Pesticide danger warning was ignored for 45 years

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The Independent Online
Open sale of the pesticides linked to Gulf War Syndrome would have been restricted 45 years ago if the recommendations of a top official committee had been followed, the Independent on Sunday has learned.

The report of the committee - which was chaired by Professor Solly Zuckerman, perhaps Britain's most distinguished post-war government scientist - drew stark attention to the dangers of organophosphate (OP) chemicals in 1951, just as they were being introduced.

It contradicts claims by today's ministers that there is "no evidence" that health can be damaged by continual small doses of the chemicals, which are related to nerve gases developed in Nazi Germany.

But its recommendations were never implemented, and household products containing the chemicals are on sale to this day. They include some fly and flea killers, flea collars for pets, garden pesticides and head-lice treatments used on children. These products are not usually labelled as containing OPs, though the names of the individual pesticides - dichlorvos, paraphion, dioazinon and malathion - are given. Ten days ago, the Government - after years of denials - admitted that the pesticides may have caused "Gulf War Syndrome" which affects 750 British soldiers. Now some doctors are calling for OPs to be banned from the home.

The 1951 report, "Toxic Chemicals in Agriculture", which was submitted to the then minister of agriculture, described the dangers of the pesticides and concluded: "The chief danger lies in the chronic effects which result from frequent exposure to these chemicals." This is something that ministers still deny.

The report noted that at the time the public was not frequently exposed but proposed "precautions which should obviously be taken in the public interest". It added: "There is no legal prohibition on the sale of organophosphorous formulations to the general public, and we consider that in view of the dangers associated with the ignorant or inexperienced use of these chemicals the sale to the public of formulations containing them should be brought under statutory control. We think that such control would be in the interests of the trade as well as of the public." It recommended that the "retail sale" of OPs "should be restricted to chemists".

Last night Dr Sarah Myhill, a Herefordshire GP with a special interest in OPs, described them as "incredibly toxic chemicals" and said the treatment of head lice with any pesticide was "a disaster".

Dr Sybil Birtwistle, who specialises in environmental health, said: "OPs are very bad news indeed. The Government should ban them from the home." And Dr Robert Davies, a consultant psychiatrist treating farmers who have suffered nerve damage after using the chemicals, wants a moratorium on their use.

Inside Story, page 17