Soldiers denied protective clothes by army

Scientists warned of pesticides danger 45 years ago. Ian Burrell reports
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The Independent Online
They called him "the Malathion Kid". In line with British soldiering tradition, Corporal Melvyn Gray was known by a nickname, but one which fell outside the normal vocabulary of the barrack room.

It referred to the white organophosphate powder with which his face and body were covered each day as he de-loused hundreds of Iraqi prisoners of war. "I looked like a snowman," he said.

As a member of the Royal Army Medical Corps, Corporal Gray realised he and the prisoners were at risk. "I had no protective clothing," he said. "I asked for it at least half a dozen times and was told there was none available." Across the desert, Sergeant Anthony Worthington, was also worried.

Sgt Worthington, the environmental health adviser to Fourth Armoured Brigade, had been given an industrial spray gun and told to douse tents and vehicles to protect his colleagues from the ravages of desert mosquitoes. He became drenched from head to toe.

In a memo to his superiors, Sgt Worthington said: "At no time was personal protective equipment issued to personnel applying insecticides."

Five years later, he has complained of "chest pains, shortness in breath day and night, a profuse cough, tiredness and general fatigue".

The Malathion Kid is also sick. Boils broke out on his arms, face and back and he is tormented by neuralgia.

Cpl Gray and Sgt Worthington are among 1,040 Gulf veterans who have registered their illnesses with the Ministry of Defence as part of the so-called Gulf-war syndrome. It is a growing toll in a conflict which saw little engagement with the enemy. In the entire war, 37 Britons were killed, most by their own allies in "blue on blue" accidents.

While Cpl Gray and Sgt Worthington were spraying organophosphates in the Gulf, Richard Webber, an Exmoor sheep farmer, was already suffering from the same side-effects they were later to experience. Mr Webber had used these chemicals in the late 1980s while dipping thousands of sheep to protect them from fly larvae.

"Suddenly I could no longer work. After five minutes I was exhausted. I became short-tempered, depressed and suicidal," he said. Mr Webber, 48, is one of thousands of farmers who say they have become ill from contact with organophosphates introduced a decade ago.

Among the affected is Tom King, the former defence secretary, who occasionally helped his wife, Jane, on her sheep farm in Wiltshire. As he supervised the progress of 50,000 troops in the Gulf, Mr King would have been horrified to know they were being exposed to the chemicalswithout protection.

Yet as early as 1951, a team of scientists led by Baron Zuckerman compiled a government report which spelled out the risks and said that users of organophosphates should always wear protective clothing. When, after the Gulf war, increasing numbers of soldiers complained of sickness, some politicians realised something was seriously wrong.

The Countess of Mar, the Liberal Democrat peer who suffered from organophosphate poisoning as a farmer, recognised the symptoms. She asked questions in Parliament but was given the brush-off. Yet her linking of an agricultural product to injuries suffered in a theatre of war was reasonable.

Organophosphates were discovered in 1937 by Gerhard Schrader, a Nazi chemist who was trying to develop a new insecticide which turned out to be too toxic. Dogs and monkeys which were experimented on lost muscular control, frothed at the mouth, developed convulsions and died. Alastair Hay, of the University of Leeds, said: "The information was handed to the German military authorities who recognised the potential. They were developed as chemical warfare agents."

Although the Nazis never deployed them, they were exploited by Iraq, which ordered the use of two organophosphates, Tabun and Sarin, in attacks on Iranian forces in 1984 and on the Kurds in 1988. The organophosphates in pesticides are of the same family, diluted to a less toxic form, and concern is now growing about their use in household products like flea powders for pets and headlice treatments for children.

Even now, however, the MoD refuses to acknowledge Gulf war syndrome itself and says that the use of the chemicals was useful in limiting the damage caused by mosquitoes.

For the Malathion Kid, however, unacceptable risks were taken. "I was made to breathe in huge quantities of Malathion but would Soames put one part per million of it on his food?" he asked. "If he wouldn't, I think he should resign."

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