UK woman wins 7yr pesticides battle

In a judgement which vindicated an environmental campaigner's seven-year battle to challenge the UK Government's pesticides policy, the High Court has upheld Georgina Downs' claim that the UK Government failed to comply with its obligations under the European Pesticides Directive (91/414/EEC) to protect rural residents from the use of pesticides by farmers.

Georgina Downs’ crusade was born out of her exposure to crop spraying, from the age of 11, while living next to fields which were regularly sprayed with pesticides. Over the years Ms Downs suffered ill health in the form of flu like symptoms, sore throats, blistering in the mouth and throat and other problems. Downs also collected evidence form other residents who reported health problems, which they claimed could also be linked to pesticides use, including cancer, Parkinson’s Disease, ME and asthma.

Georgina Downs argued that the UK failed to comply with its obligations under the Pesticides Directive, in failing to provide for the necessary protection of public health of residents living near fields subject to crop spraying.

She put her case forward on the basis of three grounds:-

  • That there was no risk assessment capable of identifying and properly guarding against the effect of pesticides on residents
  • That the approach adopted by the Government, that there should be no serious harm to human health, was wrong in law
  • That the Government’s failure to adopt a precautionary approach, as recommended in a report prepared by the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (RCEP) was erroneous
  • Although Defra argued that its approach to the regulation and control of pesticides was reasonable, logical and lawful, the judge said that its defective approach to pesticides safety contravened the Pesticides Directive.

    The case pivoted on the way the government assesses the risk posed by pesticides. The approach adopted, known as the bystander model, is based on only occasional, short-term exposure, from a single pass of a sprayer which assumes exposure to one pesticide at a time, which Georgina Downs argued was inadequate for a proper assessment of the risk to the health of residents who are repeatedly exposed to crop spraying. The judge agreed.

    The judge held that the manner in which controls on crop spraying are applied do not comply with obligations imposed by the Directive, that the bystander model cannot measure local effects and is not able to adequately assess possible long term effects on health; and, that defects in the Government’s approach contravened the requirements of the Directive.

    In delivering his ruling, the judge said that the Government must think again and reconsider what needs to be done, take steps to produce an adequate assessment of the risks to residents, and carefully reconsider whether the existing conditions of use are adequate.

    The judge also said that here was a clear need to inform residents of intended spraying and the composition of the pesticides to be used, and a very strong case for the introduction of a buffer zone such as already exists to avoid spraying close to water courses.

    The judgment of the Court of Appeal in this case is available via the link below:-

    Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie