Georgina Downs: Britain's Erin Brockovich

Georgina Downs is fighting to stop farmers spraying toxins on crops. Can she win?
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The Independent Online

As an aspiring teenage actress, Georgina Downs played the part of Matron Mama Morton in a production of Chicago in West Sussex. By then the headaches, flu-like symptoms, muscle wastage and weakness she had experienced for years deprived her of the physically demanding role of Velma Kelly, which the director had set aside for her.

Over the next few years her undiagnosed health problems worsened, affecting her work, putting her in hospital and ultimately forcing her to abandon her hope of appearing in the West End.

Instead, Miss Downs has been playing a starring role in her own drama, waging a decade-long one-woman fight against the £500m-a-year- UK agri-chemical industry and the British state. Her case wrests on the argument that administering pesticides on crops damages the health of humans who live nearby.

Her drama has hardly been a song-and-dance affair, though she claims there has been a sense of make-believe about the Government’s refusal to countenance any aspect of her case. Rather she views it as a dark thriller with elements of farce.

Last week supporters cheered when she achieved a small victory in her battle to change the regulation and application of chemical spraying. Partly as a result of her long-running legal case, the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs announced a consultation on pesticides, which could lead to farmers being required to give residents notice of their intention to use pesticides, access to information on what pesticides are being used, and a prohibition on spraying near homes and schools.

For Miss Downs, the concessions revealed the first shafts of light from a door which has remained firmly shut for a decade, but she has not achieved her goal of ending pesticide use.

Her problems began in 1983 when she was 11 and her family moved from Pagham near Bognor Regis to the edge of a field a few miles from Chichester. Speaking from the home, where she still lives, she recalled: “My parents bought a plot of land in the countryside thinking it would be a healthy place to bring up their children. They built what they thought was going to be their dream home but it turned out to be a nightmare. When we first moved here the field adjoining us was used for grazing but within a year it was switched to crops and pesticides sprayed.”

By the age of 13, she was suffering a range of symptoms which baffled her doctors: sore throats, blisters in the mouth and throat, headaches, flu-like symptoms. Her schoolwork began to suffer and she stumbled through GCSEs. “I went from being top of the class to near the bottom in some subjects. I just couldn’t concentrate.”

By the time she turned 18, her muscles were disintegrating and she was admitted to a local hospital for a month, during which she underwent tests for motor neurone disease, Parkinson’s and other degenerative neurological illnesses. They were ruled out.

After regaining some strength, she went back home to recuperate, but most symptoms remained. One day a thought popped into her head about the tractor she had waved at as a child. “I was sitting in the lounge on a sofa looking at the tractor spraying in the adjoining field and had a lightbulb moment. I started investigating and I was surprised to find that it was spraying a cocktail of toxic chemicals and it was a policy backed by the Government.”

She moved away from the family home whenever spraying was taking place, staying on friend’s sofas for months, but eventually she realised she had to find a long-term solution.

She became a full-time pesticides campaigner in 2001. At the head of the newly-formed UK Pesticides Campaign, she began fighting in Westminster and in the courts for the Government to acknowledge the problem and for the regulations to be changed. “I knew I would have to change the Government’s policy. I was so naive. I thought it would only take a year.”

She claims that the Government has failed to protect the health of rural residents who live near to fields because its model is based on a “bystander” that assumes exposure to an adult for five minutes from the immediate spraydrift. She says this does not consider longer exposure times, exposure to other factors such as vapour, the effect of spraying on babies and children, and the cumulative effect of repeated spraying.

The Crop Protection Association, which opposes her case, insists that regulations of pesticides is rigorous, with 200 separate submissions being submitted to the EC for each product. And removing pesticides from the edge of fields would lead to thousands of hectares of farming land becoming unused and push up food prices, says its chief executive, Dominic Dyer.

Does he believe Miss Down’s ill-health was caused by pesticides? “I can’t really say. We don’t have access to her GP’s health records,” he said. Although they disagree on the facts, he describes her as “tough and dedicated” campaigner.

In November 2008, years of preparation and research paid off when a High Court judge agreed with her legal case, begun in 2004 and claiming that the Government had failed to safeguard residents from pesticides. Defra had argued that its approach to the regulation and control of pesticides was “reasonable, logical and lawful” but Mr Justice Collins found it failed to comply with a European directive and demanded Defra reassess its policy to protect residents exposed to toxins.

Miss Downs stood jubilant on the steps of the Victorian court in London, throwing her hands in the air in celebration, but the victory was short-lived. In July 2009, the Court of Appeal overturned the earlier judgment and referred to her lack of medical or scientific background. Miss Downs claims that it had substituted a 2005 report on pesticides from a Royal Commission for her case, arguments and evidence.

Reacting to the appeal victory, Hilary Benn, the Environment Secretary, stressed that the protection of people's health was “our priority.” But he added: “In view of the issues raised by Georgina Downs and the new European directive, we will consult this autumn on how to give people access to farmers' spray records, how to give residents prior notification of spraying activity, and what else should be included, for example, monitoring and training.”

That resulted in the consultation, and the first sign of a change in officialdom, this week.

Having been denied a further British appeal by the Supreme Court in December, Miss Downs is determined now to take her case to the European Court of Human Rights on the basis that pesticide spraying interferes with the right to peaceful enjoyment of one’s home, among other rights.

Nine years later after she began her campaign, she is dogged by chronic health problems. She has osteoporosis, normally a disease of the elderly, weakness, muscular pain, tingling sensations, tinnitus, giddiness, memory problems and headaches.

She does not have a partner and has given up hope of having children due to her poor health. “Finding a man is difficult at the best of times,” she says, “ but you are not going to find a man out there who says: ‘What I’d really like is a woman who has chronic health problems and who’s fighting a massive case against the Government.”

When the field next to her home is being sprayed, she tries to seal her home by closing the doors, windows and air vents. Her experiences have taught her that health is the single most important part of life, above money and anything else.

But she carries on because she wants justice for herself, for others who have experienced ill-health and for others who, she says, risk becoming ill because they live close to fields. She says the number of people living within three miles of a sprayed field probably runs into the millions. “It’s too late for me in terms of the damage I have got because it’s permanent but I want to stop this happening to anyone else”.

As a result of her campaign she has been described as “the British Erin Brokovich”, the American anti-pollution campaigner played in Hollywood by Julia Roberts. So who would Miss Downs like to pay herself in a film version of her life? For the first time she is stuck for an answer. After a pause, she says: “I would like to play myself. But I have got to be realistic. You have got to be supremely healthy to play a leading role.”