Mr Kerry Hutchinson
Pesticides Safety Directorate
Room 317, Mallard House
3, Peasholme Green
York, Y01 7PX
Dear Mr Hutchinson,
Although the consultation seeks to establish a National Strategy for the sustainable use of plant protection products there are serious questions that need to be asked, including whether the use of such products can ever be sustainable in the true sense of the word.
“Sustainable” suggests that the products can be used for the foreseeable future without any detriment to the environment or to all life forms that depend on that environment.
Since many of these chemicals are both persistent and cumulative the logical conclusion is that the toxic burden on the environment will increase with time and that detrimental effects are certain to follow.
Few chemicals are fully tested for all detrimental effects before they are released into the environment.
Many have only been withdrawn decades after concerns were raised about their adverse effects and throughout those decades the manufacturers have made firm but false claims about their safety.
A current and classic example of that process is found with glyphosate products that have been praised by the manufacturers as almost safe enough to drink. As the decades pass science is beginning to demonstrate that the claims of safety hide terrible truths and potentially damaging effects on human life.
If this is possible for a chemical praised for its safety and for which entire crop varieties have been developed simply to increase the sales of that very chemical then we must be equally concerned about all the other “plant protection products” that may have even more dubious reputations.
The use of improperly tested active ingredients used in untested formulations that may be harmful to the environment and human health and both cumulative and irreversible in action can never be sustainable.
In answer to the questions posed I make the following comments.
Q1: Can you think of any existing or new targets or indicators (either environmental or activity based) that you would like to see included?
The paper suggests that “By sustainable use we mean minimising the hazards and risks to the environment from the use of plant protection products without putting necessary crop protection at risk.“ but there are many ways to protect crops and not all require chemical inputs.
The only certain way to reduce the risk to the environment is to move to non-chemical controls and the use of plant breeding programmes to create natural resistance.
One aim should be to remove seed and plant breeding control from the influence of the chemical industry, which might have an interest in selling seeds from susceptible plants in order to boost chemical sales.
There is no doubt that non-chemical controls sustained human life for centuries at the same time as it maintained to fertility of the soil by careful rotation and the use of grazing animals.
Another target should be to support research into non-chemical means of weed, disease and insect control as several decades of chemical inputs have not destroyed any target organism but during the same period non-target organisms have declined as they suffer from the unintended effects of the chemicals.
Q2: What suggestions do you have for establishing better links between all the various parties with an interest in plant protection products (including farmers, growers, amenity users, retailers and so on; not just the government bodies involved in regulating these products)?
It is interesting that consumers are not mentioned specifically in this list of interested parties.
The links between the chemical industry and government regulators are already too close and their influence over the thinking of farmers and growers cannot be underestimated. Historically farmers have been advised, and often instructed by government agencies to use chemical products.
The regulatory bodies have shown support for the aims of the chemical companies even when the majority of the public is directly opposed to the policies preferred by the regulators.
This was exemplified in the debate over the future of Genetically Modified crops in the UK.
Those crops can never be “environmentally friendly” and they depend on chemicals with serious doubts over the safety data and their effects on the environment, including the creation of resistant species of both weeds and insects. Despite this government and industry agencies have combined forces in efforts to force this technology on an unwilling public.
All too often we have seen government ordering compulsory use of chemical products in various “eradication schemes” only to find later that the chemicals involved are withdrawn over safety concerns.
What is required is not better links with industry but better and more open communications with the consumers and those who must give medical treatment to those injured by pesticides.
Q3: We would welcome any comments on the list of measures in the table below. Are they accurately described particularly in respect of implications for plant protection product users? Are there any important measures missing?
Although some pesticide regulations are backed by legal enforcement mechanisms the majority are voluntary and as a result users can freely flout them without fear of prosecution.
Even the basic testing procedures for pesticide products have failed to prevent dangerous chemicals entering widespread use. It seems that all data supplied by the chemical companies is taken on trust with no independent verification. Perhaps that explains why so many chemicals approved as “safe” are then withdrawn form the market place when adverse effects are reported.
Sadly even the systems for reporting adverse health effects are ineffectual and as a result chemicals that cause actual harm remain in use far longer than they should.
Many of the schemes intended to control the inadvertent poisoning of non-target organisms fail to take account of vapours lifting off of the treated crop for days or weeks after application. The legislation attempts to control immediate drift but relies on users complying with advised best practice and yet there is ample evidence to show that the advice is often ignored in the rush to “get the job done”.
All depends on trust and the more trust that is shown the more likely it is that people will abuse it.
The Food Standards Agency is failing the public by its refusal to ensure that pesticides used on harvested crops, and which remain in the food, are declared on food labels. The claim is that these chemicals do not have to be declared because they are pesticides and not additives but that avoids the issue.
Many of the chemicals are known to trigger adverse effects on human health and it is admitted that the true toxicity of breakdown products is unknown and that little if anything is known of the potential toxicity of combinations of those chemicals.
Despite this their continued use without warning to consumers is permitted.
The Environment is no better protected. Once again the majority of the regulations are either unenforceable or never enforced. No one should be surprised at reports of pesticides in ground water.
I personally raised the problem of disposal of pesticides used by the public in urban areas back in 1993.
At that time my then Member of Parliament received assurances that all the potential problems had been accounted for by those whose task it was to ensure the safety of the environment and our water supply.
Some twelve years later the very problems I then raised are admitted to be a concern but there are still no methods that can be introduced which will be capable of reducing the problem because wherever there are pesticides there will be people who will not use or dispose of those pesticides as the rules expect.
Many pesticides are both volatile and persistent, surprisingly not a contradiction in terms given that the active ingredients are protected to ensure efficacy, and a combination of drift, vapour lift and air currents can lift the molecules high into the air. This may well explain reports that rain water now also contains pesticides in measurable quantities. That fact alone should be sending dire warnings to the regulatory bodies and suggests that the current level of pesticide use is entirely unsustainable.
It may even be too late to prevent serious environmental damage given the susceptibility of beneficial insects upon which the pollination of our food crops and the life of diverse species depend.
Although in section 14 under Environmental policies it is stated that “UK policy looks to identify and act quickly (on a voluntary basis) against chemicals of particular concern” the reality on the ground does not reflect that policy view. It is only necessary to look at DDT, 2,4,5-T, Lindane and the organophosphates, including glyphosate, to see that all steps are taken to ensure continued use of the products even when there are very serious concerns about the adverse effects on both the environment and human health.
Many have warned for decades that biodiversity has been threatened by pesticide use but those who gave the warnings found themselves attacked as extremists. Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring is a case in point but it was published over 40 years ago and things are little better now.
Almost all Agricultural policies in respect to reducing pesticides are based on voluntary actions.
Many have been introduced only to subdue concerns in the public and ensure continued pesticide use.
The organic sector has strict rules for those who volunteer to take part and there has been some encouragement from government in the form of short-term subsidies to assist in the changeover period but there is a real need for training and research into better ways to maintain production levels under such schemes if the increasing demand for pesticide free food is to be filled without increasing imports.
In any event it is difficult for organic production to continue alongside conventional farming because of the risk of pesticide drift and contamination of produce. The sector needs to be protected and the money provided by government to date is but a fraction of that spent on promoting pesticide use in the past and of Genetically Modified crops in the present.
There is a need for the introduction of mandatory codes of practice but there must also be a determined effort to ensure enforcement of the current regulations. If users knew that they would suffer severe penalties if they were in breach of the regulations then they would be more careful but at the current time the regulations are not being enforced and users take risks.
A recent case involved over-spraying of a neighbouring property about which a complaint was made but the regulatory authority protected the user rather than the neighbour. What was strange is that the regulatory authority suggested that they were aware that wind speeds in some areas were less that those nearby as the result of terrain differences but the site of the complaint was a proposed wind farm.
The current schemes that monitor pesticide use and residues in food and water are very expensive and these costs should be carried by the manufacturers and not by the consumers. If the manufacturers want to sell polluting chemicals then they should pay the full costs of monitoring and clearing the environment of those chemicals under the polluter pays principle – a principle endorsed by the government.
I have very serious doubts about the usefulness of the proposed Pesticide Tax. There are costs involved and in order to recover those costs there will be further incentive to continue to sell pesticides.
It will be like the tax on tobacco where the health risks of the habit are known and admitted but the government earns so much money from the tax imposed on tobacco that it will never ban the product.
Tobacco damage is limited to the smoker and those nearby who breathe the smoke. There is no escape from some of the pesticides currently in use and there is therefore a greater need for controls.
An indication of the failure to enforce regulations is found in the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations, introduced almost 20 years ago. Farmers were given dire warnings that they would face prosecution if they failed to comply with COSHH but in reality there has been little if any enforcement, even when individuals have been harmed by bad practice that was covered by COSHH.
In a local prosecution all harm caused by the illegal use of chemicals was “overlooked” and my understanding is that the COSHH regulations were not even referred to and yet there is a requirement under COSHH to ensure that the less dangerous option is always used.
In 1993 I was asked officially on two occasions if I thought that there should be greater controls of pesticides and at the time I simply wrote that the current laws should be enforced.
Today I would answer that there is a real need for greater legal controls and enforceable codes of conduct as complacency has become the norm. This is probably because users actually believe the safety claims made by the manufacturers, they have bigger areas to cover, less time to do it, and they therefore take risks in the knowledge that it is extremely unlikely that they will ever face prosecution.
Training and certification are not the answers. Those who poisoned me with their illegal mixture, and there is irrefutable scientific evidence in support of the diagnosis, were trained operators who did not believe there was any danger and laughed at my concerns.
I knew that things they did were wrong but the regulatory authorities ignored my reports.
Failure to enforce laws means that there are no laws at all.
The Water Action Plan is unlikely to succeed if control is given to the Environment Agency.
Locally a farmer buried cyanide by the water source for a bottling plant. It is against the law to bury cyanide pesticides. Even empty cans must be punctured and filled with earth before burial.
Despite that the farmer was not prosecuted for that offence and the HSE staff wrote to the Environment Agency offering to help them to deal with me if I approached them about the matter.
That attitude does not instil confidence in the Environment Agency, especially when the potential harm that could have been caused by that chemical is considered.
If the Biodiversity Action Plan is to work the regulators must take into account the effects of the complete formulations of pesticides on non-target species. I was most surprised to discover that Roundup and some fungicides had insecticidal properties or that birds were very susceptible to the effects of OPs.
Government funded studies have shown that beneficial insects are adversely affected by pesticide use and the GM field trials showed detrimental effects from both conventional chemical treatments and the phosphoric acid herbicides used on GM crops.
Selective pesticides may be developed in the future but since many organisms have similar susceptibilities it is unlikely that the problem of effects on non-target organisms will be overcome.
I suspect this is why there has been a need to introduce non-spray field margins and “beetle banks”.
The Plant Protection Products Availability Action Plan assumes that pesticide use is the answer to every grower’s prayers and yet after decades of pesticide use the problem of persistent weeds and crop damaging insects has not diminished, and in some instances has worsened with the establishment of resistance within both weed and insect populations. That was entirely predictable but it means that in the long term there will be major problems with “sustainability” unless a new way forward is found.
It is interesting to see that the loss of chemicals under the EU review is seen as a problem and not as an improvement by way of the protection of human and environmental health. The chemicals that were removed had problems and we should be relieved that they have gone and not complaining that they should still be available for use. Despite this it is suggested that an action could be to “Encourage applications to extend existing approvals (particularly for minor uses) by maximising flexibility within regulatory data requirements“ and so reintroduce the risk.
The Amenity Sector and Amateur Use Action Plan covers issues that I raised back in 1993 but the problem lays not with the users but with availability. If dangerous chemicals were not available then there would be no problem.
What is proposed is a “fire brigade” type of action in that the dangerous chemicals are first allowed onto the market and only then are measures taken to ensure that only trained people can use them.
That creates the need for a raft of recommendations and regulations in efforts to ensure that the chemicals and any excess product are stored, used, and disposed of in ways that are not detrimental to people, their pets, other non-target organisms and the environment.
None of that expense would be needed if the chemicals were proven to pose no risk initially.
The Targeted Use Reduction Plan again ensures that the pesticides will be used and it is clear that the policy is not to prevent the use of pesticides. Farmer and grower organisations are continually stating that they do not use pesticides unnecessarily. Given the margins in agriculture this statement is likely to be closer to the truth now than it was in the past but even now growers face dire warnings of the financial consequences of not using pesticides when in reality their use might not give the expected returns.
Fear of the consequences of not using various chemicals has always been a successful marketing tool.
In many instances however avoiding pesticide use does not have the disastrous effects on yields that are often predicted - as organic growers have shown.
Yield losses have to be expected by farmers but the financial loss in losing a crop treated with every fertiliser and pesticide recommended due to bad weather at harvest is a far greater financial loss than would be suffered in crops where minimal pesticides were used.
No harvest is ever safe until it is sold off the farm.
Q4: Please let us know what you make of any or all of our outline action plans. Is the scope sufficiently comprehensive at this point in time?
Would you like to suggest any additional issues, outcomes or measures or do you see environmental or economic disadvantages from those proposed?
The outline action plans appear to me to be simply attempting to find ways to ensure that the industry continues to be able to sell vast quantities of chemical pesticides.
No voluntary measures will achieve any significant long-term improvement.
Sprayer MoTs, operator training, voluntary Codes of Practice, regulations that are never enforced, they are all half-hearted fixes designed to give the impression that action is being taken.
The reality is that there is a determined effort to hide the damage caused by pesticides both to the environment and to human health in order to ensure that sales are maintained.
The monitoring of adverse health effects is failing, and it seems to be intentional.
I will use my own case as an example to illustrate why the proposed plans will fail unless those whose duty it is to protect us and our environment take the issue of pesticide safety more seriously.
I worked with pesticides for decades. My father did before me. We were told that the chemicals were tested and proven to be safe before they were allowed on to the market place and so in the early years there were almost no provisions for protective clothing. When workers became ill they were “rested” and put back on the job when they recovered – if they recovered.
Later the Health & Safety Executive began insisting that employers provided PPE and then training.
Trained operators supposedly understood the risks and their duty to comply with regulations and they were taught that no mixes other than those approved were permitted for use.
We are assured that no chemicals are permitted for use if they can cause long-term adverse human health effects such as peripheral neuropathy.
Given all that we should have a right to believe that we are all protected but that assumes that all employers and all operators will comply with the training and regulations. They do not.
In my own case trained operators mixed two organophosphorus insecticides in a sprayer months before I worked with them. Something made them stop using the mixture leaving a large volume in the sprayer. Months later they moved the sprayer to the middle of the farmyard where pipes were removed from the pump leading to the release of the stored chemical over me, the ground, and inevitably to the waterways. All protests were ignored and yet the incident breached countless regulations, including the method of disposal for excess diluted grain store pesticides.
Sadly those exposures caused my permanent disability but doctors were not trained to recognise the symptoms of poisoning resulting in treatment by contraindicated drugs.
The HSE refused to investigate, despite a direct request from a toxicologist who had diagnosed poisoning.
The employer, on advice from his insurers, denied everything. Despite the regulations details of the chemicals involved were refused to me. Despite being informed of the likely illegality of the mixture HSE invented a scenario that implied there had been no exposure and some doctors were forced to withdraw the poisoning diagnosis even though others had confirmed it after the GP sought second opinions. The scenario became official policy and all protests were met with a determination to avoid recognition of the true facts even when the case reached the level of the House of Lords.
The only way to cover the problem was to imply that I was suffering from some sort of mental illness and that my symptoms, including cardio-respiratory, vision and neurological problems, including peripheral neuropathy, were all psychologically induced. Every official joined in support of that theory.
That was until a blood test was performed in the USA that showed conclusive proof that the neurological and brain damage has been caused by exposure to organophosphates and their solvents.
The evidence is clear and supports the view that the true adverse health effects of pesticides are being hidden and even trained operators are ignoring the regulations that are intended to protect us all.
If this can happen with occupational exposures in a worker with extremely detailed records, who had reported his concerns based on inside information, and who has the full support of his doctors then how many other cases with less detailed information are being deliberately removed from the records?
It is impossible to say which operators do follow good practice and which do not since when people know they are being watched and tested they ensure as far as possible that they stick to the rules.
Most operators actually work unsupervised and all too many take chances just to get the job done.
Just as with the testing of spraying equipment what is seen is only relevant at that time and on that day.
Once the certificates are issued anything can happen.
Q5: Are there any other measures outside of those described in our draft action plans you would like to see introduced? In particular are there any current Voluntary Initiative measures you would like to see put on a statutory basis?
There is absolutely no point in making further statutory measures when those we already have are not being enforced but certainly initiatives such as the Green Code should be backed by the full power of the law even though many of its features are actually covered by the COSHH regulations.
There should also be compulsory and independent testing of the data supplied by the manufacturers on all products, no matter how “safe” they are claimed to be. In recent years a recognised analytical laboratory tested a sample of organophosphorus insecticides with an active ingredient that the manufacturers and government agencies all claim should have broken down within days or hours of dilution in water Some claimed that such a solution would be “innocuous”.
The results showed that far from breaking down in days as officially claimed the concentration of active ingredient had doubled from the theoretical levels when diluted in water 5 years earlier.
Officially provided information also suggests that little is known about the toxic effects of mixtures of such chemicals or the toxins formed during storage or processing.
Those data gaps must be urgently and reliably filled by fully independent research.
All those working with pesticides occupationally should be given base-level tests, such as cholinesterase levels, so that comparisons can properly be made if they should become ill following any exposures. This would greatly assist the medical profession in finding the correct treatment should anything go wrong.
Q6: Finally we would welcome any other comments you may have on this document, for example:
• Did you find it useful in terms of style, format, length and level of detail?
• Were the questions posed clear and helpful to you?
• Is the rationale behind developing a strategy convincing?
• Are the linkages and relationships between all those involved with plant protection products clearly explained?
• Have the priority action areas been satisfactorily identified?
The document is interesting and makes a good start at examining the issues involved although in my view it is obviously biased in favour of continuing frequent pesticide use, which is in itself unsustainable.
Many important issues are missed, such as the costs in terms of health and medical treatments to those suffering the effects of pesticides and the administrative costs of suppressing that information.
Perhaps it is seen as unimportant that much of the funding for the Pesticide Safety Directorate is obtained from the approvals and licensing process and as a percentage of pesticide sales?
There is an obvious conflict of interest that needs to be resolved.
The questions are designed to bolster the preferred policy, which is to continue using dangerous chemicals that have been insufficiently tested and for which the safety data relied upon has not been verified independently. There is evidence that some information is flawed and no attempt appears to have been made to correct the data. This endangers public health but it also undermines both the industry and the reputation of the regulatory bodies.
The current strategy is not convincing at all. Around the world there are increasing numbers of reports that pesticide use is harming human health and the environment. We are told that those who complain merely suffer from the “perception of risk” but that does not explain the reported birth defects, neurological problems, hormonal abnormalities, brain damage and development problems, all of which have been scientifically linked to pesticide exposures on numerous occasions. Nor does it explain the dangerous reactions seen in “food allergies” and Multiple Chemical Sensitivity that can be resolved by avoiding exposures and foods containing triggering chemicals such as pesticides.
Many of the chemicals used in pesticides accumulate in the environment and in our bodies.
In others the damage they cause is not reversible and is increased with every new exposure.
Some pesticides can readily trigger imbalance in the hormonal systems of humans and animals alike and that is extremely dangerous for the future of all life on this planet.
The introduction of genetically engineered plants is also of concern because there are doubts both in regard to the safety of the chemicals they are designed to withstand, and resistance to those toxins that they exude, with genuine science-based concerns over the ultimate effects of the changes to DNA.
Individually these effects cannot be sustained but in combination they offer potential for disaster.
I am not convinced that the current strategy gives sufficient weight to those concerns.
There are known but rarely publicised links between the plant protection product manufacturers and the regulatory bodies and this has been referred to as the “revolving door” where individuals move freely between the industry and the bodies regulating that industry. All too often we find that a person who once claimed to be protecting public health as a regulator then appears in a public forum or media interview supporting the companies whose policies can potentially damage human health and the environment. There are many cases of this and it would be wrong to single out any individual in order to give an example. I am sure that all are aware that this happens often.
We are told that industry experts are needed in order to give us insights into the data and therefore bring a high level of professional expertise to the regulatory bodies. We are also told that they will “leave the room” if their industrial links could be seen as influencing decisions but their input will automatically influence the decision making process whether or not they are actually present. If the public were given open access to the information before the regulators we would have truly open processes.
In my opinion the priority actions should be to
1. End the ability to hide important information behind the smokescreen of “commercial confidentiality” for rival companies can discover anything they need by scientific analysis and the secrecy only serves to deny the public vital information which they need to protect their health.
2. Recognise the reports of environmental and human health damage caused by pesticides at an early stage and take action to withdraw offending chemicals.
3. Instigate immediate independent checks on the safety data for all chemicals and mixtures of chemicals suspected as having caused harm and for all other chemicals at the earliest possible date.
4. Take steps to restrict the use of pesticides in residential areas (urban and rural) and where they might enter the watercourses and water supplies.
5. Encourage research of the archives and into new technologies in order to find and promote non-chemical means of pest control, including biological methods and rotations where appropriate.
6. Encourage research into the use of natural products capable of targeting problem species without causing long-term effects to health or the environment.
7. Ensure that all the current regulations and codes of practice are enforceable by law and that steps are taken to ensure that those laws are enforced, especially when human health has been harmed.
8. Instigate a fully independent review of the records of reports of adverse ill-health effects from pesticides and learn from the mistakes made in the past in the light of new scientific methods so that an accurate database can be established from which trends and problem chemicals can be easily seen.
9. Ensure that all doctors across the country are well-versed in what to expect in the way of adverse effects from pesticides so that early warnings of problems will be seen.
10. Ensure the prompt withdrawal of all pesticides that can accumulate in the environment or for which the effects can accumulate in the body.
11. Adhere to the proclaimed policy of Government that the Polluter pays by ensuring that those who wish to sell these toxins are made to pay for the damage they cause and to remove them from the environment. This should especially apply if flawed approvals data was supplied.
I have no doubt that without those measures all decisions will be made on unreliable information and no strategy will ever be successful other than in the most insignificant of ways.
Only when the information relied upon is proven to be accurate will it be possible to make any attempt at forming a strategy for sustainable use of any Plant Protection Products.
I hope that my observations are of interest and that a sound way forward can be found.
Dated 22/05/2005 Updated 20/02/2016
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