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       Hazards special online report, June 2015
HSE buries damning study on sheep dip poisons. What else don’t we know?
Sheep dips have been poisoning farmers for decades. The government knew. The Health and Safety Executive knew. So why weren’t workers told? And what else is HSE hiding, asks Hazards editor Rory O’Neill.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the use of harmful chemicals in agriculture was at the forefront of the Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) thinking. The official safety regulator even had a dedicated advisory group, ChemAg. The group, which included representatives of HSE, the agricultural industry and farming unions, met three times a year. And toxic sheep dips were regularly on ChemAg’s agenda.



WHO KNEW? It turns out HSE did know serious health problems were linked to OP sheep dips, but its high ranking officials and top doctors kept the information under wraps.

Experts representing unions knew the organophosphate (OP) compounds that shepherds were until 1992 mandated by government to apply to sheep were potent nerve poisons.

The issue was kept in the public eye by farmers who claimed the chemicals had caused their debilitating and permanent nervous system disorders.

Still, HSE and the government gave assurances in the 1980s and early 1990s that low exposures meant there was no reason for concern or further action. It was a line, though, that alarmed some members of ChemAg.

EXPERTS IN, TRANSPARENCY OUT

HSE’s determination to keep secret the findings of the sheep dip report, which found farmworkers had suffered nervous system poisoning and the industry had failed to protect them, raises worrying questions.
   HSE should have told its advisory group ChemAg, and action should have been taken to protect workers. Instead, we have a system where transparency is being eroded further still. 
   ChemAg is long since gone. And HSE’s cross-industry tripartite chemical safety group WATCH has over the last two years withered and died. May 2015 saw its parent committee, the Advisory Committee on Toxic Substances (ACTS), edged towards extinction. All these committees involved employers, unions and HSE. This system is being dismantled.
   HSE has just completed interviews for a replacement, the Workplace Health Expert Committee (WHEC). An HSE selected panel of academics will replace the union and employer representatives and will, HSE says, “provide independent expert opinion on all aspects of ill-health that is caused by or made worse by work.”

“The first reports of peripheral nervous system disease due to OPs date from the 1900s. In the 1950s researchers found evidence of some irreversible effects from OPs in humans,” Professor Andrew Watterson, who was a member of ChemAg at the time, told Hazards.

“In 1961, studies revealed impaired memory loss in OP exposed workers and during the 1970s numerous studies flagged a wide range of adverse effects linked to OPs used in sheep dip.

“In 1976 standard international toxicology textbooks described the chronic adverse effects of OPs at low doses. By 1980 HSE itself had issued medical guidance notes that listed sub-acute harmful effects to humans from OPs with many neuropsychological symptoms listed. 

“Not only should those approving such pesticides and regulating them in the 1980s have listened to the scientific community, workers and farmers but they should have acted even on the information available between the 1950s and 1970s.”

 

What’s OP doc?

HSE knew there was a problem. An internal report dated May 1991 and marked “not to be circulated outside the HSE” without approval detailed the findings of the regulator’s 1990 survey of farmers. “Repeated absorption of small doses have a cumulative effect and can result in progressive inhibition of nervous system cholinesterase” – nerve system poisoning – the report noted.

The HSE report, only released in 2015 after a freedom of information request, was also critical of manufacturers for providing inadequate protective clothing and unclear instructions to farmers on how to use the chemicals. “If with all the resources available to them, a major chemical company proves unable to select appropriate protective equipment, what hope is there for an end-user?”, it noted.

HSE’s report, headed ‘In confidence – not for publication’, was known to officials in its top tier of management. The chair of ChemAg at the time was John Summerscales. The then HSE deputy chief agricultural inspector, who died in 2008, was on the report’s circulation list. So was Dr Tim Carter, then director of HSE’s medical division, alongside several other HSE occupational doctors.

ChemAg members “were advised of the results of this work,” HSE told Hazards, although were not provided copies of the report. But ChemAg members didn’t hear HSE had found evidence of poisoning, or that protective clothing and instructions were not up to stratch.

NO COMPENSATION  In the early 1990s, as HSE sat on the survey showing harm to sheep farmers using organophosphate sheep dips, the union-backed OP Information Network compiled its own database of several hundred affected farmworkers, findings backed by scientists and medical experts. But because the HSE survey findings remained under wraps, there was no formal admission of the chronic health problems linked to OPs and compensation cases were considered non-runners. more

A minute of the 10 July 1991 Chem-Ag meeting noted only that HSE “informed members that the survey undertaken in the South West of the country involved fixed dip sites and the results were inconclusive.”

Affected workers received neither information nor guidance on the cause, prevention or treatment of their symptoms.

The reasons behind HSE’s reluctance to reveal the findings could be inertia or could be the regulator or the government being responsive to chemical industry pressure.

A former member of ChemAg, speaking to Hazards on condition of anonymity, said a Department of Health physician had in the 1980s conceded to him that “the UK government would never allow a pesticide to be removed due to worker pressure because it would open the flood gates for challenges on the whole pesticide approval scheme at the time.”

Instead of action, the then Conservative government called in 1991 for a clampdown on farmers failing to dip their sheep with the OP nerve poisons.

 

Wilful knowledge

Unite member Charlie Clutterbuck represented the union on the now disbanded ChemAg group when the 1990 HSE survey was undertaken.

“Union members on ChemAg repeatedly raised concerns about organophosphates and sheep dip. It beggars belief that this report was not brought to ChemAg so that urgent and early action could be taken to protect farmworkers’ health,” he said.

Unite national officer Julia Long, said: “Unite is asking why a report about the use of sheep dip which clearly had implications for the protection of farmworkers’ health was suppressed in the early 1990s at a time when concerns were being raised about the possible ill-health effects of using sheep dip.”

Stirling University’s Professor Andrew Watterson told Hazards the issue raises concerns about how much damning data on chemicals has been buried by HSE.
“The sheep dip story is one of policy and profit not only leading regulation but also suppressing and restricting evidence of harm. It is a classic case of failed late lessons from early warnings.

“Farmers and workers were even compelled by law to use such dips – an act of wilful knowledge and not ignorance – to protect not the farmers or their employees or even the sheep, but profits and government power.

“If this information known to HSE’s top officials was kept from even its own advisory group, what else is HSE not telling us?”


No admission, no compensation

In the early 1990s, as HSE sat on the survey showing harm to sheep farmers using organophosphate sheep dips, the union-backed OP Information Network compiled its own database of several hundred affected farmworkers, findings backed by scientists and medical experts.

But because the HSE survey findings remained under wraps, there was no formal admission of the chronic health problems linked to OPs and compensation cases were considered non-runners. The only successful UK court settlement was brought by farmworker John Amos Hill in 1997. He established his employer had not given adequate warnings of the health risks of using the chemical or provided protective clothing.

Gene Matthews, a partner at the law firm Leigh Day, said: “The fact that the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) was aware as far back as 1991 of the health risks associated with organophosphate use is shocking, particularly given that such knowledge has been denied for decades.

“Had this HSE evidence been released shortly after it was written those individuals allegedly affected by OPs would have had an increased chance of holding the government, and the relevant companies, to account for the harm they claimed to have suffered.”

Stirling University’s Professor Andrew Watterson told Hazards: “Organophosphate chemicals used in sheep dip have a murky but long history that goes back at least sixty years. Despite leading UK toxicologists who also worked for the MOD flagging up concerns for example about one specific sheep dip chemical, diazinon,  as early as 1957, little action was taken and worker and farmer reports of problems were ignored.”

 

Another pesticide, same pesticides lobby

The food system must be ‘transformed’ to keep deadly pesticides out of the workplace and the food chain, the global farm and food union federation IUF has said. The union body was speaking out in the wake of a March 2015 report in the journal Lancet Oncology, which revealed the International Agency for Research on Cancer’s (IARC) new classification of glyphosate – the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup and the world’s most widely-used herbicide – as “probably carcinogenic to humans.”

IARC, a part of the World Health Organisation (WHO), cites evidence in Canada, Sweden and the USA linking workers’ occupational exposure to glyphosate to increased risk of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. According to IUF: “With this report, the WHO explicitly recognises the importance of independent research on the impact of pesticides on human health and the food chain – a field long dominated by pesticide manufacturers. And it gives advocates of food rights and a safer, saner food system an important opportunity to push for action.”

Monsanto, which sold US$5bn worth of glyphosate in 2014, immediately attacked the credibility of the report. According to IUF: “Will the WHO withstand the pressure of the pesticide lobby?”

A May 2015 briefing from the UK union body TUC issued in response to the new cancer rating says because of the unquestionable risks posed by glyphosate, which can also cause short- and long-term skin, eye and respiratory problems and serious liver and kidney damage, it is “necessary to try to prevent any workers coming into contact with glyphosate.”

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Sheepish watchdog

Sheep dips have been poisoning farmers for decades. The government knew. The Health and Safety Executive knew. So why weren’t workers told? And what else is HSE hiding, asks Hazards editor Rory O’Neill.

Contents
•   Introduction
•   What’s OP doc?
•   Wilful knowledge

Related stories
•   No admission, no compensation
•   Another pesticide, same pesticides lobby

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