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Minister to Look Into Sheep Dip Related Illnesses

03 December 2015

UK - Agriculture minister, George Eustice has promised the Sheep Dip Sufferers Support Group that he will look into government archives relating to illnesses that are believed to be related to the chemicals used in sheep dips and related preparations, mainly in the late 1960s and in the 1970s. Neil Ryder reports for TheSheepSite.

Mr Eustice made the promise after a closed meeting with Group members and MPs in London last month (November 2015). It was the first time in over 20 years that a group of people who believed their illness was association with organophosphates used in sheep had met a farming minister.

The previous meeting was between junior MAFF minister, Nicholas Soames and a party of farming ladies brought by Montgomeryshire MP, Alex Carlisle in June 1994. One of the group was Margaret Percival, who was also a member of the sufferers group meeting George Eustice last month.

While there have been loose links between farmers and others who believe their medical condition is directly or in directly linked to the use of sheep dips, the Support Group was formally launched in February this year at the suggestion of local MP, Andy Burnham, who has hosted two previous London meetings, one concentrating on the science and one more orientated towards the political issues.

The group is co-ordinated by organic dairy farmer Tom Rigby, of Warrington, who became interested in the issue of sheep dip related illness while serving as chairman of Lancashire NFU.

Support Group seeks wider recognition of illnesses

Mr Rigby has worked closely with sufferers of sheep dip related illness in building their case for better treatment from government and for wider recognition among medical professionals of health problems linked to chemicals used in sheep dips.

Mr Rigby said: “The Sheep Dip Sufferers Support Group is a group that is completely free to join, providing help and support for people who believe their illness is linked to chemicals used in sheep dips and related preparations. It is also open to those with family members and carers of those affected but these illnesses.

Mr Rigby said the key aims of the group are:

  • To increase awareness of the problem of sheep dip related illness that, it would seem, in some official quarters does not exist!
  • To look for better and earlier diagnosis of sheep dip related illness. The group has found that if the condition is recognised early enough, treatment can make a real difference.
  • To help people affected by the illness lead as normal lives as possible.
  • To seek an evidence based non-judicial inquiry into sheep dip related illness.

However GPs also say farmers as a group are reluctant to seek medical help generally, not just for possible sheep dip related conditions. They add that farmers who suspect their illness is linked to the use of sheep dip or other agricultural chemicals should mention this to their doctor. There is no doubt that many cases of organophosphate related illness remain unreported.

To add to the complexity of the issue, Mr Rigby said it is believed that both government departments and commercial interests have sought to cover up evidence and reports on sheep dip related illness, possibly fearing legal action resulting in massive damages being awarded to sufferers. There is also suspicion that some medical professionals are reluctant to link illness to the chemicals in sheep dip for fear of becoming embroiled in legal issues.

One of the key problems is that most research into organophosphates relate to high levels of exposure over a short period of time leading to acute illness, from which most people affected recover. However, far less work has been done into low level exposure to organophosphates over a prolonged period, linked to chronic medical conditions.

Most current cases among farmers go back to exposure the late 1960s and into the 1970s when dipping was compulsory and the risks were not fully recognised. Now improved protocols, personal protective clothing and changes in the chemicals used have largely brought the risks under control, Mr Rigby said.

Case study: veterinarian Juliet Caird

For Scottish vet, Juliet Caird of Durhamhill, Kirkpatrick Durham, near Castle Douglas, it has meant having to give up practice and a move into property development.

She said: “Initially it was a case of feeling unwell and having migraines. Later I had short term memory loss. Once I talked to and made an appointment with a farmer over the telephone, put the phone down and could not remember either the farmer’s name or the appointment.

“Being able to react quickly is important for a vet dealing with farm animals and I was becoming increasingly slow at things like closing gates. I also had problems including an irregular heart rate, breathlessness, pins and needles, loss of balance and chronic fatigue. My GP told me I must not do heavy physical work.

“My GP suspected organophosphate poisoning and referred me to a consultant who arranged neurological tests. The results supported the diagnosis."

“Later, analysis of a fat biopsy confirmed high levels of organophosphates in my body. Dr Sarah Myhill, a specialist, warned me that continued veterinary work, with exposure to pesticides, would worsen my condition and probably lead to premature death.

"It was clear that I could no longer work as a veterinary surgeon, especially as a farm vet.

“There are many ways vets could have come into contact with organophosphate and related products, not just sheep dips or pour-ons, and not just in farm animal work. For instance there was an organophosphate-based flea spray widely used in small animal medicine,” she said.

TheSheepSite News Desk

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