What kills sheep-ticks, birds ... and farmers?

Last month in Hong Kong a musician won a claim against Ciba-Geigy (HK) that normal use of a flyspray had made him ill, costing the company pounds 9.9m. In Britain, despite mounting evidence that organophosphates disabl e and kill, we continue to spray them with reckless abandon
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Geoff Heggadon saw the job advertised in an Exeter job centre. The qualification was a valid driving licence. The pay was pounds 3.50 an hour. He had worked for a livestock feed company for 13 years, during which he had been late only twice. Before that, he had dipped sheep and done just about every job a hired hand does around a farm. When he rang about the job of driver for a Ministry of Agriculture-approved contractor, the response was "come out and see if you can stick it". For the next 18 months, he helped collect and behead approximately 1,800 dairy cows destroyed under BSE orders.

A normal daily load in the early Nineties in the heart of dairy country would be four or five carcasses. These would be stored back at his employer's premises in refrigerated trailers until they were taken for incineration. Part of his job was to cut off the heads, which would be taken separately to ministry pathologists. Steam rising off the fresh carcasses in the freezer as they worked formed a fog. Condensation would roll down his forehead into his eyes as he beheaded new arrivals. Many of the cows had been treated with organophosphates (OP). He would have been inhaling the chemicals off the hides.

However, on a slow day for cow carcasses, he had more immediate OP contact. His employer had him do a spot of weed-killing around the premises using a knapsack dispenser. One day, bending to clear a low-hanging tree bough, the chemical spilled down his back and spine. He reported the accident to the Health and Safety Executive, but did not pursue the prosecution, nor will he name the employer. I discovered it by asking around Devon, and put the name to a state vet who had written BSE destruction orders. "He's a total cowboy," said the vet. "Tell your man to report him."

About three months after the weed-killing incident, Geoff Heggadon had suddenly succumbed to "total exhaustion".

"First sign I had was asthma, which I'd never suffered before," he told me 13 months ago. "It was quite severe. I took Ventolin to start with. That didn't get it under control so I then went on to steroid controllers. I take eight puffs a day of that. I took a fortnight off thinking it was exhaustion, and getting the asthma under control. I went back to work and lasted two days. It took me 10 weeks to get a diagnosis."

The diagnosis was post-viral syndrome or ME, also known under the umbrella term Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. When I spoke to him last week, Heggadon's health had deteriorated further. He cannot leave the house unaided, nor stay upright any length of time. A cat walking through a room with a flea collar will leave him devastated. His wife, Mandy, has quit her job of six years as a buyer at the University of Exeter to care for him. Yet she will not qualify for a carer's allowance unless Heggadon is successful in an appeal for full disability benefit. This is left to discretionary refusal because of a question mark hanging over the seriousness of his disability. He is now house-bound 99 per cent of the time and typical of farm labourers who have not been confirmed as poisoned or been accepted as fully disabled by social services. He, Mandy and their two young children now live on his basic disability allowance and income support. A man who handled 500kg carcasses for pounds 3.50 an hour cannot lift his baby. He is 37.

LAST month, halfway around the world, things were looking a bit better for a 47-year-old American named Kristan Phillips. Phillips, former principal timpanist with the Hong Kong Philharmonic, claimed he had suffered chronic ill health as a result of inhaling a fly spray containing the OP Diazinon used in a rehearsal room. Though he has since moved back to the US, he sued in a Hong Kong court. Among the defendants were the agrochemical company Ciba-Geigy (Hong Kong) Ltd. Offering expert testimony was British- based scientist, Dr Goran Jamal of the Institute of Neurological Sciences at Southern General Hospital in Glasgow. In a landmark decision in favour of Phillips, the defendants were ordered to pay pounds l.9m in damages and pounds 8m in costs. The decision is significant because it involved chronic OP poisoning, which involves the persistent and often delayed ME-type symptoms from which Geoff Heggadon suffers.

The exposure of the British population to OPs is difficult to calculate. They have been in widespread use since the Second World War in garden sprays, crop and warehouse dusts, pet products and head lice treatments. Though sold under a number of proprietary names, they can be spotted by the warning that the active ingredient is a "cholinesterase inhibitor". Cholinesterase is an enzyme essential to a healthy nervous system.

There is no doubt as to the toxicity of OPs. As early as 1951, the first of many official reviews led by Lord Zuckerman, Precautionary Measures against Toxic Chemicals used in Agriculture, estimated that in 1950 alone, between 130,000 and 150,000 acres of crops were dusted with OPs. The committee concluded: "We are of the opinion that until harmless alternatives can be found, the use of dinitro weed killers and organophosphorus insecticides must go forward." The report recommended improved protective clothing for farm workers.

Last year, more than 855,360 hectares of British cropland was dusted with 404 tonnes of organophosphates. Tens of millions of sheep were dipped in OP baths, grain stores sprayed with OPs, the country's pets strapped into OP-saturated flea collars, its cattle fitted with fly-repellent ear tags. Playgrounds were sprayed with OPs, children with head-lice shampooed with them and so on. The agrochemical industry and Whitehall still argue, 47 years after Zuckerman, that their safety is down to those who use them.

One farmer who did not read the instructions before using OP sheep dip is the 56-year-old Countess of Mar, a keen keeper of goats and sheep at her Worcestershire farm, and a former British Telecom clerk who also holds one of the oldest hereditary peerages in the realm. She first noticed "dippers' flu" - the tight-chested symptoms that came and went after dipping - in 1986. Three years later, her husband prepared the dip and she did not read the instructions. Dip spilled into her boot. She did not remove it until after she finished wrestling with her recalcitrant flock.

The nightmare Lady Mar subsequently experienced tallies with those of hundreds of sheep farmers. The symptoms included weight loss, uncontrollable vision, concentration loss, aching muscles, utter debilitation. She found herself more than once at the kitchen table staring down the barrel of a shot-gun. She slashed her wrists. The suicidal impulses shocked her, until she learnt they were common. UK farmers are twice as likely as non- farmers to kill themselves.

Though monitoring of pesticide-related illness has improved since Ministry of Agriculture and Department of Health initiatives in 1991, 1993 and 1994, widespread under-diagnosis of poisoning seems likely. The Government's Suspected Adverse Reaction Scheme acknowledges only 858 cases between 1985 and 1995; 577 of these involved OP sheep dip.

This description comes from a sheep farmer from Kent who is convinced the system took pains not to count him. In 1991, in his thirties, he began to feel "completely buggered" and in 1992 had a heart attack after dipping. By the time he managed to get referred to the National Poisons Unit at Guy's Hospital in London, he was scarcely well enough to sit upright. Still, he was left in reception and given questionnaires that ran to more than 175 questions. These included "did you often skip school?", "did you ever force someone to have sex with you?" and "did you lie a lot?". Guy's acknowledges that it used the documents until several years ago, describing them as "standard psycho- metric questionnaires". "They did cause a lot of disquiet," admits one of the staff.

Since her accident, Lady Mar has asked hundreds of questions about organophosphorous sheep dips in the House of Lords. In 1992, a campaign aimed mainly at the Ministry of Agriculture swelled to take on the Ministry of Defence when she realised symptoms of sheep farmers closely resembled those of Gulf War veterans. She thinks that there are at least 1,200 service men and women with Gulf war syndrome, and they are dying at a rate of two a month.

It was, in part, her relentless questioning on the soldiers' behalf that forced Sir Nicholas Soames's admission last November that the Ministry of Defence had misled Parliament over the use of OPs in the conflict. US and UK troops were exposed to at least 3,800kg of the OP insecticide chlorpyrifos, and probably a host of other OP compounds. Tents were sprayed. Compounds similar to the insecticides might have been in nerve gases.

However, the soldiers are unlikely to receive a diagnosis of pesticide poisoning. Paul Carr, who died this week aged 30, leaving two children both born with birth defects, served with the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers during Operation Desert Storm. His illness might equally well be due to a chemical cocktail of vaccines against plague and anthrax, tablets against chemical attack and smoke from oil well fires. "It may be that we shall never find the precise cause of this condition," says Liberal Democrat defence spokesman Menzies Campbell. "However, we certainly can see the debilitating symptoms from which the victims are suffering. We sent young men and women to the Gulf at serious risk to their lives. The very least we owe them is adequate compensation."

RESEARCH into the effects of OPs continues. The Institute of Occupational Medicine and Dr Jamal are conducting a three-part study on the effects of sheep dip. A working party at the Royal College of Physicians is hearing evidence from a variety of therapists and victims. The US Defence department has commissioned a team led by a London-based psychiatrist (who promotes the notion that ME has psychological roots) to analyse the epidemiology of Gulf war syndrome in UK troops. And several toxicity trials are taking place in London and Manchester.

Lady Mar worries that all we can expect are more recommendations for improvements in protective clothing. This will not help the hired hands of reckless employers, nor soldiers required to follow orders. And it will certainly not be of any use to wildlife. The Royal Society for Protection of Birds reports sparrows down 89 per cent, turtle doves 77 per cent, bullfinches 76 per cent, swallows 43 per cent, starlings 23 per cent. As birdsong dies in Britain, the angry voices of sick farmers and soldiers fill the courts. There are an estimated 70 court cases in train in the UK involving injuries from OPs. A pounds 14bn agrochemical industry is unlikely to shut itself down voluntarily. It may now lie with the law to stop us from poisoning ourselves.

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