12 January 1996

on falsehood

Official water policy based

Nitrate sensitive areas and vulnerable zones are based on misapplied facts, erroneous theory, and odd official behaviour. Here Staffs farmer and consultant Alan Monckton explains his claims

IN 1980, EC Directive 80/778 created an artificial limit for nitrate in drinking water. It was based on an assumption that higher levels in water caused stomach cancer and blue baby syndrome. The 50 mg/litre limit was an unscientific but convenient official guess.

Subsequent research by the Imperial Cancer Research Fund, published by the Ministry of Health (COM 85/14), linked higher nitrate in drinking water to areas with lower stomach cancer and vice versa.

On that basis, one would have expected the government to have tried to get the directive withdrawn or amended. It did not.

A well-researched newspaper article highlighting its flawed reasoning failed to change its mind. It appears civil servants could not bring themselves to admit fault. And ministers chose to enforce the mistaken view, tagging nitrate over the 50 limit "pollution", and coining the phrase "the polluter should pay".

NSAs and NVZs were invented. They threw the cost of cutting nitrate in ground water exclusively onto farmers.

In 1991 the government voted in Brussels for EC Directive COM 91/676, which enforced a time schedule, and enshrined in law the description of water with nitrate over 50mg/litre limit as polluted water.

It was notable that the lead UK agency was the Department of the Environment. Although it was also a public health Directive, our Minister of Health made no input.

Environmental purposes

The directive was overtly for environmental purposes only, to prevent eutrophication – the despoiling of estuaries by high nitrate which destroys fish and vegetation.

Eutrophication is serious for some countries. But the UK is not affected because our tides quickly disperse estuary waters.

By voting for EC 91/676 and not seeking powers to derogate, our politicians sold out. They must now enforce it, despite the risk that it may cause more stomach cancer with no counterbalancing benefits.

The government chose to enforce EC 91/676 more rigorously, and seven years sooner than was needed. The Drinking Water Inspectorate and MAFF did as they were told. The DWI forced water companies to provide lower nitrate water. By the end of 1994 this had cost the companies, and ultimately consumers, more than £1000m.

Faced by a farming community with little knowledge of water issues, MAFF apparently decided to enforce the new rules using the "pollution" argument. A publicity exercise was launched implying that NSAs were set, and that there was no point disputing them.

A questionnaire was designed to direct farmers attention to banal detail such as boundary changes.

Unfortunately for MAFF, the World Health Organisations Guidelines for Drinking Water Quality demolished its case. The document said the 50 limit was not cancer-related, but solely to prevent blue baby syndrome.

Syndrome eradicated

Our ministries of health and agriculture knew that blue baby syndrome had been eradicated in the UK. It applied only to babies up to three months old, and there had been no case for 20 years.

To those familiar with Whitehall, the next phase will come as no surprise. An admission of official error had to be avoided.

Officials decided to go ahead without policy change. They succeeded in persuading some farmers to accept NSA impositions and costs. They obtained grudging acceptance that NSAs would be extended. And they publicised and received acceptance for the concept of NVZs.

In a coup, officials obtained CLA and NFU approval for A Code of Good Farming Practice. Its real title should have been A Code of Lower Nitrate Practice. They scored again by saying the code would be voluntary, so disarming opposition.

The new proposed NVZ rules will be "justified" by the code, compulsory, and subject to no further compensation. Farmers will shoulder the full extra costs.

Aberdeen revalations

A further blow hit the Ministry of Health in June 1995 when trials at Aberdeen University showed lettuces with higher nitrate were associated with lower incidence of stomach cancer – and vice versa. The Aberdeen findings are dynamite. They show:

&#8226 That it is impossible for babies under three months old to get blue baby syndrome from nitrate.

&#8226 Nitrate at natural levels (up to at least 100mg/litre – double the present limit) presents no health risks.

&#8226 Nitrate is an essential part of human diet.

&#8226 A chemical reaction transforms nitrates into nitrites in the stomach and lower nitrites can lead to stomach cancer.

Completely false

MAFF sponsored this research. So it knows its campaign, that the 50 limit is to protect us from cancer and blue baby syndrome, is completely false.

Its recent response to CLA and NFU representations includes statements that it will not consider amendments unless these show that its proposals are "manifestly unreasonable."

I believe this article proves they are. Its time for the NFU to take up the challenge.

MAFFs response to its consultation paper on NVZs (PB 2215) continues to cloud the issue. It jumbled all the responses so coherence is diffused.

So where do we go from here? These are my suggestions.

&#8226 The CLA, NFU, lettuce growers, and all other interested parties, must liaise regularly and effectively to get COM 93 (680) Final amended to permit derogation on health grounds.

&#8226 Wide publicity is needed for a new well-planned campaign to stop the government from NVZs. Everyone should demand the truth from government and a guarantee to protect farmers from financial loss meanwhile.

&#8226 The principal research material has come from the UK, so we must publicise it in the EC, to persuade others to vote for derogation.

To sum up, our government gave three reasons to aim for less nitrate in drinking water – stomach cancer, blue baby syndrome and eutrophication. None are justified.

NSAs and NVZs should be cancelled forthwith.

Getting down to facts on nitrate pollution – Staffs farmer and consultant Alan Monckton says EUrules have no basis in science.