20 March 1998

New leaflet for sheep dippers provokes praise and criticism

By Jonathan Riley

NEW government-backed guidance for sheep dippers has provoked a mixed reaction from industry bodies and MPs.

At the launch of the Health and Safety Executive sheep dipping guidance note, farm minister Jack Cunningham said the free leaflet would be sent to more than 80,000 sheep producers to raise awareness of the potential dangers to health and the environment from sheep dip chemicals.

The new guidelines were praised by Roger Cook, director of animal health firms representative group NOAH, as a thorough revision which made actions and precautions for sheep dip use clearer.

The Environment Agency welcomed the leaflets emphasis on maintenance and design of dip baths after EA figures suggested 25% of Welsh farms had substandard dipping facilities. It also pointed out that sheep dip pollution incidents rose from seven during 1996, to more than 30 last year.

An EA official said the agency had been extremely concerned about the move towards synthetic pyrethroid dips, which are 100 times more toxic to aquatic life than organophosphates.

But Lib-Dem MP Paul Tyler, who chairs the parliamentary all-party group on OPs, said that yet more stringent controls on OP use was a confession of failure by the government.

"Michael Meacher promised, when still in opposition, to secure the withdrawal of OP pesticides. In government (as environment minister) he has been put in a legal strait-jacket, scared witless by the threats of the huge multi-national chemical companies who profit from these potentially lethal products," said Mr Tyler.

Elizabeth Sigmund chairman of the OP Information Network put the leaflets health surveillance recommendations to the test. She asked Devon, Cornwall and Dorset health authorities, whether they could carry out routine blood and urine tests to measure cholines-terase and OP metabolite levels in sheep dippers.

All three authorities said they were not equipped to test for cholinesterase and no one had forewarned them that sheep farmers may be referred to them.

"No provisions have been made by the NHS to carry out the health surveillance suggested by the government and few GPs are aware of the possible long-term impact of OPs on health and what to do when asked for help by sufferers," said Mrs Sigmund.