(Beyond Pesticides, November 19, 2008) In what is described as a great victory for environmental campaigner Georgina Downs, a British high court ruled last week that there was “solid evidence” that rural residents had suffered harm from crop spraying with toxic chemicals. The landmark ruling ordered the Government to reconsider how to protect the health of countryside communities.
This victory comes after a long-running legal battle over the use of pesticides in rural communities. Ms. Downs, who lives on the edge of farmland, launched her campaign in 2001 and documented that she was first exposed to pesticide spraying in the early 1980s at the age of 11 and has since suffered from ill health, flu-like symptoms, sore throat, blistering and other problems. She created a DVD portraying collected evidence from other rural residents reporting health problems including cancer, Parkinson’s disease and asthma believed to be linked to crop spraying. Ms. Downs said the government had failed to address the concerns of people living in the countryside. She added that these people “are repeatedly exposed to mixtures of pesticides and other chemicals throughout every year, and in many cases, like mine, for decades.” She also noted that people were not given prior notification about what was to be sprayed near their homes and gardens.
“The fact that there has never been any assessment of the risk to health for the long-term exposure for those who live, work or go to school near pesticide-sprayed fields is an absolute scandal, considering that crop-spraying has been a predominant feature of agriculture for over 50 years,” Ms. Downs said.
The judge, Justice Collins, said: “I recognize that it is not easy to attribute a particular cause to many chronic illnesses, and a view that a cause has been identified may be wrong. But there is evidence that some long-term illnesses may be attributable to exposure. The DVD (from Ms. Downs) makes it clear that those effects do in many cases amount to more than merely transient and trifling harm.” The judge added: “There is in my judgment solid evidence produced by Ms. Downs that residents have suffered harm to their health – her own health is an example – or, at the very least, doubts have reasonably been raised as to the safety of pesticides under the regime which presently exists.”
The judge said Hilary Benn, Secretary of the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), must now rethink and reassess the risks and how to safeguard the public against them. He ruled DEFRA’s current approach to assessing safety, which involved considering the impact of spraying on “a bystander” who might be close to crops, was “defective and inadequate” as it did not take into account the real impact on rural residents. Justice Collins highlighted that the 1986 Control of Pesticides Regulations states that beekeepers must be given 48 hours notice if pesticides harmful to bees are to be used. The judge said: “It is difficult to see why residents should be in a worse position.”
A DEFRA spokesman said: “The protection of human health is paramount. Pesticides used in this country are rigorously assessed to the same standards as the rest of the EU and use is only ever authorized after internationally approved tests … We will look at this judgment in detail to see whether there are ways in which we can strengthen our system further and also to consider whether it could put us out of step with the rest of Europe and have implications for other member states.”
Speaking after the ruling, Downs said her seven-year battle was over “one of the biggest public health scandals of our time.” She called on Prime Minister Gordon Brown to block any DEFRA appeal. “The government should now just admit that it got it wrong, apologize and actually get on with protecting the health and citizens of this country.”