Margaret of Mar thinks she has organophosphate poisoning. And she believes she is not the only one to be contaminated. Julia Hinde reports
When not tending vegetables or making cheese on her Worcestershire farm, the 31st Countess of Mar can be found in the House of Lords, battling for recognition for those suffering the apparent effects of exposure to organophosphate chemicals, such as those used in sheep-dipping.
According to the countess, whose family has the oldest title in Britain but who describes herself as "the most ordinary aristocrat in the country", privilege and duty go hand in hand. This means battling for those less able to get attention than herself.
In June the countess, frustrated with the answers she was getting to questions about organophosphates, turned on the scientists who advise government. In an impassioned speech to the Lords, she challenged their impartiality, suggesting that this select band of academics may be less than independent of the industries they are asked to regulate.
"Scientists are not a separate group of beings," she says. "They have to live life like the rest of us and earn their bread." The thrust of what she said in the Lords was that since many scientific advisers have backgrounds in industry or in university departments with links, however tenuous, to industrial funding, subtle pressures may be at work. She is calling for an urgent review of appointments to those scientific committees which advise government.
But in her latest attack in the Lords, as in her five-year battle to ban organophosphates, the countess is not just doing her public duty. She is also fighting her own cause. She has suffered for almost a decade from symptoms which she believes result from contact with the organophosphates in sheep dips.
Margaret of Mar, deputy speaker of the Lords, entered the house 22 years ago.
"My brother died in 1967 and I knew then that I would succeed my father," she explains. "I regarded it as quite a daunting experience. I was 35 when I came down and remained the youngest female for 11 years."
In 1989 the countess fell ill. "First I had flu symptoms for 24 hours and then three weeks later I felt this overwhelming fatigue. For the next 12 months I spent most of my time between the bed and the settee. I was sleeping for 20 to 24 hours." Soon she developed tingling sensations in her shoulders and arms, followed by an unbearable aching in her joints.
"My GP said he too was having problems with sleep. He gave me pills. It was my age. When I got the tingling sensations, he thought it was shingles. I had all the standard tests but no one ever asked me about chemicals. It was like I was thinking through porridge. What I wanted to say wasn't always coming out. I could not get rid of the pain, which was so intense. There's the incontinence and your sex life goes down the pot. I remember crying getting undressed. I could not bear anyone to put their hands on me. The depression can be really strong. But people don't talk about this. I thought I was on my own."
In 1991 the countess spotted a small article on dipping flu in a medical magazine. "We looked back through my history," she explains. "No one was able to understand why I was so much worse in the summer when all the sheep-dipping was being done. So I started asking questions. I was told (by Earl Howe, parliamentary secretary for the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food) there was no link. I kept on and on until the Government had to admit there might be.
"I was in a good position, I knew what Parliament was all about. Then all these people started contacting me. I can't tell you the relief I felt when others were describing the same symptoms. All the letters I receive don't talk about litigation, but about recognition and possible treatment."
The countess met Goran Jamal, a Kurdish consultant at the Institute of Neurological Sciences at Glasgow, who was researching organophosphates. "He was already associating organophosphates with sheep dips," says the 57-year-old countess. "I have just kept battling since then. The possible problems have been known since the 1950s, when it was said that more research needed to be done. The Ministry of Defence still does not associate organo-phosphates with health, but other departments are beginning to do so." The countess started investigating the expert scientific committees advising the government on the licensing and use of pesticides around a year ago. "I got so fed up with the answers I was getting," she explained. Then Dr Jamal, who had been invited to serve on the government's medical panel on organophosphates, resigned his advisory post, claiming his views on the dangers of low-level organophosphates were becoming too uncomfortable.
After a year of research and speaking with scientists, the countess too has deep concerns. She spelt out her position in the House of Lords. "In many cases these people (scientists who advise on government committees) will have come from the chemical companies, and, as so many are on short-term contracts, some will want to return to industry. There may be subtle pressure put upon them by the larger chemical companies to the extent that any dissent might lead to financial loss to themselves or to their university department."
She believes that young university scientists may be offered funding for research by companies and gradually get tied in. "They get offered research grants and trips and then committees through their links to industry and then they get their gong, a knighthood. Having said something is all right to use, to climb down and say it is not, particularly when you are supposed to be an expert, is just not human nature. I think this is a problem across all expert committees, not just those on organophosphates. " She added: "I will keep pushing until organophosphates are banned. I think changes will come. The trust of the public in these committees is falling."
The countess, who has found some relief in environmental medicines, is a hereditary peer - one of the group whose voting rights Labour has proposed abolishing. She thinks she will be the last Countess of Mar in the Lords, but plans to keep fighting for recognition for organophosphate sufferers until her privilege is taken away. And then? "I will make cheese," she says.