Azara Blog: Another report on pesticide spraying near housing

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Date published: 2006/02/06

The BBC says:

Scientists have criticised a report on crop spraying and its risks to health.

Last year, a report by the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (RCEP) recommended five-metre no-spray zones between fields and homes.

But the Advisory Committee on Pesticides (ACP) says this measure is "arbitrary" and a "disproportionate" response to scientific uncertainty.

The ACP is an independent scientific committee and advises government on the control of pests.

Its formal response was requested by Lord Bach, minister for sustainable farming and food, and will be used to inform the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs' response to the RCEP's report.

While agreeing with some of the recommendations made in the report, Professor David Coggon, chair of the ACP when the response was written, said the committee strongly disagreed with the recommendation of placing a five metre buffer zone alongside residential property to protect against possible adverse health effects.

"We agree that there is scientific uncertainty, but we think a buffer zone is arbitrary and a disproportionate response to the uncertainty," he told the BBC News website.

The ACP committee argues there are already wide margins of safety built into the current regulatory system, but says the RCEP failed to take these into account when writing its report.

The buffer zone was one of several measures recommended by the RCEP report: Crop Spraying and the Health of Residents and Bystanders.

Others included more research to reduce uncertainties related to the adverse health effects of pesticides, and improved public information on their usage.

Chaired at the time by Sir Tom Blundell, the RCEP is an independent body appointed by the Queen, which publishes in-depth reports on environmental issues.

Crop spraying is no stranger to controversy. Some members of the public living near to areas where this takes place believe that the pesticides are causing chronic illnesses including nervous disorders, depression and even cancer.

At the time the report was published, Sir Tom Blundell told the BBC: "We have a large number of people who live next to arable fields that are sprayed and a number of them, a few hundred, are ill, and they think they are ill because they've either been sprayed or spray drift has come over their homes."

Professor Coggon said the committee acknowledged scientific knowledge of the harmful effects crop spraying might cause needs to be improved.

"It is not a question that everything is clear cut and we don't need to do any more research because we know all the answers. We are absolutely in agreement with the Royal Commissions on that," he said.

But he also said the ACP disagreed with the proposed interim precautionary measures which would restrict people's exposures even further.

"Our position has always been, if on the risk assessment you don't think there is adequate protection for bystanders, then you don't impose a buffer zone to protect people, you just don't allow the use of the pesticide," he told the BBC

The commentary in the ACP's response does highlight that it is not against buffer-zones in principle, and said that there could be a legitimate case for them on social grounds.

But Professor Coggon cautioned: "That's not a matter of science, that's a matter of balancing what you do for the neighbours, against the disadvantages for the farmers."

The response to the RCEP's report represents the views of 17 of the 21 members of the ACP.

Defra said the government would give full consideration to the ACP's views in formulating its response to the RCEP. The response should be published by the summer.

A classic case of one set of experts disagreeing with another. The ACP points are valid but of course you can always play safe, which is what the RCEP effectively recommended, but the ACP points out that there is a cost, and perhaps little benefit, to doing this. Unfortunately the so-called environmentalists have spent the last fifty years demonising the chemical industry so the general public is convinced that any and all adverse health effects near farmers' fields are of course to be blamed on the pesticides. And these pesticides are not great chemicals (their purpose, after all, is to kill certain life forms), so no doubt sooner or later one or more of these chemicals will be found to have too bad an impact on the environment to be allowed to be continued to be used. (If you cry wolf enough times sooner or later there will be a wolf, especially if you continually raise the "safety" threshold, as always happens in Europe.)

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