Farmers will face tighter spray controls if the government accepts recommendations by the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution.

The commission published a report on Thursday (22 Sept) which said although no firm conclusions could be drawn on whether pesticide exposure led to chronic ill-health in some bystanders, a link was “plausible”.

This meant a more precautionary approach was advisable until further research had been carried out.

The report, Crop Spraying and the Health of Residents and Bystanders, recommended farmers should be required to leave 5m no-spray buffer zones in fields alongside homes, schools, hospitals and care homes.

It suggested that farmers should also notify residents living next to fields before spraying, so they were aware of the substances to be sprayed, where they would be sprayed and when.

In addition, it said that growers should make spray records directly available for public scrutiny, test their sprayers on an annual basis and sign up for the National Register of Sprayer Operatives.

The commission said stricter measures were necessary because it had serious concerns about the current method of assessing bystander exposure used by the Pesticides Safety Directorate.

The PSD’s current approach had serious shortcomings, had not been evaluated under field conditions and did not address the reality of bystanders’ exposure to pesticides.

As a consequence, the commission did not agree with claims made by the Advisory Committee on Pesticides that the risk assessment system raised “no scientific concerns” and provided “adequate protection” for bystanders.

“In the light of the lack of vigour in the underlying science, we have been surprised at the level of confidence expressed in advice to ministers and the level of assurance given to the public about the safety of residents and bystanders potentially exposed to agricultural pesticides,” the report concluded.

The commission suggested the positioning of both delivery and policy responsibilities within the PSD had made it more difficult to address health issues relating to pesticides.

It said it believed responsibility for pesticides policy should be separate from that for the approval of pesticides.