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Friday, 1 March, 2002, 01:35 GMT
Research backs sheep dip claims
sheep dip
Farm workers have fallen ill after using sheep dip
A government-funded study has added weight to the claims of people who say that contact with sheep dip chemicals has made them ill.

The research, published in the Lancet, suggests that some people might be genetically pre-disposed to poisoning by the organophosphate dips.

It found that people who suffered chronic symptoms after using such dips were more likely to have particular genes which make it harder for them to break down these chemicals in the body.

The dips are used to kill parasites on sheep; organophosphate-based versions are generally cheaper and thought to be more effective than other formulations.

Over recent years, there have been hundreds of farm workers who have complained of symptoms such as fatigue, memory loss, weakness, joint and muscle pain and depression after coming into contact with them.

The results provide support to those who believe that repeated exposure to organophosphates may cause chronic ill health

Professor Nicola Cherry, researcher
The government insists that, at the moment, there has been no hard evidence linking long-term low level contact to permanent damage.

The new research could provide ammunition for those who say that organophosphate dips should be banned, or are claiming compensation through the courts for their illnesses.

Genes compared

The researchers recruited hundreds of patients claiming to have "organophosphate poisoning", and compared their genetic make-up with hundreds more who had been using sheep dip, but appeared to be in good health.

They looked at genes involved in the bodily process which would normally break down residues of organophosphates which have found their way into the body.

The project found that the group of patients reporting illness were more likely to have particular gene variations likely to reduce the efficiency of this process.

Lead research Professor Nicola Cherry said: "The study was set up to test a clear hypothesis, that those whose genes produced a less efficient enzyme would, if exposed to organophosphates, be more likely to become ill.

There is currently no evidence to suggest that long-term low-level exposure can lead to permanent damage

Spokesman, Defra
"The results provide support to those who believe that repeated exposure to organophosphates may cause chronic ill health.

"Sheep dippers in the UK are one important group, but there are many people worldwide who are exposed to these chemicals, and whose health may be affected as a result."

Government studies

The government has invested 1.4m in a series of scientific investigations into organophosphates - this is the first to report.

Elizabeth Sigmund, from the Organophosphate Information Network (OPIN), told BBC News Online that the results could be important to the campaign trying to establish these chemicals as a cause of ill-health.

She said: "We have just had a lot of court cases struck out due to lack of evidence - this study would have made a great deal of difference."

The Department for the Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs (Defra) is sharing responsibility for the studies with the Department of Health and Health and Safety Executive, which paid for this arm of the research.

A spokesman for Defra said: "There is currently no evidence to suggest that long-term low-level exposure can lead to permanent damage."

A spokesman for the National Farmer's Union said it would be discussing the issue with manufacturers and government in the light of the new research.

See also:

16 Sep 99 | Medical notes
24 Apr 00 | Scotland
Sheep dip 'poisoning' plea
01 Sep 00 | Scotland
Inquiry into sheep dip 'sickness'
01 Mar 02 | Health
'Sheep dip made me ill'
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