24 August 2001

Iraqi nerve gas ingredient

discovered in sheep dip

By Donald MacPhail

A DEADLY nerve gas ingredient used by Saddam Hussein was found as an impurity in sheep dip, according to government documents which campaigners say strengthen the case of hundreds of farmers who claim to have been poisoned.

Documents obtained by FARMERS WEEKLY show that the Veterinary Medicines Directorate, which authorises animal medicines, expressed concern about high levels of tetraethylpyrophosphate (TEPP) in sheep dip during the early 1990s.

The VMD raised concerns about the low purity of active ingredients used to make sheep dip in a letter to sheep dip manufacturers in 1991. It was written during a review conducted under the 1968 Medicines Act – a massive programme to examine the authorisation of human and animal medicines.

The letter reveals that some active ingredients used in dip contained up to 10% impurities. It continues: "Unless much purer active ingredients are used, toxological profiles of the impurities and related substances will be required… In any case levels of neurotoxic impurities such as TEPP should be tightened."

TEPP was the first organophosphate insecticide to be developed. But it was withdrawn from sale in the UK as a sheep dip because it was highly toxic and relatively unstable. Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein is known to have used the chemical to manufacture nerve gas.

Campaigners claim the letter proves that government agencies had doubts about sheep dip impurities but continued to license the products to farmers. Elisabeth Charles, a partner in solicitors Gabb & Co, which represents alleged OP victims, said manufacturers and the VMD knew impure toxicity levels in sheep dip were being inadequately controlled.

"If farmers have been injured by impurities then the government seems as culpable as the manufacturers. Clearly the VMD had doubts about highly toxic impurities but were happy to license products for farmers. We all need an explanation for this."

Andrew Watterson, of the Occupational and Environmental Health Research Group at Stirling University, said farmers who used impure dip would have been at risk. This could shed light on the question of why some people seemed so much more badly affected by OPs than others.

But a DEFRA spokesman said the products had been used before the review and there had been no evidence that they damaged human health. The data about TEPP may have emerged during the licensing review of dips, he added. "We were gathering evidence to make sure they were safe before they could be given marketing authorisation."

As well as being found in impurities, TEPP can also be created when organophosphate dips degrade. Prof Watterson called for more transparency from DEFRA on quality control monitoring and details of levels of contamination when dip breaks down.

A High Court judge dismissed the cases of four out of 11 claimants involved in a group action over OP poisoning last month. Mr Justice Morland indicated that the class action should be discontinued. But until he gives full judgement in late autumn it is unclear whether the remaining cases can proceed individually.

After the case was dismissed, solicitors representing OP manufacturers were reported as saying that the action was "ill-conceived" given "the lack of causal evidence".

According to some estimates, £1.3 million of public money has been spent preparing various actions on behalf of alleged victims of OP exposure. &#42