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Wednesday, November 11, 1998 Published at 11:27 GMT


Doctors warn on sheep dip

Risks are real and sometimes very serious, report says

By Environment Correspondent Alex Kirby

People exposed to organophosphate (OP) sheep dips can suffer "genuine and often very severe symptoms", according to new research.

Fergus Walsh: Some experts want organophosphates banned
A report by the Royal Colleges of Physicians and Psychiatrists says sufferers must be taken seriously and treated sympathetically by doctors.

The report follows the establishment of a working party early last year at the request of the then Chief Medical Officer.

It set its own terms of reference: to advise on the clinical management of patients with the symptoms of chronic OP exposure, and to review any new evidence about them.

BBC Health Correspondent James Westhead talks to farmers
The group heard about symptoms including excessive tiredness, headaches, limb pains, disturbed sleep, poor concentration, mood changes, and thoughts of suicide.

It was also told that patients felt strongly they had not been looked after properly by hospitals and doctors.

Cause still unknown

Crucially, though, it did not look at the way that OPs do their damage, saying only that "further studies will be needed to understand the cause of these symptoms".

OPs are ferociously strong pesticides, derived from the nerve gases used by the Nazis in the World War II.

[ image: Precautions were useless, say farmers]
Precautions were useless, say farmers
From 1976 until 1992, sheep farmers were obliged by law to use them to eradicate pests from their animals.

Even those who took the precautions recommended (such as wearing protective clothing) say they were often ill after dipping.

The report criticises the care available to sufferers with the conclusion: "Existing clinical services do not, in the main, provide satisfactory management."

It urges doctors to take patients seriously and to be open-minded.

GPs should usually be responsible for sufferers, according to the report, and it may be helpful to set up groups of specialists to form "centres of excellence".

Professor John Newsom-Davis, chairman of the joint working party, said: "I hope that this report will result in greatly improved medical care for those unfortunate sufferers from OP sheep dip exposure and that it will prompt further research."

Professor David London: 'Services are unsatisfactory'
Committee member Professor David London said: "We found there was a large group of people who were getting symptoms having been exposed to organophosphate sheep dip and the management of these people was really not very satisfactory."

Chief medical officer Professor Liam Donaldson said: "The working party's recommendations will be of considerable interest to a number of government departments."

He said the report would now be studied carefully by the Committee of Toxicity's Working Group on Organophosphates, and would be sent to relevant expert committees for further consideration

Professor Donaldson said he had also asked the Department of Health to open immediate discussions with the directors of the National Poisons Information Service on the report's recommendations that specialist advice should be set up in areas where it currently does not exist.

Improved support for GPs who have patients sufferng from related illnesses should be discussed, Professor Donaldson added.

"Government funded research is already under way to establish scientifically whether there is a link between prolonged low-level exposure to OP sheep dips and ill health," he said.

Critics see flaws

The OP Information Network is in touch with almost 700 sufferers. It sent material to the working party, but decided not to give oral evidence.

OPIN's Liz Sigmund said: "We are unhappy with this report, because it did not look at how the symptoms are caused.

"Nor does it address the problem that many GPs just do not know the symptoms of chronic OP poisoning.

"And some of our contacts know that several of its recommendations - like using antidepressants above a very low dosage and techniques to improve memory and speech - are not just useless. They can be positively harmful."

OPIN is also "very concerned" that the working party did not look at reported cases of problems among children of farming families. It knows of 22 such children.

[ image: OPs: Not just used on sheep]
OPs: Not just used on sheep
Ms Sigmund said: "They have severe cognitive and behavioural problems. They could have been caused by direct exposure to OPs.

"Or they might be the consequence of damage in the womb, or even of genetic damage to the father. We just do not know".

Farmer George Richards on the dangers of sheep dip
OPs are no longer compulsory for dipping sheep. But they are used in other products such as some flypapers, flea collars for animals, and anti-lice shampoos for use on children's heads.

OPIN says it knows of at least one sufferer from OP poisoning who was prescribed eyedrops containing OPs, to treat suspected glaucoma.

Dr Bob Davies, a consultant psychiatrist practising in Somerset, has seen many OP sufferers over the last five years.

Dr Davies, himself a member of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, says the report is "not bad, but weak".

"They held their hearings behind closed doors and they did not look at how the damage is caused. That is a fundamental weakness.

"The key to understanding OPs is to know how they hit the brain at the most basic level".

"It is not a psychiatric problem. It is a chemical one."

[ image: Larry Cooke:
Larry Cooke: "Prevent pests"
Although some farmers are calling for a blanket ban on OPs, Larry Cooke of the National Farmers Union said this would not be practical unless something else was available to eradicate pests from sheep flocks.

He said that if pests were allowed to proliferate it would have dire consequences for sheep farmers and result in animals having to be put down.

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