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Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution > News Releases, Consultation Responses and Statements >28 June 2005  

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Bystander exposure to Pesticides
11 September 2005


In a special report launched today, the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution recommends changes to provisions for safeguarding the health of those living near to sprayed fields and to the regulation of pesticides, both to reduce any risk to residents and bystanders and to improve their access to relevant information about spraying.

The report was written in response to a request from the then Minister for Rural Affairs Alun Michael in June 2004, and addresses a complex and controversial issue: whether human health is at risk from the use of agricultural pesticides.

The outgoing Chair, Sir Tom Blundell 1 said:

"Government policy on exposure of bystanders and local residents is currently inadequate. Although pesticides are heavily regulated by government, there is significant uncertainty in the science available about whether pesticide spraying can cause ill health and whether some members of the public are being exposed to high enough doses of pesticides from normal use in farming to make them ill. Until research clarifies the extent to which the public is at risk from crop spraying, we recommend that extra precautionary measures are taken by government. Measures such as five metre no-spray zones between fields and homes will deliver a significant improvement in the risk management by government."

The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution considered scientific evidence in a number of areas in the report2, including health, exposure and risk. Grounds for concern were identified in respect of all of these areas.

The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution3 calls for:

  • a better system of advice within the NHS for members of the public who believe that their ill health is a result of pesticide spraying, as well as improved methods of reporting these cases to the regulator;
  • more research to reduce the uncertainties related to the effects of pesticides on the health of those living near to sprayed fields;
  • development of an improved model of exposure of residents and bystanders to pesticides;
  • information about what pesticides are being used to be more freely available to all who ask for it;
  • improvement of the approval process for pesticides and strengthening of the scientific advice available to government;
  • tightening and better enforcement of the rules governing the use of pesticides on farms;
  • introduction of precautionary measures to give further protection to the public.

Sir Tom Blundell said:

"No-one can dispute that those individuals who have reported ill health, which they claim is due to pesticides being sprayed, are genuinely ill. Based on our personal examination of some of these cases, and on our current understanding of the effects that pesticides can have on the body system, it is not implausible that there may be a link between pesticide spraying and chronic ill health. The Commission has found at the least that such a link cannot be summarily dismissed without new evidence.

"We therefore recommend that a more precautionary approach is taken, so as to safeguard the safety of the public. The existing lack of knowledge and uncertainties indicate an urgent need for research to be undertaken to investigate whether there really is a problem, how many people are affected if there is, and which pesticides may be causing any ill health.

"We have identified a number of areas where more information is needed that should lead to improved protection of human health, including which symptoms might be caused by pesticides and whether pesticides are able to drift away from the field into people's property. The many tests that are currently undertaken before pesticides are approved by regulators for use by farmers should be expanded to try to address the chronic symptoms that the public are describing to us. There needs to be improved investigation of reported ill health by regulators, combined with better observation of the ill health the public are reporting.

"We also have concerns about the way that exposure is assessed. Although the current process used by regulators is cautious and there are wide safety factors built in to it, the way this assessment works is by considering a simple situation and looking at exposure from breathing and through the skin, which the assessment assumes to be the main routes into the body in all cases. More sophisticated and modern models are urgently needed to allow the regulators to assess the likelihood that unusual but serious situations could arise and to manage exposure risks accordingly.

"We feel that the protection of the health of the British public needs to be strengthened. Precautionary measures need to be taken, such as no-spray zones between fields and neighbours. It is clear that there is a demand from the public for better access to information about the chemicals being used. We recommend that the code of practice used by farmers is strengthened so that residents living next to fields that are to be sprayed should be given prior notification of spraying activity. Records of which pesticides, and when and where they have been used, should be directly available to residents and bystanders from the persons responsible for crop spraying. Better controls should be imposed upon training and the accessibility of sprays".


1Sir Tom Blundell is Sir William Dunn Professor of Biochemistry, University of Cambridge and Professorial Fellow of Sidney Sussex College.

2Crop Spraying and the Health of Residents and Bystanders is available in printed form, or can be downloaded from the Commission's website from 22 September 2005. Copies of the printed version are obtainable without charge from Mary Oduro (tel: 020 7799 8972, fax: 020 7799 8971, email: mary.oduro@rcep.org.uk ).

3The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution is an independent body, appointed by the Queen and funded by the government, which publishes in-depth reports on what it identifies as the crucial environmental issues facing the UK and the world. The Royal Commission's full reports are presented to Parliament. This special study has been carried out over a much shorter timescale than full reports, but it is based on reports that the Royal Commission has published in the past, together with some new material.


Press enquiries should be directed to Guy Mawhinney (0207 7799 8986) or the General Office at the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, 5-8 The Sanctuary, Westminster, London SW1P 3JS (telephone 020 7799 8970; fax 020 7799 8971; email:(email: guy.mawhinney@rcep.org.uk or enquiries@rcep.org.uk).

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