Pesticide Action Network Updates Service (PANUPS)
January 11, 1999
Illness from chronic organophosphate (OP) exposure is genuine and sometimes very serious according to a report recently released in the United Kingdom. The report,* written by a joint working party of the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College of Psychiatrists, heard evidence from sheep-dip exposure victims and concluded that symptoms they experience are unquestionably real. Symptoms range from excessive tiredness, headaches, limb pains, disturbed sleep, poor concentration and mood changes to thoughts of suicide. Witnesses at the hearings also stated that they had not been properly looked after by hospitals and doctors. The report calls for doctors to take the problem seriously and treat sufferers sympathetically.
Concerns regarding the safety of organophosphate sheep dips have risen in the UK over the past few years as more evidence of health impacts has come to light. For example, a 1995 epidemiological study on farmers by the UK Institute of Occupational Medicine showed that chronic exposure to organophosphate-based sheep dip pesticides appeared to be associated with subtle changes in the nervous system.
Over 100,000 sheep farmers in the UK use an estimated 200 million liters of sheep dip each year. Approximately 50% of the dips sold have active ingredients that are organophosphate insecticides such as diazinon, chlorfenvinphos and propetamphos. Some farmers stated that even after following recommended precautions such as wearing protective clothing, they often became ill after dipping.
The UK Department of Health’s Chief Medical Officer has responded positively to the report, with an initiative to involve the Royal College of General Practitioners in implementing the report’s recommendations. The report’s authors propose that general practitioners working with the National Poisons Information Service remain the primary source of treatment for those affected.
The OP Information Network (OPIN), a UK non-governmental organization in touch with almost 700 sufferers, stated that they are unhappy with the report because it did not look at how the symptoms are caused, nor does it address the problem that many general practitioners do not know the symptoms of chronic OP poisoning. OPIN is also concerned that the working party did not look at reported cases of problems among children of farming families.
In a report released in April 1998,** the Agriculture Committee of the Northern Ireland Forum for Political Dialogue stated that there is a connection between exposure victims’ illness and OP compounds and that there should be a moratorium on their use pending an immediate governmental review. The report criticized the UK government for dragging its feet over the various problems posed by the use of OPs and concluded that the information about OP sheep-dips given to farmers is inadequate.
Organic sheep farmers have developed husbandry strategies to minimize or do without the use of chemicals to control sheep scab and other problems. In addition to chemical-free management practices, organic sheep farmers in the UK are permitted to use limited amounts of the synthetic pyrethroid flumethrin to control sheep scab. Synthetic pyrethroids are believed to be less toxic; however, these chemicals have been implicated in damage to wildlife and the environment, and on some farms sheep-scab mite has become resistant.
* “Organophosphate Sheep Dip: Clinical Aspects of Long-term Low-dose Exposure,” Report of a joint working party of the Royal College of Physicians and Royal College of Psychiatrists, November 1998/CR67.
** “Organophosphate Insecticides — Their Use by the Farming Community,” a report prepared by Standing Committee D (Agriculture and Fisheries Issues) of the Northern Ireland Forum for Political Dialogue, 1998.
Sources: The Pesticides News, December 1998, June 1997 and June 1995; “Doctors Warn on Sheep Dip,” Alex Kirby, BBC, November 11, 1998.
Contact: The Pesticides Trust, Eurolink Centre, 49 Effra Road, London SW2 1BZ UK; phone (44-171) 274 8895; fax (44-171) 274 9084; email firstname.lastname@example.org.