(Beyond Pesticides, July 8, 2009) Pesticide campaigner Georgina Downs’ high court victory last November, when a court ruled that there was “solid evidence” that rural residents had suffered harm from crop spraying with toxic chemicals, was overturned yesterday by the Court of Appeal. Three judges on the Court of Appeal concluded that the government has complied with its obligations under European law and that it followed guidance that gave priority to human health. The agriculture industry hailed the ruling as a victory for “common sense.”
Georgina Downs, who lives on the edge of farmland, launched a campaign in 2001 against the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), documenting and collected evidence from other rural residents reporting health problems including cancer, Parkinson’s disease and asthma believed to be linked to crop spraying. Last November, Justice Collins said there was “a very strong case for a buffer zone” between spraying and human habitation. He ruled that the government had failed to comply with a European directive to protect people from the possible harmful effects of exposure to toxic chemicals. DEFRA challenged the ruling and yesterday the Court of Appeal overturned Justice Collins’ decision.
The three judges on the Court of Appeal allowed the appeal, ruling that the department was following guidance that gave priority to human health. One judge, Lord Justice Sullivan, said that although Ms. Downs is “a most effective campaigner” she has no formal scientific or medical qualifications. On the previous ruling, which favored Ms. Downs, Lord Justice Sullivan said that the judge’s reference to “solid evidence” was substituting his own evaluation for that of DEFRA.
Ms. Downs said the appeal judges ignored her evidence and used old official reports to reach their findings. Outside the court, Ms Downs remarked, “This judgment is a complete whitewash. I think it may well go down in history as being the most bizarre and inaccurate judgment to have ever come out of the Court of Appeal. The Government could not have wished for a better result than if it wrote the judgment itself. The fact remains that there has never been any assessment for the long-term exposure for those who live, work or go to school near pesticide sprayed fields. I continue to maintain (that this) is an absolute scandal considering that crop-spraying has been a predominant feature of agriculture for over 50 years.”
Not surprisingly, the Crop Protection Association said the judgment was a victory for common sense.”Crop protection products are essential to maintain an adequate supply of high quality, affordable food,” said CPA chief executive Dominic Dyer.
Environment Secretary Hilary Benn said, “We welcome the Court of Appeal’s judgment that the government has complied with its obligations under European law, and we also welcome the public debate on this matter.” However, in spite of the ruling, Secretary Benn also said that DEFRA is considering new measures to protect the public from crop spraying, and would consult on giving people access to farmers’ records of spraying activity near their properties and providiing residents with prior notification of spraying from farmers. The consultation, according to Secretary Benn, will also cover monitoring of pesticide use, new training requirements for operators, and other issues that should be included in DEFRA’s new National Action Plan for crop spraying.
But Peter Melchett, policy director at the Soil Association said, “Whatever the Court of Appeal says, the fact is UK regulation of pesticide spraying does not take into account the safety of schools or families living next to sprayed fields.” Advocates say the same holds true in the U.S. In aerial application of pesticides, over 40 percent of the pesticide is lost to drift, while estimates put aerially applied pesticides that miss the target insect at over 90 percent.. Pesticides also drift when applied from a truck or hand held application. According to Beyond Pesticides’ report Getting the Drift on Chemical Trespass: Pesticide drift hits homes, schools and other sensitive sites throughout communities, only seven states have recognized the importance of controlling drift by restricting pesticide applications around school properties, residential areas and other sensitive sites. A recent EPA rule which includes creating or altering buffer zones, enforcing posting requirements, adding measures to protect agricultural workers, and strengthening training programs intended to reduce pesticide fumigant exposures to bystanders: people who live, work, attend school, or spend time near agricultural fields that are fumigated, fell short of adopting more stringent use restrictions and chemical bans, according to critics. Advocates, including Beyond Pesticides, criticize the agency’s buffer zone (an established non-treatment area in which it is known that chemical from the treated area drifts) provision, which can incorporate residential areas, as severely limited and question the enforceability of the standard.
Pesticides that migrate from their intended application sites can cause eye, nose, throat, or respiratory irritation, or more severe poisonings, depending on the chemical and level of exposure. Chronic exposure to some of these chemicals can also lead to lasting health effects, like cancer and developmental defects.