Page last updated at 00:10 GMT, Wednesday, 10 February 2010

One-woman fight against government for pesticide ban

By Victoria King
BBC News

Georgina Downs
Georgina won a landmark court ruling in 2008 that was later overturned

The government has launched a consultation on the use of pesticides by UK farmers. In part it is doing so because of the actions of a lone campaigner.

Georgina Downs is in the 10th year of a one-woman battle.

Her goal is a ban on the spraying of pesticides near homes, schools and workplaces - and it's a fight that has taken over her life.

"I have been forced to do this," she says. "It's not what I would be doing with my life if I had a choice, but I certainly won't give up now."

Georgina grew up alongside a farm in West Sussex which regularly sprays pesticides and as a result has experienced a string of health problems, including sore throats, blistering and muscle wastage.

She first made the connection between the chemicals and her symptoms in 2001 - "a light bulb moment" - and set about launching the UK Pesticides Campaign.

As she puts it, how can it be right that chemicals labelled "very toxic by inhalation" by their own manufacturers can be pumped out just yards from people's homes?

Years of work culminated in a victory at the High Court in November 2008 when a judge ruled she had produced "solid evidence" that rural dwellers facing repeated exposure had suffered harm.

As a result, the court said Environment Secretary Hilary Benn "must think again" about the way pesticides were used.

But eight months later, that landmark ruling was overturned when judges decided the government was in fact doing enough to protect its citizens.

Georgina had presented a wealth of evidence, including cases of other residents suffering problems like cancer and Parkinson's disease - chronic conditions which the European Commission has recognised can be caused by pesticides - but she says this was ignored.

Family of mannequins exposed to crop spraying (Pic: Georgina Downs)
Georgina used a family of mannequins to demonstrate pesticide exposure

"Anybody who looks at the government's argument will see that it actually has no evidence to support it. It has misled and misinformed the public, pure and simple," she said.

"Ministers keep saying they have an obligation to manufacturers, but there is no mention of their obligation to protect the public."

Georgina's doctor says there is no doubt her health problems are caused by pesticides, but even that, Georgina insists, is not the point.

"I don't even need to be ill. There is not meant to be any health risk to the public full stop and if there is, the government is meant to act to prevent it. What they're not meant to do is wait for people to get ill first."

'Too late for me'

Georgina, now 36, and her parents still live in the same house near Chichester, and the farmer next door is still spraying, so why haven't they moved?

"Why should people be forced out of their own home?" she asks. "Also, if we leave, another young family could come in and it will all just start again."

The campaign is a gargantuan effort. Georgina runs her own website and one of the latest updates shows the six witness statements given by her in court. She has also won several awards, including the Observer newspaper's Secret Pioneer.

She now plans to take her case to the European Court of Human Rights and also to write a book - as she puts it, "to show the lengths that one person has had to go to".

"The way I see it is that it's too late for me. I already have permanent health damage, I can't do what I wanted to with my life, but I can keep fighting for other people.

"This is unfortunately my life, but it's lucky that I'm strong enough to withstand it, because I'm sure the government would love me to just go away."

Woman on her knees in a field tending shoots
Georgina would ultimately like all farming worldwide to be non-chemical

'Right criteria'

Georgina wanted a career in musical theatre, but her health problems ruled that out.

"I could get angry, but I've managed to channel that anger into determination.

"And I have the right criteria for this fight. Other people might have other responsibilities - I don't have a partner, I don't have children - not because I don't want them, but because of the difficulties caused by the long-term health problems I have.

"So many people have had their health and lives affected as a result of the government's policy and obviously it doesn't just affect the person involved, but all those around them as well."

She is cautiously optimistic about the consultation, which Defra says will include consideration of how best to notify residents of spraying activity.

"Hilary Benn has read my witness statement. I know because I grilled him about it, although I told him off because he hadn't read all the footnotes.

"I can't see how he can continue any longer saying there isn't any risk. I think it's got to a turning point now and something has to change.

"Mandatory measures must be introduced to finally protect the public. The government needs to get its priorities right and fast."

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Judges overturn pesticide ruling
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Ministers reject no-spray zones
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