The search for answers for the victims of organophosphate (OP) poisoning may have just hit a brick wall in terms of the scientific evidence.
But one of UK politics’ biggest names and most prominent campaigners has now weighed in, pledging to push the issue back up the political agenda and directly challenge Government scientists who have all but dismissed the link between OPs and illness in users.
Shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham hosted a recent Parliamentary meeting on the current state of the OP saga which gave both hope and despair for those still seeking answers.
The Leigh MP, a vocal campaigner for justice for the victims of the Hillsborough stadium disaster, was inspired to host the meeting by constituents Tom Rigby, a long-time campaigner, and Margaret Percival, who became seriously ill in 1988 after using OP sheep dip.
Mr Burnham said the failure of numerous Government-commissioned studies to reach adequate conclusions was simply ‘not good enough’.
The Government still refuses to formally acknowledge the link between OPs and ill-health.
Medically, it has long been accepted ‘over-exposure’ to OPs can cause rapid onset of illness and death or ‘long-term effects on brain function’.
But the long-term impact on the human nervous system of ‘low-level’ exposure to OPs has been under investigation, without definitive answers, by the Government’s Committee on Toxicity (COT) since 1999.
Earlier this year, the committee, chaired by Prof David Coggon, finally published its first statement on the issue, based on a review of ‘relevant research’.
The statement concluded ‘collectively, the evidence reviewed is reassuring’ and suggests ‘no long-term risk’ of most of the problems associated with low-level OP exposure.
“If toxic effects on the nervous system do occur then they are minor and subtle,” the statement said.
Sarah Mackenzie-Ross’ extensive Government-funded research, which reached a very different conclusion, was dismissed as ‘flawed’ by COT and she could not contain her anger and frustration as she relayed COT’s findings.
COT’s work was a ‘narrative review’ of selected scientific papers and amounted to little more than the ‘ramblings of one or two authors’, she claimed.
A clinical neuropsychologist and researcher, Dr Mackenzie-Ross has written to COT chairman Prof Coggon reminding him these types of review ‘frequently find evidence to support (the authors’) own conclusions’ and she condemned the lack of a ‘systematic’, data-driven approach.
“I have no confidence in their conclusions,” Dr Mackenzie-Ross told the audience of OP sufferers, campaigners, researchers, industry representatives and politicians in Commons Committee Room 9.
For some, the COT findings represent a further twist in a cover-up conspiracy or a lack of political and scientific urgency which, either way, has prevented a difficult truth emerging.
One audience member wondered if the Government was now simply waiting for the remaining OP victims to die and the whole thing to go away.
The Countess of Mar, Parliament’s most prominent OP victim and campaigner, was heavily critical of both the selection and lack of rigour of the committees which approved farm chemicals over the years.
But Manchester University’s Andrew Povey, who carried out two major studies on the issue, offered a different perspective.
While the link may indeed exist, singling out OP usage from many years ago as the specific cause of ill health among other possible factors, and proving low level exposure was to blame, were both difficult to substantiate, he said.
The meeting may not have provided many definitive answers to the questions posed.
The consolation for those still waiting for official recognition of their plight and, with it, a more aware medical profession is that at least one high profile figure will keep banging the drum.
Mr Burnham, who said he and Lady Mar would also write to the COT committee, said: “This has been neglected for too long.
“There have been many people whose lives have been altered in a significant way and they deserve to know what happened and why. As Shadow Health Secretary this is a health issue.”
“The time has come for Parliament to take a closer interest in this whole issue.”