Study links pesticides used by sheep farmers to long-term brain damage
A long-running campaign to highlight the health impacts of a dangerous chemical used by farmers in the UK has been vindicated by the conclusions of a major new study.
Several hundred farmers in the UK are believed to have suffered debilitating health problems from exposure to organophosphate pesticides (OPs). A large number of them were sheep farmers, following government orders in the 1980s and 90s to treat their animals with the chemical to protect against the spread of a disease called sheep scab.
Other groups also known to have been affected include veterans from the Gulf War, who were exposed to pesticides to protect them from pests and mosquitoes, and airline pilots and cabin crew, who can be exposed to organophosphates in engine oil.
Derived from World War II nerve gas agents, organophosphate pesticides are the most widely used insecticides in the world. While high-level exposure to the chemicals has long been known to be dangerous, low-levels of exposure of the kind experienced by farmers spraying the chemical or dipping sheep, was not initially thought to be a hazardous, as the government promoted a new chemical-dependent era of farming.
However, with growing reports of health problems from the farmers around the UK since the mid-1980s, including more than 600 reports of ill health to an official surveillance scheme, the government has been under pressure to acknowledge that low-level exposure may have caused widespread illness.
Now researchers from University College London and the Open University have shown that the type of long-term, low-level exposure many farmers using the chemicals will have experienced produces long-term brain damage.
In the first attempt to review the existing scientific evidence, their independent analysis found that 13 out of 16 studies had shown evidence of neurological problems following long-term, low-level exposure to OPs. The health problems reported included poor memory, reduced reaction time, attention disorders and diminished ability to solve complex problems.
Researchers hope the findings will provide belated recognition to many sufferers still alive today and help others who are unaware their medical condition could be related to the use of organophosphate pesticides.
Norfolk arable and beef farmer Peter Dixon, who used OPs throughout the 1980s, 90s and 2000s before suffering worsening health five years ago, said he struggled for many years to work out the reason for his ill health.
"I felt ill, lethargic and weak all the time," he told me, "my GP couldn't work out what was wrong with me."
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Sheep image via Shutterstock.