Tom King was victim of Gulf-syndrome pesticide

  • @iburrell
Tom King, the defence secretary during the Gulf war, was himself a victim of pesticides which were last week linked to Gulf war syndrome. He has spoken to ministers about the possible harmful effects of organophosphate (OP) chemicals after he and his wife were unwell after using them on their sheep farm in the late 1980s.

Last week it emerged that the same chemicals had been used in the Gulf war in 1991 by British troops despite the fact that they had not been issued with protective clothing. The Independent has discovered that Defence Ministry officials, who ordered use of the pesticides as anti-mosquito protection, failed to heed a warning in 1987 by the government's Health and Safety Executive (HSE) about OPs.

Mr King would have been able to warn his civil servants from personal experience. Yesterday he said the disclosure that troops had been using OPs without protective clothing had come "as news to me. I had no knowledge that anti-pesticide work was being carried out in that way, and I am very concerned and interested to know the results of the investigations that are now taking place".

The HSE warning says OPs can cause nausea, giddiness, hallucinations and death. Since its use in the Gulf, 750 British troops involved there have fallen ill. Documents by Sergeant Anthony Worthington, environmental health adviser to 4 Armoured Brigade in the Gulf, show troops had no protection against side-effects of the pesticides: "At no time was personal protective equipment issued to personnel applying insecticides. Furthermore, the NBC (nuclear, biological, chemical) cell ordered that on no account were NBC suits ... to be utilised for insecticidal spraying, since this would undoubtedly lead to degradation of this equipment."

Michael Portillo, the present defence secretary, has ordered an investigation into Sergeant Worthington's claims. If they are verified, Mr King is likely to be dismayed. He has said he experienced OP side effects while helping on his wife Jane's farm in Wiltshire.

Elizabeth Sigmund, co-ordinator of the OP information network, said Mr King attended a talk she gave on OPs in 1991. "Afterwards he . . . said he would help us in any way he could. He said he had had personal experience of it, because both he and his wife had both felt very ill after sheep dipping." Mr King has already taken up the cause of the more than 600 farmers afflicted by the side- effects of OPs.

One of his constituents, Mark Purdey, an organic farmer, has investigated use of OPs in farming and believes they cause nervous disorders in farmers and could be linked to BSE. Mr King has written to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, asking their scientists to look into Mr Purdey's findings.

Last night Paul Tyler, Liberal Democrat MP for North Cornwall, asked Mr King to support the cause of troops exposed to OPs while he was defence secretary and who are suing the Ministry of Defence for compensation for their illnesses. "Since Tom King has personal knowledge of the devastating health effects ... and has been a supporter of the farming victims we feel sure he will endorse our desire to pinpoint the cause of the failure to protect service personnel ... Either the MoD deliberately ignored this official advice, recklessly putting our service personnel at considerable health risk or they were simply unaware of its issue."