Massive crackdown on the use of scores of toxic pesticides

New EU rules, opposed by Gordon Brown, will phase out use of cancer-causing compounds in Britain

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Britain is to get its toughest crackdown on toxic substances in food and the environment, despite determined resistance to the safety measures from Gordon Brown.

Scores of pesticides suspected of causing cancer, DNA damage and "gender-bender" effects are to be phased out under new EU rules, which are being hailed as a revolution in the way the public is protected against poisonous chemicals.

The use of all pesticides in public places is to be dramatically reduced, with aerial spraying banned anywhere in the country.

Yesterday environmentalists hailed the measures – to be adopted following long negotiations between the European Parliament and individual governments – as a "landmark", while the National Farmers' Union called them "devastating". The agrochemical industry has bitterly resisted them, backed by the Prime Minister, who has voiced his concern that they would damage agriculture and food production without significantly benefiting health or the environment.

Almost half of all food eaten throughout Europe has been discovered to be contaminated by pesticides, with six of the most dangerous substances among the 10 most frequently found.

The European Parliament has long been pressing, with strong cross-party support, for radical controls, despite opposition from some governments, especially Britain. The new measures are the result of a compromise between the two sides, hammered out last week.

Under the deal, a list of 22 particularly hazardous chemicals used in scores of herbicides, fungicides and insecticides will gradually be phased out to avoid abrupt withdrawal from the market. The chemicals will be given a further five years' grace if banning them would put crops in serious danger. Pesticide use is to be kept to "a minimum" in parks, playgrounds, schools and near hospitals. Aerial spraying will be banned unless given exceptional approval by safety authorities.

Industry will have to release the results of any studies that show harmful effects, and there is to be better protection for bees, whose numbers have been falling alarmingly across Europe.

The National Farmers' Union said that the measures – which will have to be finally confirmed by the Parliament and EU leaders early in the new year – "will have a devastating effect on the horticultural industry and will see a reduction in crop yield and quality", and would also force up prices.

But environmentalists dismissed this as "scaremongering", pointing out that only a small minority of the 507 substances in pesticides would be banned. Though they would have liked even tougher controls, they still hailed the agreement as a breakthrough. Hiltrud Breyer, the German Green MEP who steered the proposals through the parliament, called them a "milestone for the environment, health and consumer protection". "The EU is setting a global precedent by phasing out highly toxic pesticides," she said.

Yesterday, Nick Mole, of the Pesticides Action Network, said: "This is a landmark, the biggest ever crackdown on poisonous chemicals... It says that anything hazardous to health or the environment will have to go, rather than taking the position... that if it is used properly it can be tolerated."

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