Farming Minister George Eustice denied accusations of a Government cover-up during a debate on organophosphate (OP) poisoning in the House of Commons on Wednesday.
MPs, led by Labour MP for Newport East Jessica Morden, highlighted the cases of constituents who have suffered from OP poisoning and called for an independent inquiry into the events dating back to the 1970s, 80s and early 90s that allowed it to happen.
Ms Morden said she had called the debate to give voice to Stephen Forward from Undy, one of the ‘500-plus affected people’ who want ‘answers and resolution’ to what has happened to them.
“Over the years, many arguments have been made about whether people’s illnesses can be conclusively attributed to using sheep dip,” she said.
“I am clear that there is no doubt in Stephen’s case. Blood tests carried out at the poisons unit at Guy’s hospital prove it, and he is one of the few potential victims to have medical evidence to back up his claim.”
When sheep dipping was compulsory between 1976 and 1992, mild warnings were given on sheep dip packaging.
But the Government and inspectors did not warn farmers about exposure to the solution or advise that any precautions or protective clothing be worn during the dipping of sheep, she said.
“The sufferers of OP contamination believe that the Government should have provided explicit advice and rules on the safe use of OPs, including rules on proper protective clothing.
“The crux of the debate, as has been said, is that while sheep dipping came to an end in 1992, the survivors’ groups and other campaigners suspect that the Government must have been aware of the risk earlier.”
She said a 1990-91 an inquiry into sheep dipping by the Health and Safety Executive was released to Ministers in 1991, but it was not made public until Lancashire farmer and OP campaigner Tom Rigby put in a freedom of information request.
The FOI disclosure shows that Government officials ’did know of the dangerous health risks to farmers using this chemical, but they still did not end its compulsory use’, Ms Morden said.
“Today, my constituent, Stephen, and the Sheep Dip Survivors Group would like from the Minister full disclosure of all the documentation on this issue from that time, so that the campaigners can examine it.”
He said campaigners also wanted a full inquiry, independent of Defra and the various Government bodies that have looked into the issue in the past, that ‘looks at this matter afresh, so they can see who in Government knew what, when, and why they might not have acted on that information’.
Calls for an independent inquiry into the long-running OP saga have also been made by Shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham, the front-runner in the current Labour leadership contest.
She also urged him to agree to meet the Sheep Dip Sufferers Support Group, which has held meetings with Mr Burnham in the Commons.
Mr Eustice acknowledged OPs are ‘potentially dangerous substances whose use needs to be controlled to minimise the risks to humans’.
But he referred to a statement produced by the independent Committee on Toxicity in March last year, summarising the conclusion of its review of 26 studies into OP poisoning since 1999.
It concluded: “The current balance of evidence suggests that there is no long-term risk of clearly demonstrable peripheral neuropathy from exposure to organophosphates”.
Referring to the alleged cover-up of the HSE report, Mr Eustice said it was published in 1991. The HSE was initially unable to locate one in response to Mr Rigby’s FOI request but a ‘misfiled copy of the 1990 survey report was subsequently located elsewhere and passed on to Mr Rigby’, he added.
He said the focus of the 1991 report was whether farmers had the correct protective equipment to prevent acute poisoning.
“We must make a distinction between actual poisoning—organophosphates are poisonous substances that cause tetanus-like symptoms if acute poisoning takes place—and the separate issue of whether exposure to low levels of organophosphates that does not cause overt poisoning nevertheless contributes to long-term conditions.
“The conclusion of the (COT) report is that it does not. We must make that distinction. The report of 1990-91, which as I say was published at the time, was about the concerns about overt poisoning, not possible long-term conditions.”
“I reassure Members that we are not hiding anything. The 1991 report was published at the time, but for the sake of completeness I am happy to ensure that we put a copy in the Library.”
He did not respond to calls for an inquiry but said he was ‘more than happy’ to meet the Sheep Dip Sufferers Support Group to discuss their concerns and to pass on Mr Forward’s details to the relevant regulatory bodies.