The scandal of how Britain's babies are being crippled from birth by sprays and pesticides
The Planet on Sunday, June 16, 1996
AN American court has just awarded $4 million to a child born with no eyes because the mother was exposed to a fungicide during her pregnancy. She had lived near a Florida fruit farm. It is the first time a court has linked a birth defect to an airborne pesticide. In a special investigation, The Planet on Sunday presents compelling evidence that pesticides are causing defects and cancers in Britain's children.
EVERY one of us is coming into contact with pesticides every day. There are traces in our food, in our water. Many of us are living in homes where they have been used to treat timber against dry rot and wood worm, or to control pests such as cockroaches, fleas or mice.
There are pesticides in rain and fog. Perhaps even in the air we breathe.
No-one knows what this constant low-level exposure to a vast cocktail of pesticides is doing to our health and to the environment.
Between July and December last year, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Maff) which is responsible both for allowing pesticides to be used, and for monitoring the quality of our food, reported worryingly high levels of the insecticide lindane in retail milk samples. Lindane is classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as a possible human carcinogen. It has also been linked with possible birth defects. Because lindane is fat soluble, it doesn't break down.
So when milk is made into cheese, the lindane stays, and when we eat the cheese, or drink the milk, it stays in our body.
In January 1995, Maff reported unusually high levels of organo-phosphate insecticide residues in carrots. These chemicals are direct descendants of wartime nerve gasses.
Some farmers using these chemicals have suffered mental health problems and even paralysis. At lower doses symptoms might include stomach cramps, nausea. diarrhoea and headaches.
Last summer the Department of the Environment said that more research was needed to assess the true risk to health from chemicals in the environment which mimic the hormone oestrogen.
These environmental oestrogens, which include many pesticides such as DDT, lindane and permethrin, are thought to be linked to reduced fertility among British men, some of whom are now producing 50 per cent less sperm than their counterparts 30 years ago. American expert Dr Theo Colburn whose book, Our Stolen Future, has just been published, believes that environmental oestrogens arc responsible for disrupting the bleeding of humans as well as many animal species.
Government scientists can offer no clear explanations . Not only is it unclear what these chemicals do in our bodies, but no one can explain exactly what happens to them in the environment. The Government and the chemical companies say pesticides go through rigorous testing before they are approved, but new health scares and unexplained environmental problems appear all the lime.
Can we trust the authorities who tell us that pesticides ate safe, and at the same time cannot explain why our milk is contaminated?
But it is not only pesticides used in agriculture which may be damaging our health.
In November, the Government announced that carbaryl, which has been used for 40 years to treat head lice and kill lawn and household insect pests causes cancer.
At about the same time, the German government announced that permethrin. which is widely used in home pesticides, may be causing brain cancer.
Our own government suggested using permethrin to replace carbaryl.
There are thousands of different pesticides on the market, and every one of them will have different effects on us, our children, our pets and the environment — see bottom right.
The effect is also not always directly related to the amount of poison. Even the tiniest amounts taken in at crucial times, for example during pregnancy, can trigger cancer or devastating birth defects.
Last week an American court awarded $4 million to a child born with no eyes, because the mother was exposed to the fungicide benomyl during pregnancy.
The problems with pesticides are not new. One of the earliest and most famous environmental awareness books ever written was 'Silent Spring" by Rachel Carson. This was in 1963, and in many respects little has changed.
But pesticides will not disappear overnight cither, and refusing to eat fruit and vegetables or drink milk and water, will damage our health much more than pesticide residues ever will.
Research has shown that fanners can keep producing quality food at good yields by using less pesticides overall.
We need to reduce our overall reliance on pesticides, and the Government needs to help farmers do that.
What WE can do is let food suppliers, water companies, farmers and the Government know that we want change, and that their reassurances are not enough.
JILL Keyte's son Nicholas was born severely deformed nine months after her house was sprayed with a toxic pesticide to wipe out a plague of ants.
The mother-of-two is convinced the chemicals in the spray caused her son to be born with Charge disease, leaving him with severe defects in the heart, kidney's, genitals, lungs and ears.
Jill says: "When Nicholas was horn he could not eat or drink and he could not breathe on his own, He had septicaemia, pneumonia and was almost completely deaf.
"He had facial palsy and he could not smile or cry. He was a happy fit little boy in his own way but he had so many problems."
Jill and her husband, Patrick were devastated when Nicholas died of heart failure in August 1989, two-and-a-half years after his birth. She believes the pesticide used to spray her house two weeks before he was conceived caused his illness.
"We were living in Maidstone at the time and had ants which we could not get rid of with normal household sprays," Jill says.
'The borough council sent someone round to spray all the downstairs rooms to get rid of them. It worked but left an awful smell."
Jill says she has since found out that the spray contained the chemical pirimiphos-methyl which she believes she inhaled and was still carrying in her bloodstream when she conceived two weeks later.
"We were not told to leave the house or even to leave the windows open. I think there should have been stricter controls.
"No warning was given at all buit I found out later that Camden Council had banned the spray because there was a possible link with birth defects.
"I am sure his problems were caused by the cehemical. I had a healthy daughter before and have had a healthy son since.
'My husband and I have both had blood tests and nothing abnormal showed up. I was fold that it could have been genetic defect but I'm convinced it was the chemicals."
Forty-year-old Jill now lives in Heathfield, East Sussex, with her husband and 11-year-old daughter Jamie and Andrei. seven. Jill said that she had joined the Charge Association since Nicholas's death and goes to meetings at least once a year.
There she met other parents who claimed their children had been affected by pesticides. The group is continuing to push for research into the cause of Charge disease.
LITTLE Claire Stanton came into the world with massive disabilities and at seven months was diagnosed with Charge. "I was told very little about the condition," said mother Cassy, 32, "I wanted to find some answers."
It was at Great Ormond Street Hospital, after doctors ruled out any hereditary explanations for Claire's condition, that Cassy was asked if she had worked with any chemicals or if she had been exposed to them.
She was told that some people believe there is a link between incidences of Charge and the use of certain pesticides.
After talking with the mother of another Charge child, Cassy suddenly realised that her office had been sprayed following a cockroach infestation.
With the help of her office manager. Cassy checked the dates and found that her office had been cleaned on the 38th day of her pregnancy.
She later discovered from experts that the unborn child develops Charge in the womb between 35 and 40 days of the pregnancy.
Cassy was told verbally that the chemical sprayed in her office was permethrin. She asked for a copy of the invoice from the contractor to confirm this but her request was denied.
Determined to get some answers, Cassy successfully applied for Legal Aid for her daughter.
With help from her MP, Andrew Mackinlay (Lab. Thurrock), who raised questions in Parliament, and The Green Network, she pressed for answers.
But when Claire died following a heart op just before she was four, the Legal Aid was withdrawn, but Cassy is determined to still go on fighting.
She said: "Claire suffered — her life wasn't easy, but I am damn sure it isn't going to be in vain."