Thursday, July 30, 1998 Published at 10:45 GMT 11:45 UK
Human guinea pigs tested pesticides
Students were used as guinea pigs
American pesticide companies have used British students and other volunteers as "lab rats" in secret trials of a powerful organo-phosphate chemical.
The volunteers, including some students from Manchester University, were paid £600 to take part in the tests of a toxic insecticide that reportedly left them with reductions in levels of an important brain enzyme.
One of the volunteers suffered nausea and another a nose bleed.
Organo-phosphates have been proven to cause brain damage among British sheep farmers using them in sheep dips, and experts believe they could be the cause of Gulf War syndrome.
Campaigners in the United States accused the companies of using British "guinea pigs" to dodge harsh regulations in their own country and said the tests were "ethically indefensible". Pesticides and insecticides are usually tested on rats and mice.
Forty volunteers in Manchester were given capsules of the pesticide dichlorvos, sold as "Doom" and used in pet collars and fly-catching strips in the tests two years ago.
Similar trials of another chemical are understood to have taken place on students in Edinburgh and US regulators believe that other tests are under way in the UK.
The trials were revealed in a report by the Environmental Working Group in Washington.
The group says human testing of the pesticides is unnecessary but that the companies are using them as evidence to pre-empt new regulations that are thought to be on the way.
'No-one ever benefits'
EWG president Ken Cook, the report's author, said: "Some companies have decided to relieve regulatory pressure on their bug killers in the United States by dosing up human subjects in the United Kingdom.
"These companies are not testing medicines on people to see if they are therapeutic. They're testing toxic chemicals to see how high exposure can be without causing regulatory problems.
"No-one ever benefits from being exposed to pesticides."
His report says: "In effect, by substituting people for lab rats, pesticide companies have been able to increase the amounts of pesticide that legally could be used on crops, or be detected on foods, in water, or in air."
Could help Alzheimer's
Dr Stephen Toon, managing director of Medeval, said the tests were carried out according to established national guidelines.
Dr Toon said the chemical - although a pesticide - had also been used in the treatment of Alzheimer's Disease.
He said: "The volunteers were placed at no risk whatsoever. It is ironic that the reseach could be used to cure a terrible disease."
The University denied that they had taken any part in providing volunteers for the project.
Advertisements had been placed and although some of the volunteers may have been students, many were from the local community.
"It is not as if we are testing our own students," said a spokeswoman.
"There is absolutely no question of us giving the company access to the student population for this purpose, although it may be some students became involved."
The National Union of Students, who drew up strict guidelines over such schemes after the death of two students in medical trials in the 1980s, expressed concern over the tests.
The participation of students in non-medical trials or the taking of money because of the risk involved was against the guidelines, they said.
And they were worried the amount of money on offer could have tempted students troubled by hardship. Students have long supplemented their income by taking part in scientific trials.
"Although at the end of the day we cannot stop people doing it we are always worried that hardship makes students more desperate to get hold of money," said a spokeswoman.
"The sum of £600 for taking a tablet certainly seems to be a substantial reward," she said.
Human tests of this type are not illegal under British law, but research has to be approved by a Research Ethics Committee.
To get the go ahead researchers have to give an undertaking that informed consent has been obtained from the participants. Scientists are also required to explain why they have targeted specific groups for research.