'Dipping flu' is a real illness

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The Independent Online
I first became ill after helping with sheep dipping in the summer of 1989. About three weeks after dipping I got up one morning and felt so tired, I had to go back to bed. Other symptoms soon followed. Initially I was told I was depressed, then it was the menopause, shingles, postural problems and, when none of the treatments worked, it must be psychological. I was in constant pain and my head felt full of porridge. At rest my leg and arm muscles would twitch violently, and sleep was elusive. When it did come I was plagued by nightmares. I could not sit or lie down in comfort and simply getting dressed was an ordeal. I twice took the shotgun to a remote spot on the farm.

It was not until May 1992, when I read a short article on "dipping flu" that the association between the dips and my illness was made. I began to realise that organophosphates, used in sheep-dipping, were the cause.

Hundreds of farmers are in the same situation. Many endure a life of chronic fatigue; muscle and joint pain; an inability to concentrate; language problems; sleep disturbance; bladder incontinence; sensitivity to a wide range of chemicals including perfume, petrol and diesel fumes, chlorine and phenol, and perhaps worst of all are the brain disturbances. These include intolerance of noise and bright light, depression, sudden rages and impulsive suicidal thoughts. Whilst organophosphates are designed to work on the central nervous systems of the target pests, we also know that they affect the immune system, so symptoms are bound to be diverse.

Yet the Government insists: "There is no evidence that long-term, low- level exposure to organophosphates can cause chronic ill health in humans". The many farmers who believe their ill health is attributable to exposure to these chemicals have yet to be examined by the Department of Health.

Since 1992, with the support of hundreds of victims and their families and advised by scientists, I have challenged ministers' assertions. We have made some progress in that the Government is funding an epidemiological study among sheep farmers, but that will not be complete before 1999.

We need to establish centres of expertise (experts in this field can be counted on the fingers of one hand) where those who are ill can receive diagnosis and treatment and where clinical studies can be conducted. This the Government steadfastly refuses, saying that the expertise is already available nationally. Their experts admit that much more research needs to be done. If I had a choice, I would like to see a moratorium on the use of organophosphates until their safety is proven.

The Countess of Mar is holder of the Premier Earldom of Scotland.