isn’t there, there might be social grounds for implementing a buffer.

“It’s clear that many people do not like pesticides being sprayed right up to the boundary of their property and this in itself might impact on their well-being,” it says.

“However, a decision to impose restrictions on spraying on these grounds would need to balance the benefits of residents against the disadvantages farmers.”

The ACP’s response has angered campaigners, who say the lasting damage caused by pesticides is a hidden danger ouf rural living.

Georgina Downs of the UK Pesticides Campaign told edie she was disappointed, though not surprised, by the ACP’s findings.

“I agree that the five metre buffer zone is wrong, but I’m coming from the opposite end of the spectrum,” she said.

Ms Downs said the five metre buffer had never been anything more than tokenism and would provide minimal protection from spray drift.

Several states in the US had recognised the severity of the problem, she said, had implemented buffers of over two miles.

“To say its just a social issue is a disgrace,” she said.

“Pesticides are dangerous by their very nature.”

“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.

“We need to get back to basics and ask are they really necessary at all and what are the alternatives.”

She compared the present situation to the days of debate over the burning of crop stubble, arguing that the industry had held that British farming would collapse if the practice was stopped.

“In fact it made little difference,” she said.

Successively wider buffers had been brought in until it was acknowledged the only real solution was a total ban.

“That is the only real solution to this problem too,” she said.

“And certainly more in keeping with the Government’s buzz words of sustainable development and sustainable communities.”

By Sam Bond

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