12 May 1995

Health dangers of OP dips confirmed by HSE report

By Liz Mason

REPEATED exposure to sheep dips can cause nerve damage, a report for the Health and Safety Executive confirms.

The study, by researchers at the Institute of Occupational Health, Birmingham, recommends that "further efforts should be made to reduce exposure to organophosphates" in sheep dip.

It found "subtle chronic effects on the nervous system" of farmers exposed to OP sheep dips. They also showed signs of poor mental health "possibly attributable to OP exposure". The farmers "appeared to be significantly more vulnerable to developing a psychiatric disorder of clinical significance", says the report.

Junior farm minister Angela Browning said she would be discussing the findings with "ministerial colleagues in the health and employment departments. In the meantime I am seeking advice from the independent veterinary products committee who will be meeting on May 18 to consider the implications".

The study compared 146 sheep farmers, chosen at random, with 143 quarry workers. Tests showed the farmers had slower reaction times, suggesting their ability to concentrate was affected.

Their ability to process information was slower than the quarry workers. Ability to reason, or solve problems was also affected and there was evidence that farmers with greatest OP exposure had more pronounced effects. Other tests found no difference between the groups in short-term memory or learning.

The study also confirmed that few farmers wore recommended protective clothing. Most "did not use the type of clothing or equipment likely to protect them from exposure", said the report.

Subtle differences

Dr Anne Spurgeon, of the IOH research team, said the differences between the groups "were very subtle" and would not affect farmers everyday lives. She added that it was not clear whether the farmers increased vulnerability to psychiatric illness was linked to OP exposure.

Past evidence had shown that farmers generally show more psychiatric symptoms than other occupational groups. They also have the fourth highest suicide rate.