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Campaigner calls for urgent action to protect children, as new study highlights illnesses from pesticides sprayed in and around schools

A new study released today confirms illnesses in children and school employees from exposure to pesticides. According to an article in the July 27th issue of JAMA the rate of new illnesses associated with pesticide exposure at schools in the US increased significantly in children from 1998 to 2002.

"Exposure to pesticides in the school environment is a health risk facing children and school employees," background information in the article states.

Walter A. Alarcon, M.D., from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Cincinnati and colleagues examined 1998-2002 data from 2, 593 people with acute pesticide-related illnesses associated with school exposure.

New case rates among children increased significantly from 1998 to 2002. Three cases (.1 percent) of high severity were found, 275 cases (11 percent) of moderate severity and 2,315 cases (89 percent) of low severity were found. The majority of illnesses reported were associated with insecticides (n = 895, 35 percent), disinfectants (n = 830, 32 percent), repellents (n = 335, 13 percent), or herbicides (n = 279, 11 percent). Of 406 cases with detailed source information, 281 (69 percent) were associated with pesticides used at schools and 125 (31 percent) were associated with pesticide drift from farmland.

The authors state "These findings indicate that pesticide exposure at schools continue to produce acute illnesses among school employees and students in the United States, albeit mainly of low severity and with relatively low incidence rates."

Georgina Downs of UK Pesticides Campaign, ( the leading campaign highlighting the effects of pesticides on people in rural areas (commonly known as "bystanders"), states "Children are particularly vulnerable to the effects of pesticide exposure because their bodies cannot efficiently detoxify and eliminate chemicals, their organs are still growing and developing. I continue to receive reports of illnesses in children attending schools where pesticides are used, especially schools surrounded by crop fields that are repeatedly sprayed, throughout every year, with mixtures ("cocktails") of pesticides. The acute effects reported include rashes, sore throats, burning eyes, blisters, headaches, nausea, amongst other effects."

Ms. Downs highlights that the US study is in relation to acute illnesses only and points out that children and school employees will also be at risk of developing chronic effects and long-term illnesses and diseases following exposure to pesticides. "When children are exposed at such a young age they will obviously have a longer lifetime to develop long-term effects after an exposure," Ms. Downs states.

One of the reports that Ms. Downs received was from a young woman, who as a child had attended a West Country primary school, surrounded by sprayed fields.

She told Ms. Downs "On at least two occasions the pesticides fell down on us like a fine rain during a PE lesson – we had to go inside because the smell was so awful and it was difficult to breathe. I myself began to fall ill at the age of nine – migraines, terrible hayfever and a shorter ability to concentrate. This gradual deterioration continued until at the age of 23 my body had a physical collapse and ME was diagnosed. I will never forget the smell and taste of those chemicals as they rained down on me and thirty other children and how being poisoned has affected my life. It makes me sad that without recognition from the Government, future generations will continue to have their lives blighted by our rural toxic air."

She also informed Ms. Downs of illnesses in a number of former employees who had worked at the school that could also have been linked to exposure to pesticides. These included one headmaster, two teachers and two cooks that died of cancer, one former employee was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and a number of teachers, as well as another headmaster and at least one cook, went down with ME-type illnesses.

Ms. Downs, who four and a half years ago was the first to identify serious fundamental flaws in the Government’s "bystander risk assessment," states "Pesticides have been sprayed around schools, people’s homes, offices and other places of human habitation for decades. No adequate or appropriate risk assessments have ever been undertaken either in the UK or internationally regarding the long-term exposures of rural residents and communities, including children and employees attending schools where pesticides are used. The fact that any ill-health is occurring is unacceptable and therefore the Government must take immediate action, particularly in relation to the protection of children."

Ms. Downs points out that the only way to truly protect public health and prevent any illnesses and diseases that may be associated with pesticides is to avoid exposure altogether through the widespread adoption of sustainable non-chemical and natural methods as an alternative to chemical pest control.

Ms. Downs has recently met with the new DEFRA Minister responsible for pesticides, Lord Bach, to highlight the inadequacies of the current regulations and monitoring systems for pesticides, including the serious fundamental flaws regarding the "bystander risk  assessment." (NB. This follows on from previous meetings with former DEFRA Ministers Lord Whitty and Michael Meacher in December 2002 and Alun Michael in December 2003 regarding the "bystander" issue).

The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution is due to publish a report on bystander exposure to pesticides on September 22nd 2005. Ms. Downs has been a peer-reviewer for the Royal Commission’s report.

Notes to Editors:-

  • For further information on the US study published today see JAMA 27th July 2005 (294: 455 – 465) – Information was collected from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health’s Sentinel Event Notification System for Occupational Risks pesticides program (SENSOR), the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (CDPR) and the Toxic Exposure Surveillance System (TESS). Cases were included if illness developed after exposure to pesticides and illness was consistent with known toxicology of the pesticide. The study was supported by the US Government through the US Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which employs Drs. Alarcon, Calvert (co-author) and Blondell (co-author)

  • For further information on the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution’s (RCEP) study to assess the risk to people from crop-spraying and pesticide exposure see - Ms. Downs' written submission to the Royal Commission will be available on her website shortly

  • Georgina Downs campaigns to highlight the effects of pesticide use in rural Britain and has lived next to regularly sprayed fields for 21 years. She was the first to identify serious fundamental flaws regarding the bystander risk assessment and for the last 4 and a half years has presented a case to the Government for a change in the regulations and legislation governing agricultural spraying. She has also produced 2 videos "Pesticide Exposures for People in Agricultural Areas – Part 1 Pesticides in the Air; Part 2 The Hidden Costs" to illustrate chemical exposure and the effects on people in rural areas

  • She has called for an immediate ban on crop-spraying and the use of pesticides near to people's homes, schools, workplaces and any other places of human habitation and for direct access for the public to all the necessary chemical information. Ms. Downs has highlighted that small buffer zones will be wholly inadequate as they are only in relation to immediate spraydrift and will not be able to protect people from exposure to pesticides in the air, chemical fumes after application, volatilisation, along with all the other exposure factors relevant for people in rural areas. Therefore a much larger distance is required. For further information on Georgina Downs’ campaign see

  • The presentation entitled "Pesticide Exposures - UK and International Policy Failings," given by Ms. Downs at the conference "Science, Medicine and the Law," can be found at:-
  • Ms. Downs has an application in the High Court to Judicially Review DEFRA's previous decision not to introduce no-spray zones around agricultural land to protect rural residents from pesticides, along with DEFRA's failure to adopt an adequate system for public access to information regarding the chemicals that are sprayed/applied. The application is currently "stayed" pending the outcome of the Royal Commission's study
    • Ms. Downs' campaign has been supported by Samuel Epstein, Professor Emeritus Environmental and Occupational Medicine, University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health and Chairman of the Cancer Prevention Coalition; Zac Goldsmith and the Ecologist magazine; Michael Meacher MP, (Former DEFRA Minister for the Environment and one of the Minister’s Ms. Downs originally presented the case to); Norman Baker MP, the Liberal Democrat’s front bench environment spokesman; Caroline Lucas MEP and the Soil Association amongst others

    Contact: Georgina Downs

    Telephone: 01243 773846

    Mobile: 07906 898 915