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Pesticides and Chemicals Update

by Georgina Downs(more info)

listed in environmental, originally published in issue 141 - November 2007

There has been much activity on the pesticides front since I wrote the article The Health Risks of Pesticides in Issue 127 of PH.

The Government’s response to the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (RCEP) report on the risks to people from pesticides, continued to demonstrate the Government’s clear commitment to protecting industry interests over and above protecting public health.[1]

The RCEP report had concluded that the current pesticide policy is inadequate, and recommended an unprecedented overhaul affecting all the Government agencies and departments responsible for pesticides.[2]

However, in spite of the fact that the Government had requested it, DEFRA rejected all of the regulatory recommendations and seemingly dismissed the RCEP’s criticisms of the inadequacy of the existing policy, refused to acknowledge the health risks inherent in the spraying of agricultural chemicals, continued to maintain that the current system is robust and that this is merely an issue of perceived nuisance, and dismissed any link between pesticides and chronic ill-health conditions such as Parkinson’s, epilepsy, MS, cancers, birth defects, amongst others.

This is in stark contrast to statements published by the European Commission last year in relation to the new proposed EU Thematic Strategy on pesticides, which clearly acknowledged that Long term exposure to pesticides can lead to serious disturbances to the immune system, sexual disorders, cancers, sterility, birth defects, damage to the nervous system and genetic damage.[3]

The UK Government’s response to this issue has continued to be of the utmost complacency, is completely irresponsible and is definitely not evidence-based policy-making.

The fact that there has never been any risk assessment for the long-term exposure for those who live, work or go to school near pesticide sprayed fields means that there is no evidence (and never has been any evidence) to support the Government’s continued assertions that there are no health risks to people in the countryside from crop-spraying.

The Government’s policy and approach also appears incompatible with EU legislation on a number of counts, and earlier this year I was very pleased to have been granted permission by a High Court judge to challenge DEFRA on three specific grounds in a full High Court hearing, which is expected to take place early next year.

In contrast to the continued status quo from the UK Government over pesticides, there has been far more encouraging signs emerging from Europe.

European Commission’s Stance

In June 2006, the European Commission produced 3 new proposals as part of a pesticides package covering the authorization and use of pesticides across the EU.[3,4,5]

The European Commission clearly acknowledged both the acute and chronic long-term impacts of pesticides on human health, including for those living in the locality to sprayed fields.[6] The proposals could, if strengthened, result in necessary legislative measures for the protection of EU citizens.

However, the process in Europe, apart from being rather complicated, has a number of stages to get through before anything can come into force. At the present time the proposals are currently being debated by the European Parliament and the European Council.

Therefore, because of the significance of these proposals, and the fact that the UK Government would have to abide by any new EU laws introduced, I have spent much of the last six months in Brussels where I have met with various MEP’s from numerous political parties to inform them of the risks and adverse health, environmental and financial impacts of pesticides on rural residents and communities across EU countries.

The EU proposals contain the three key things that I have been calling for since the start of the campaign (prohibition of spraying near homes, schools, children’s playgrounds etc., prior notification before any spraying, and access to information on what chemicals are used).

In a very positive step, on 26 June 2007, European Environment Committee MEPs voted in favour of prohibiting pesticide use in and around areas where members of the public may be exposed. This included residential areas, parks, public gardens, sports grounds, school grounds and playgrounds, as well as in substantial no spray zones around these areas, particularly, although not exclusively, to protect sensitive groups such as babies, children, pregnant women, the elderly and those with pre-existing medical conditions and who may be taking medication.[7]

As I detailed in my article in Issue 127, considering the distances pesticides have been shown to travel, the Committee was absolutely right to vote in favour of substantial no-spray zones, as small buffer zones or strips would be completely inadequate to prevent public exposure to pesticides.

There were also positive votes in favour of the priorization of non-chemical methods of plant protection and pest and crop management, (a new definition I proposed that had been tabled by nine MEPs across various political parties).

However, the Environment Committee vote was what is called ‘the first reading’. The next stage in the process was the plenary session in Strasbourg at the end of October this year, where all 785 members of the European Parliament voted on the Environment Committee’s adopted reports.

In between meetings with MEPs, I also made representations to both the European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection, Markos Kyprianou, as well as the European Commissioner for the Environment, Stavros Dimas.

Whilst it may not be possible to reverse the damage that has already been done to many people’s health following exposure to pesticides, or the environmental damage, the situation will only become even more dire if radical changes are not made now. There has already been decades of Government inaction, as the UK Government has continued to allow the industry to set the agenda when it comes to pesticides. This cannot be allowed to continue.

The significance of these consequences requires the adoption of a preventative approach, especially in relation to the protection of children and other vulnerable groups.

References

1.    DEFRA (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs). The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution report on crop spraying and the health of residents and bystanders – Government response. Available at http://www.defra.gov.uk/environment/rcep/pdf/rcepcropspray-response.pdf. July 20, 2006.
2.    RCEP (Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution). Crop Spraying and the Health of Residents and Bystanders. Available at http://www.rcep.org.uk/cropspraying.htm. September 22, 2005.
3.    European Commission. Questions and Answers on the Pesticides Strategy. Available at http://europa.eu/rapid/pressReleasesAction.do?reference=MEMO/06/278&format=HTML&aged=0&language=EN&guiLanguage=en). July 12, 2006.
4.    European Commission. Commission Proposes Strategy on Safer Use of Pesticides. Available at http://europa.eu/rapid/pressReleasesAction.do?reference=IP/06/981&format=HTML&aged=0&language=EN&guiLanguage=en July 12, 2006.
5.    European Commission. Commission proposes new rules for plant protection products. Available at http://europa.eu/rapid/pressReleasesAction.do?reference=IP/06/982&format=HTML&aged=0&language=EN&guiLanguage=en. July 12, 2006.
6.    European Commission. The Impact Assessment of the Thematic Strategy on the Sustainable Use of Pesticides. Available at http://ec.europa.eu/environment/ppps/pdf/sec_2006_0894.pdf. July 12, 2006.
7.    European Parliament, Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety. Pesticides: Friend or Foe? Available at http://www.europarl.europa.eu/news/expert/
infopress_page/064-8251-176-06-26-911-20070625IPR08232-25-06-2007-2007-false/default_en.htm. June 26, 2007.

Further Information

To support Georgina’s campaigning efforts in either the UK or Europe contact her at georgedownsuk@yahoo.co.uk
To identify and contact your MEP visit www.europarl.europa.eu/members/ public.do?language=en
Ministers can be contacted via the relevant departments. The new DEFRA Secretary of State is Hilary Benn MP and the DEFRA Minister responsible for pesticides is Phil Woolas MP. They can be contacted at: DEFRA, Nobel House, 17, Smith Square, London, SW1P 3JR.

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About Georgina Downs

Georgina Downs runs the UK Pesticides Campaign to highlight the adverse health and environmental effects of pesticides. She has lived next to regularly sprayed fields for 22 years and has long-standing health problems. Georgina was the first to identify serious fundamental flaws regarding the bystander risk assessment and for the last five years has presented a case to the Government for a change in the regulations and legislation governing crop spraying. She has produced two videos Pesticide Exposures for People in Agricultural Areas – Part 1, Pesticides in the Air; Part 2 The Hidden Costs, to illustrate chemical exposure and the effects on people in rural areas. She has called for an immediate ban on crop-spraying and the use of pesticides near people's homes, schools, workplaces and any other places of human habitation, and for direct public access to the information on the chemicals sprayed on crops. Georgina has recently won the prestigious Andrew Lees Memorial Award at the British Environment Media Awards, and was a nominee for Campaigner of the Year in the Observer Ethical Awards 2006. The Farmers Weekly included Georgina in their list of the Top 20 power players in UK farming, following the impact of her campaign. Georgina can be contacted via Tel: 01243 773846; georgedownsuk@yahoo.co.uk

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