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Scientists refute claims that pesticides cause ill health

BMJ 2006; 332 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.332.7537.324-e (Published 09 February 2006) Cite this as: BMJ 2006;332:324
  1. Adrian O'Dowd
  1. London

    Scientists have hit back at claims that agricultural pesticides are dangerous enough to warrant a 5 m buffer zone to separate areas where they are to be used from residential areas.

    The danger of proximity to the chemicals is not as severe as was claimed by a government commissioned investigation that reported last year, said the Advisory Committee on Pesticides last week.

    The committee, an independent scientific group that advises the government on pesticide control, was making its official response to last year's report Crop Spraying and the Health of Residents and Bystanders by the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution.

    That report, published in September, recommended that the government impose a precautionary 5 m buffer zone on farmers spraying pesticides next to residential property until more research had been done on any link between pesticides and ill health.

    The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs asked for the royal commission to carry out this research and is still formulating its response to the work.

    In the meantime, the Advisory Committee on Pesticides said this week that the royal commission's view was a “disproportionate response to scientific uncertainty.”

    David Coggon, who chaired the committee from 2000 to 2005, said: “We agree with the royal commission that there are scientific uncertainties, but we differ in our assessment of their importance.

    “We believe that the uncertainties justify further research but that a precautionary buffer zone would be a disproportionate measure. If we thought that current margins of safety for a pesticide gave insufficient protection to neighbours, we would recommend that the use be banned, rather than relying on a buffer zone to reduce exposures.”

    The government should not accept the royal commission's recommendation, he added, saying: “Inappropriate precaution distorts public perceptions of risk and leads people to restrict their activities unnecessarily.

    “Current regulatory controls already ensure a wide margin of safety, and a precautionary buffer zone would be a disproportionate response to residual scientific uncertainties.”

    The committee doubts that pesticide toxicity contributed significantly to disorders such as chronic fatigue syndrome and multiple chemical sensitivity, as the royal commission suggested.

    However, an argument could be made on social grounds for a buffer zone next to residential property, because many people did not like pesticides being sprayed right up to their property's boundary.

    A spokesperson for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs would not comment specifically on the points made by the committee but said: “We will be taking the advisory committee's comments on board in our response to the royal commission's report, which we will be responding to before the summer recess.”

    Crop Spraying and the Health of Residents and Bystanders is at www.rcep.org.uk/cropspraying.htm.

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