I beg to move,
That this House
has considered organophosphate sheepdip poisoning.
Although this is a short debate, it is certainly important for a constituent of mine and many others out there who attribute their chronic ill health to the use of sheep dip. I want to emphasise that I will be discussing events that happened in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. Since then, other sheep dip treatments have been developed, and the advice given to farmers has been improved to help minimise the risk of exposure to the chemicals. I do not want to anticipate the Minister’s reply this early in the debate, but I gently point out that as long as we continue carefully to regulate and review such products, what I am talking about relates to what happened in the past, or advice that was not given in the past.
I pay tribute to the Members in this place and the other House, journalists and, most importantly, campaigners—not least the Sheep Dip Sufferers Support Group—who have doggedly pursued the issue of organophosphate poisoning over the years. I called for this debate on this long-standing issue to give a voice to my constituent Stephen Forward from Undy, and to raise questions early in this new Parliament, so that we can take a fresh look at the matter and give impetus to the ongoing campaign, which continues to try to provide answers and resolution for the 500-plus affected people. Those 500 are just those identified by the campaign groups; they are sure that more people have been affected.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. I thank her for this opportunity to give voice to the concerns of one of my constituents, Mr Edward Harding, who would strongly assert that his exposure to sheep dip has left him unable to work for the past 15 years. He is now dependent on industrial injuries disablement benefit, which is at least Department for Work and Pensions acknowledgement that his poisoning has caused irreversible damage to his body.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for making an important point, and commend him on giving a voice to his constituent. The Department for Work and Pensions has acknowledged OP poisoning, but we are still waiting for other bodies to do the same. The matter was raised with me at the end of the previous Parliament by Stephen Forward. Over the years, many arguments have been made about whether people’s illnesses can be conclusively attributed to using sheep dip. 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.
Stephen started dipping sheep in 1979 at the age of 17, at a time when the then Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food had made yearly dips compulsory. Biannual dips became compulsory in 1984. The first time that Stephen helped his father with the dipping, some of the sheep collapsed. They were assured by the Government inspector, who had to be present under the system, that that had happened before and that the sheep would come round in a few minutes, but it was an indicator to Stephen of the strength of what they were using. As Stephen and others affected will tell you, it is difficult to dip sheep without getting covered in the solution, as well as inhaling and swallowing it. It is the nature of the process. Stephen would spend seven hours a day, twice a year dipping 350-plus sheep.
Almost immediately, Stephen started to get flu like symptoms which got progressively worse, eventually leading to chronic fatigue syndrome and physical problems that meant he could no longer work on the farm. He is also open about the mental health problems that he has developed, including depression and anxiety. His symptoms would always be worse the day after sheep dipping and he was often bedridden for weeks. He went to his GP several times—there is the separate issue of GPs’ awareness of the condition at the time—before reading in Farmers Weekly in 1991 that he could be suffering from OP poisoning, because the symptoms listed were identical to those that he had experienced for 13 years. The article suggested that people with such symptoms contact the poisons unit at Guy’s hospital for a blood test. A series of tests confirmed that Stephen was suffering from OP poisoning. By that stage, however, the window of opportunity for providing treatment had long since passed and he was suffering significant long-term effects.
The symptoms of OP poisoning have been devastating for Stephen. At 53 years old, he is unable to walk 30 yards and has not been able to work since 1996, and the effects have severely limited all aspects of his life. The poisoning has also given him sensitivity to medicines that might have been able to help. Stephen’s medical records relating to Guy’s hospital were lost by his GP—that appears to have happened to others in a similar situation—but through his dogged persistence he now has some copies directly from hospital. Others are not so lucky. As Mr Williams mentioned, that information is crucial for those making claims for benefits such as employment and support allowance or the personal independence payment. As a result of hearing Stephen’s story, I attended a meeting in Parliament with the Sheep Dip Sufferers Support Group. The group is led by Tom Rigby, a constituent of my right hon. Friend Andy Burnham, who initiated a moving meeting for sufferers and is involved in the campaign—although he is, of course, busy with another campaign today. At the meeting, dozens of farm workers told similar heartbreaking stories of ruined lives and health.
It is worth reiterating that compulsory dipping of sheep was reintroduced in 1976 by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to tackle sheep scab, a notifiable disease. The products used in the 1970s and onwards were stronger than previous products. They were single-dip products containing organophosphates and organochlorides, which were banned in 1984. Compulsory dipping did happen in the ’30s and ’40s, but farmers were never really told that the new chemicals might be dangerous and required better protective clothing to be worn, so farmers just carried on dipping in the same way that they always had. Concerns about the effects of organophosphate sheep dips on farmers have been raised since their inception, but they came to a head in the early ’90s as compulsory dipping was being phased out. It ceased to be compulsory in 1992.
OPs are toxic chemicals with known effects after repeat exposure. OP compounds were developed as chemical warfare agents, and a link exists between Gulf war illness in US troops and OP insecticides. As an aside, it was revealed just this week that British airlines are facing 17 individual legal claims of poisoning by toxic air, including organophosphates, circulating in aircraft cabins. As a result, Unite the union is calling for an inquiry on contaminated cabin air and whether it has been damaging to pilots and cabin crew.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing this matter forward for consideration. I have worked alongside the Northern Ireland Organophosphorus Sufferers Association. One of my constituents, Ernie Patterson, was referred from Northern Ireland to Guy’s hospital here in London for treatment and tests. Unfortunately, his medical notes went missing and he now has no recourse to any help or assistance. Does the hon. Lady agree that the loss of such important medical records is a disgrace and requires investigation?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I will return to this at the end of my speech, but my constituent Stephen Forward found it incredibly difficult to get his medical records. Many others seem to be in the same situation as the constituent of Jim Shannon, so the matter needs to be considered.
At the time of compulsory dipping, 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. 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. In 1990-91 an inquiry was carried out by the Health and Safety Executive into sheep dipping on behalf of the Ministry. The full report was released to Ministers in 1991, but it was not made public until Tom Rigby put in a freedom of information request. As The Guardian reported in April, 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.
The report set out concerns about the cumulative health impact of long-term and repeated exposure to organophosphates and criticised manufacturers for providing inadequate protective clothing and unclear instructions to farmers. It is also said that at some time in the 1980s Ministry inspectors were told not to go within 14 feet of sheep dip when supervising, which also needs investigating. It is important to remember that at the time, the then farming Minister demanded that local authorities clamp down on farmers who refused to use the chemical. It was another year, though, until sheep dipping was no longer required by law. As Stephen said:
“We were given no training or advice about how to use the chemicals, just told to get on with it and, if not, we would be prosecuted.”
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. Campaigners also want a full inquiry, independent of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Committee on Toxicity of Chemicals in Food, Consumer Products and the Environment, and the Veterinary Medicines Directorate, 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.
The hon. Lady is making an incredibly powerful point. Given the length of time this has been going on for, we almost need a royal commission. This goes back 30 or 40 years, so many of the people involved will no longer be here. Does she agree that we need to set up something, perhaps through the Minister, that this place can scrutinise, as well as something outside?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. It is crucial that any inquiry is independent of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. There have been studies over the years, but independent studies by University College London have come to different conclusions. To settle this matter we need something like his suggestion; that would be a good idea. We want a full inquiry, independent of DEFRA, to allow us to question why farmers might have been compelled to use this chemical with no guidance if governmental research pointed to health impacts. Was compulsory dipping stopped because MAFF knew it was affecting farm workers’ and farmers’ health? If so, why did it not say so? We need an answer to that question in particular.
We also need to examine what happened to the blood test results from the national poisons unit and disclosure of those that still exist. My constituent had a long battle to get his results, but he did finally get them, so there might still be some there. Even if the paperwork does not exist, medical staff should be invited to give their recollections.
Stephen was affected by this at a young age. He and others deserve an apology from the Government, as he has had to live with the effects for decades. Will the Minister also look at what can be done to help those who are suffering and want access to treatment and an acknowledgement of their health issues? Finally, as a result of this debate, will the Minister take this opportunity, early in this Parliament, to move this issue forward by agreeing to a meeting with the Sheep Dip Sufferers
Support Group, so that we can go into this in far greater depth than a half-hour debate allows? That would be greatly appreciated by campaigners, so I urge him to do that as well as fulfilling my other requests.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate Jessica Morden on securing the debate. She has championed this cause for some time and she made it clear towards the end of the last Parliament that she would seek an early opportunity for a debate. She has succeeded. Everyone here will have been touched by the story of her constituent and his ill health.
I am sympathetic to farmers suffering from ill health and I acknowledge that some of them associate their illness with the use of organophosphate sheep dips. There is a long history of research into the hypothesis that low-level and non-toxic exposure to organophosphates, sheep dips in particular, might have caused long-term neurological health conditions.
The independent Committee on Toxicity released a statement on organophosphates in March last year, following its earlier report in 1999. The COT reviewed the science published since the original 1999 report and in summary concluded that the reviewed evidence suggests that exposures to cholinesterase-inhibiting organo- phosphates that are insufficient to cause overt acute poisoning do not cause important long-term neurological toxicity in adults and that, if toxic effects on the nervous system do occur, they are minor and subtle.
I am sorry, but I really must take issue with that; that is not the case. My constituency covers Exmoor and one of my constituents, George Wescott, has suffered with this for more than 30 years. As Jessica Morden and I have already said, the Minister should set up a commission so that we can get to the bottom of the issue rather than accepting what I suspect is slightly flawed science, although I hesitate to say that.
It is worth looking further at the science, because the committee’s statement was also endorsed by the medical and scientific panel, which is a sub-group of the independent Veterinary Products Committee. A cross-Government official group on organophosphates also endorsed it. It is worth highlighting some extracts from that detailed report. I have read the report, which is very scientific; I recommend it to anyone with an interest.
The report highlighted that, since 1999, 13 new papers have been published on the relation of low-level exposure to organophosphates and peripheral neuropathy, which added to the 13 studies already available at the time of the previous COT report. Having reviewed all 26 of those studies, the report concluded:
“The current balance of evidence suggests that there is no long-term risk of clearly demonstrable peripheral neuropathy from exposure to organophosphates”.
I know my constituent well and, having gone through his case in great detail, I am absolutely convinced that his health condition was caused by his exposure to sheep dip—the link is all too clear. Has the Minister also had a chance to review the independent academic research by Sarah Mackenzie Ross, an academic at University College London, who has reviewed all the existing studies and concluded that there is a considerable association between low-level exposure to organophosphates and impaired neurological function?
I am aware that that report was reviewed by the Committee on Toxicity and that, in fact, part of the COT’s report does concede that there may be some effects in some cases. I will return to that. However, just to stick to the COT report, it highlighted that 22 investigations published since 1999 had looked for neuropsychological consequences of low-level exposure. When the committee looked at those, in addition to the nine published previously, it concluded:
“Overall, there is no consistent evidence that low-level exposure to organophosphates has adverse effects on any specific aspect of cognitive function. If organophosphates do cause long-term neuropsychological impairment in the absence of overt poisoning, then the effects, at least in the large majority of cases, must be minor and subtle.”
In relation to Parkinson’s disease, the report concludes:
“The overall balance of evidence from 11 studies suggests no increased risk of Parkinson’s disease from exposure to organophosphates that is insufficient to cause overt acute poisoning”.
However, it did acknowledge that
“a small elevation of risk cannot be ruled out.”
The report does acknowledge—this links to the point that the hon. Lady was making—that
“Despite limitations of individual studies, current evidence suggests that there is an excess of multiple neuropsychiatric symptoms in people who have been exposed to organophosphates at levels insufficient to cause overt acute poisoning. However, it does not support the existence of a specific syndrome of ‘chronic organophosphate-induced neuropsychiatric disorder’, as has previously been hypothesised.”
In its conclusion, the report states:
“Collectively, the evidence reviewed is reassuring. It suggests that exposures to cholinesterase-inhibiting organophosphates that are insufficient to cause overt acute poisoning do not cause important long-term neurological toxicity in adults”.
The reason why I have outlined those points—with long medical words that I am not used to pronouncing—in some detail is that it is important to acknowledge that there have been dozens and dozens of studies about this issue for more than 20 years. After the first COT report in 1999, the Government commissioned additional research into the subject, which was considered along with all the other evidence gathered since 1999 as part of the COT report last March. The committee has reached its conclusion based on the science.
I will try to make some headway, and then perhaps give way later on.
The hon. Lady will be aware that in November 2001 a group of farmers took a case to the High Court seeking damages for OP poisoning. In the event, the case was struck out, because the claimants could not prove that their symptoms were caused directly by exposure to OP dips. The decision was upheld by the Court of Appeal in November 2002.
I turn now to the issue of the HSE report that the hon. Lady mentioned. The report was commissioned in 1990 and published in 1991; there has been some discussion of whether it has been covered up, so it is important to note that it was published at the time. Since December 2014 there has been increased media attention on possible health effects experienced by people who used sheep dips, focusing on what was known about the substances by Government at the time, as sheep dipping was compulsory until 1992.
An FOI request was received from Tom Rigby of the Sheep Dip Sufferers Support Group at the beginning of February this year, seeking a copy of the HSE report. The HSE was initially unable to locate one; it informed Mr Rigby, who then stated that he held a copy from another source and further requested sight of any correspondence between the HSE and the MAFF in relation to the contents of the report. As no such correspondence was found, the HSE sent a nil response. However, a misfiled copy of the 1990 survey report was subsequently located elsewhere and passed on to Mr Rigby.
I know Mr Rigby still has outstanding FOI requests relating to some documents. The documents in question are HSE-commissioned reports into cholinesterase and the chronic effects of dipping sheep in OP products dating from the mid 1990s. Some are publically available and Mr Rigby has been pointed towards those; the HSE is currently looking into the status of others. To clear up any concerns, I am happy to say that we will place a copy of the 1991 report in the Library for hon. Members to look at.
It is clear that there are significant documented records from around 1993 that indicate considerable cross-Government work taking place on the subject of OP dips at the start of the decade. The 1990 survey appears to have been prompted by reports from farmers that they believed dips were making them ill. The research was focused on the extent to which operatives were exposed to organophosphates, the efficacy of their personal protective equipment and the dipping systems used. Although the report refers to known toxic effects of organophosphates, it does not focus on whether dips were causing ill health, nor does it look at whether dips can cause the long-term ill health that is the focus of the existing sufferer groups.
The Government recognise that organophosphates are potentially dangerous substances whose use needs to be controlled to minimise the risks to humans. Government policy is, and always has been, based on the best scientific advice. Safety warnings on the products reflected the known risks at the time. It is Government practice regularly to review the controls in line with the latest scientific advice and to carry out research to provide more information where required.
Throughout the debate, Members have detailed the examples of their constituents. What consideration has the Minister given to the common denominator of those examples—namely, the organophosphates used by all those people, who are now suffering as a result? There has to be a common denominator and an investigation into that.
All I can say is that the Committee on Toxicity has looked at the matter exhaustively. It has produced a detailed report reviewing dozens of studies, and has been unable to establish a link. Its conclusions are very clear. Over the past decade, the Government have commissioned £4 million of research into the issue. Many, many people—experts in their field—have looked into the issue and reviewed all the available evidence to reach their conclusions.
The 1991 report—it is important to recognise that that report was published at the time—was a survey of farmers who self-reported symptoms. We should bear two things in mind. First, it was not a scientific report; all the reports that the Committee on Toxicity has looked at are scientifically robust research projects. The other thing to note is that 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 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.
The sale and supply of OP sheep dips have been restricted to appropriately trained and certified users since 1995, reflecting concerns at the time about their toxicity. In addition, the Veterinary Medicines Regulations 2006 introduced a requirement for dipping to be supervised by a holder of a certificate of competence; that requirement remains in force.
Sheep scab is a severe disease with profound and sometimes fatal welfare implications for affected animals. There are currently still two sheep dips containing organophosphates that are authorised for use in the UK. There are other authorised veterinary medicines available to protect sheep against scab, but dips remain the most clinically effective treatments for the mite that causes it.
Yes—I was going to conclude by saying just that. The hon. Lady put that challenge to me and I am more than happy to meet members of the group to discuss their concerns. I am also aware that she raised the specific issue of her constituent’s medical records, which she suggested were evidence that sheep dip might have contributed in his case. If her constituent agrees, I am happy to make that information available to the Veterinary Medicines Directorate, which regulates these products on our behalf, and the Health and Safety Executive, which has been the lead on the issue.
This has been a long-running saga. The interventions in the debate have shown that many hon. Members have constituents who associate their condition with OP sheep dips. 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.
Question put and agreed to.