Shadow health secretary calls for sheep dip inquiry

Shadow health secretary Andy Burnham has called for an independent inquiry into health problems among farmers who used organophosphate sheep dip.

The call followed a meeting with the Sheep Dip Survivors Group, including testimonies by farmers who claim they were poisoned by OP dip more than 20 years ago. Led by Lancashire farmer Tom Rigby, the group met Mr Burnham in Parliament on Tuesday (2 December).

Many of the farmers have serious long-term health problems. Yorkshire retired farmer Paul Wright, 59, started dipping sheep in 1968 when he was 13. Mr Wright told the meeting he still suffers from neurological problems, blackouts and paralysis.

“We had to dip the sheep by law,” he said. “You had to keep them in the dip for a minute and we were told what dip to use by law. It was nothing to do with us. All it had on the container was ‘Avoid contact with skin and eyes.’”

Speaking afterwards, Mr Burnham told Farmers Weekly: “The evidence it seems to me is overwhelming – that people have been harmed by their exposure to OPs and this was something required by the government. So that is why the government has questions to answer.”

Mr Burnham said: “There are many examples where we have seen historical injustices where I believe the system has pulled the shutters down and hasn’t explained what it knew, and why it did what it did, and hasn’t given people the truth.”

He added: “People haven’t had the truth. They haven’t a full explanation as to why their lives changed in the way that they did. There has been an injustice here and before you have justice you must have truth.

“That is why I will be making the call for disclosure of papers. Because once we know what was known, we can begin to look at resolving the matter and get recognition for what people have been through.”

An adjournment debate on organophosphate sheep dip poisoning is expected to be initiated by Newport MP Jessica Morden early next year. Although a backbench debate, it will require a government minister to address MPs on the issue.

But a spokesman for the trade body representing animal health product manufacturers, NOAH, highlighted the latest research on OP dips.

“The latest evidence collated for a report by the Committee on Toxicity concluded that while there was an acute risk from direct contact with concentrated OP dip, low level exposure to correctly diluted sheep dip was not considered to be a chronic health issue,” the spokesman said.

“Personal Protective Equipment used in accordance with the applicable guidelines is mandatory when dipping sheep.

“Providing this equipment is used appropriately it is the safest and most responsible way of using these OP-based chemicals.”