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Jason Groves

4 July 2005

Toxic sheep dips will remain on sale despite warnings from a new report that they may cause serious long-term health problems for the farmers who use them.TOXIC sheep dips will remain on sale despite warnings from a new report that they may cause serious long-term health problems for the farmers who use them.

The study, led by Dr Tony Fletcher at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, found that hundreds of sheep farmers, including many from the Westcountry, had suffered a range of serious health problems after using organophosphate sheep dips, which were compulsory for many years.

But the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which commissioned the research, said the report did not provide conclusive proof that long-term use of OP-based dips posed a direct threat to health.

A spokesman said protective measures used by farmers were far more effective than in the past. He added that OP dips would continue to be licensed for sale.

The methodology of the latest study is likely to raise eyebrows among some OP sufferers. Dr Fletcher said that the decision to only survey the health of people who already thought they had been damaged by OPs meant it was impossible to prove a causal link.

Liz Sigmund, founder of the Cornwall-based OP Information Network, which represents almost 800 people affected by the chemicals, said the findings were "not terribly helpful".

"The history of OPs has been a tragic disaster," she said. "We have seen the effects on the ground on people who have been very badly affected by the use of OPs. We think they deserve compensation because for many years they were forced by law to use these dips. But it doesn't look as though there is much hope of that.

"Nevertheless, the report does find there is a danger to some people from their ordinary working use of OPs - we have been saying that for years."

The detail of the report could make awkward reading for ministers who have long played down the notion that long-term use of OP-based dips and sprays could damage health. In 2003 the Animal Health Minister Ben Bradshaw provoked an outcry when he cancelled a top-level summit on the issue, arguing that there was "little new to say".

The new study looked at the health of 367 sheep farmers who reported a range of serious health problems as a result of using OP-based dips. It found that their health was "generally poor", with most suffering neurological problems and fatigue.

In 80 per cent of cases the farmers had experienced a high-level "acute" exposure to OPs at some time in their lives - an event that is known to cause serious short-term health effects. The report said their continuing health problems suggested that acute exposure may also cause long-term health problems.

Critically, the report also suggested that the other 20 per cent of farmers studied could have suffered health problems as a result of normal, low-level exposure to OPs - a finding that could leave the Government open to compensation claims if it were proved.

"We are cautious in drawing conclusions from these patterns but it may be that some of these are a long term effect of OPs on health," the report concluded.

A Defra spokesman said that OP-based dips remained a "very effective" treatment. Although Defra prides itself on adopting a "precautionary principle" towards risk the spokesman said there was nothing in the new report that would lead to OPs being withdrawn.

He added that the department was funding research into alternatives.