Share this

The Sunday Herald | Rob Edwards | January 20, 2002 Millions of homes are still being contaminated with a potentially lethal chemical used in fly sprays six months after government experts said it should be banned. Ministers were advised last July to recall dozens of household insecticides containing the chemical dichlorvos, because of new evidence that it could cause cancer. But legal action by the US company that makes it, Amvac, has prevented any ban from being implemented. Despite a series of meetings by government advisers over the past two weeks, the ban will still not be enforced until March or later.

Environmentalists, who condemn the delay as "a disgrace" and "an outrage" say that human health is being put at risk as a result. Dichlorvos, which is also known as DDVP, is a highly toxic organophosphate designed to disrupt the nervous system. As well as being the key ingredient in many branded inspect sprays and traps, it is often used by gardeners and farmers to control pests. In the past, hundreds of tonnes were also deployed by salmon farmers to kill lice. Evidence of its hazards to humans has been mounting since the 1980s, but it was only in July 2001 that the government was urged to act. Experiments on mice suggested that dichlorvos was linked to cancer of the stomach or gullet. According to the department of health's committee on mutagenicity, even the tiniest amounts could be dangerous. "A precautionary approach should be adopted and no threshold could be assumed for the mutagenic and carcinogenic effects of dichlorvos,'' it said. This prompted the government's advisory committee on pesticides to recommend to ministers that dichlorvos was immediately withdrawn from the market. The committee wanted every product containing the chemical to be recalled from shops and supermarkets. But just as ministers were preparing to make announcement, Amvac, based in Newport Beach, California, applied to the High Court, in London, to stop them. The company argued that it had not been given enough time to respond to the suggestion that dichlorvos was unsafe. Amvac, one of a handful of international companies that manufactures dichlorvos, has also contested attempts to control its use in the US. In the past the company has paid British students to eat the chemical in order to test its effects on health. An injunction prevented the government and its committees from publicising their views on dichlorvos until the High Court issued its judgment last month. Amvac's complaint about the lack of time was upheld and the government is now considering further representations from the company. Despite meetings of the committee on mutagenicity on January 9 and the advisory committee on pesticides last Thursday, the issue is not due to be resolved until another meeting on March 4. In the meantime, though some chains like Boots and Tesco are voluntarily withdrawing products containing dichlorvos, they are still being sold and used elsewhere. "The advice to revoke these products was to protect householders and other users of dichlorvos from a remote but potentially serious risk," said the chairman of the advisory committee on pesticides, David Coggon. But he thought there would be no major public health concerns "provided that the case could be resolved speedily". Amvac argued that dichlorvos did not present a risk of cancer to humans, and that this was the position of "sophisticated" regulators in other parts of the world.

"Without the benefit of a proper and thorough scientific review of all the relevant data, regulatory action is precipitate and premature," said a spokeswoman for the company. "The proposed suspension of dichlorvos was without scientific basis and would do nothing but create unwarranted concerns and deprive consumers of an important public health tool." But Friends of the Earth Scotland accused the government of endangering health with its "timid" approach. "It is supremely ironic that, now that they have finally decided to act, industry has been able to stop them," said the environmental group's chief executive, Kevin Dunion. "It is a disgrace that we still allow this suspect pesticide to be used in people's homes and an outrage that the commercial interests of the chemical industry comes before the protection of public health and the environment. "This ridiculous court judgment makes a mockery of the precautionary principle, and the government must overturn it. Dichlorvos should be banned in the UK and worldwide.'' Friends of the Earth first argued that dichlorvos was a potential cause of cancer in 1988. At the time, the chemical was causing concern because of its widespread use against lice by salmon farmers, though the industry successfully fought off a proposed ban. In recent years the Scottish Environment Protection Agency has been progressively withdrawing consents for the use of dichlorvos at salmon farms because there are now better alternatives. But a spokesman for the agency accepted that it might still be used in a few places. A former fish farm worker in Ireland who contracted testicular cancer after being exposed to dichlorvos is taking legal action demanding compensation. Another fish farm worker in Shetland was said by a local doctor to have been poisoned. According to some estimates, Scottish salmon farmers used a staggering 500 tonnes of dichlorvos through the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. That was five times more than the entire UK agricultural, company and household pest control industries combined. But according to Don Staniford, an environmental researcher who campaigns against fish farming, the chemicals that are now replacing dichlorvos may be even worse. "The state-sponsored chemical arms race continues unabated," Staniford told the Sunday Herald. "Since 1998 Sepa has issued over 500 licences for the toxic chemicals cypermethrin, azamethiphos, emamectin and teflubenzuron. Azamethiphos - which Sepa says is 10 times more toxic than dichlorvos - is now under investigation as a possible carcinogen. "Cypermethrin is suspected of being a hormone-disrupting, or gender-bending, compound and the companies responsible for both emamectin and teflubenzuron, aided and abetted by the government, are hiding behind the same confidentiality clauses that have protected those manufacturing dichlorvos for the last 40 years." Copyright 2002 Scottish Media Newspapers LimitedThe Sunday Herald: