Chemical war in Whitehall

May 22, 1998

The outcry over the safety of organophosphates once again raises questions about the independence of scientific advice. Ayala Ochert reports.

It sounds like a dull academic exercise, but anyone taking the trouble to sit down and write the history of the organophosphate family of chemicals would find themselves creating something that read like a trashy airport novel.

Beginning in Nazi Germany, where these chemicals were turned into deadly nerve agents, the plot reaches its climax in the Gulf war, where they are implicated in a mystery illness afflicting the returning soldiers. The cast of characters features aristocrats, including a cameo role for Prince Philip when pheasants at his Sandringham estate are found dead after eating organophosphate-soaked wheat grains. Then there is the Countess of Mar, a "very ordinary aristocrat", who plays a key role when she falls prey to the same debilitating illness as the returning soldiers after using an OP sheep-dip.

There are also dastardly politicians, such as Nicholas Soames, who first encounters the villainous chemicals as junior agriculture minister. Later, as defence minister, he admits misleading Parliament about their use as pesticides in the Gulf war. And finally, we have our hero, Goran Jamal, whose people, the Kurds, were attacked by Saddam Hussein with OPs. At one point, the good doctor is forced to turn to the US billionaire Ross Perot for help in his quest for answers about the mystery illness.

The story is so ludicrous, you may have to remind yourself that you are not reading a Jeffrey Archer novel, but it is real. Nearly a million hectares of crops in the UK are sprayed with OP pesticides each year. Organophosphates are found in everyday items such as lice-treatment shampoos. And in the early 1990s, farmers were forced to use OP sheep-dips and cattle warble-fly treatments. But it is not just a British problem, says Jamal, who is based at the Institute of Neurological Sciences at Glasgow General Hospital: "Workers exposed to OP are one of the largest occupational populations at risk in the world."

Symptoms of OP poisoning range from short-term "dippers' flu" to chronic fatigue, depression, loss of concentration, aching muscles and asthma. Elizabeth Sigmund, who runs the OP information network, a support group for farmers with OP poisoning, says she has 600 cases of chronic illness in her database. There are about 1200 Gulf war veterans with similar symptoms, and they are dying at the rate of two a month.

Now the government has set up an interdepartmental review of OPs and, on the insistence of agriculture minister Jeff Rooker, Jamal has been reappointed to the Veterinary Products Committee. The VPC, an advisory committee to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, licenses OPs for veterinary use. Last March, Jamal resigned from the committee because, he says, he felt under pressure not to act as an expert witness for those claiming damages from agrochemical companies. So far, Jamal has helped to win millions of pounds worldwide for a number of people with OP-induced illnesses. Jamal says that the safety criteria used by the VPC to judge OPs are flawed, in particular the so-called "hen test". "Studies cast serious doubt on the validity and accuracy of the use of the hen test to screen for the neurological safety of these compounds," says Jamal. "One issue puzzles me a great deal, which is how it is proposed to examine the neurobehavioural and cognitive effects on hens and how it is proposed to extrapolate such effects on higher cerebral functions from hens to humans." He also cites evidence from studies in support of farmers' claims that OP exposure can cause chronic illness, even at low doses, something that the VPC has never accepted.

So does this mean that members of the new government are good guys in the OP story? Perhaps not, according to Sigmund, who says that "the main message is that we cannot ban the use of OPs. Because successive governments forced sheep farmers to use them by law, they approved the chemicals and the manufacturers built more chemical plants. The chemical companies would sue the government (if they introduced a ban)." She believes that the government is "sitting back, twiddling its thumbs, hoping that farmers will stop using (OPs)", as they did years ago with DDT. Incredibly, that chemical was never banned, farmers just stopped using it after all the bad press it received.

Nonetheless, Rooker is keen to be seen to be doing the right thing, and is responding to criticisms of the VPC, whose independence has been questioned by the Countess of Mar. In 1992, 11 of the committee's 17 members had professional links with OP manufacturers. This points to a wider problem - how can we be certain of the impartiality of the scientists who advise government? The VPC may have been singled out for criticism, but its make-up is typical of advisory committees. "You cannot find independent scientists, even in supposedly independent university departments," argues Richard North, an adviser on food safety. "They are so reliant on industry funding, past, present and future, that they cannot afford to take too independent a line. Their colleagues will tap them on the shoulder and tell them to tone it down. Science is bought and paid for."

Richard Lacey, consultant on infectious diseases at Leeds General Infirmary and a critic of the government's approach to the BSE crisis, agrees with North. He points out that the academics on the advisory committee for novel foods and processes will inevitably come from departments that get some funding from industry. "Genetic engineering is the career objective of some of these people, so they are not going to criticise it," he says.

So Jamal's reappointment is part of a wider shake-up of all the scientific advisory committees at MAFF and the Department of Health. Rooker wants to widen the pool of experts from which these committees are drawn, wants more lay members and has pledged to have at least one consumer representative on each one. "We've got an advisory committee structure that needs modernising," says Tim Lang, professor of food policy at Thames Valley University. "It's a throwback to the era of the gentleman scientist, good chaps doing the work as a public service, who later pick up a knighthood if they're lucky."

According to Lord Lucas, agriculture minister under the Conservatives, the issue of scientific advisory committees and their independence has only come to a head because the last government became too dependent on them. Lucas believes that this led to a breakdown of public trust. "It became the practice that the government relied on and enacted the recommendations of these committees. Indeed, they took them as gospel. It therefore became necessary that the people on the committees should display a great deal of level-headedness and that they should not represent extremes of opinion; that they should not produce dissenting opinions," Lucas told the House of Lords last year. "But scientists are human beings; they are subject to bias, like the rest of us."

According to Richard North, it was politicians "hiding behind the white coat tails of scientists" that led to "an absurdity like the beef-on-the-bone ban". Some scientists felt "abused" when the government justified its decisions by reference to their advice, but others seemed to relish the power, as Philip James, author of a paper on the need to set up a new Food Standards Agency, seems to suggest. He says that during discussions about the form the new food agency should take: "the most powerful vested interests were claimed to be scientists anxious to protect their directorates from being transferred to the new agency - a move which would result in them losing their personal reporting systems to ministers". According to the white paper which has now emerged on the FSA, these directorates will report to the new agency which will then advise government on what is in the consumer's interest.

Lucas recommends that models other than the advisory committee structure should be pursued, for example something like the Court of Appeal. "In court, experts appear as witnesses and not as arbiters," he says. Scientists are in effect acting as judge and jury in political matters, says North, but what is worse is that they are also expected to sit in judgement on their own decisions. The VPC is just one example of a committee in the paradoxical situation of both deciding who should get licences and then later whether those licensing decisions were correct. The Pesticides Safety Directorate, the Medicines Control Agency and the Health and Safety Executive all work this way.

"It is contrary to human nature to expect that the licensing authorities will willingly admit that they have failed to detect effects which subsequently come to light, for to do so is likely to result in huge compensation claims," says the Countess of Mar. What she and others against OPs would like is a separation of the licensing and monitoring functions of the VPC and other such bodies in preparation for the new FSA, but even though Labour has admitted the situation is "anomalous", the campaigners have so far been disappointed.

THE EXPERTS AND THE DRUG MONITORS

The three following committees advise ministers on the licensing of products in their respective areas and monitor their safety.

Committeeon the Safety of Medicines:

Membership: 30, most attached to universities/medical schools.

Chair: Michael Rawlins, professor of clinical pharmacology, University of Newcastle.

Veterinary Products Committee

Membership: 22, the majority attached touniversities.

Chair: Ian Aitken, scientific director of the Edinburgh Centre for Rural Research.

Advisory Committee on Pesticides.

Membership: 14, most attached to universities, but two lay members. All must declare any interests in the agrochemical industry and the chairman must have no interest.

Chair: Colin Berry, dean of the London Hospital Medical College.

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