The Double Standards and Hypocrisy of the UK Government Over the ‘Nerve Agent’ Spy Poisoning

Anyone seeing the sight of the specialists investigating the nerve agent attack in Salisbury totally cocooned from head to toe in the most advanced chemical protective equipment and gas mask style respirators, will have raised an eyebrow or two. Not only because of the spaceman style appearance, but most strikingly because of the sight of innocent members of the public, with no such protection, having been free to wander around the same contaminated areas for many days.

Despite the severity of the immediate and long term threats to human health from exposure to the alleged nerve agent named in this attack “Novichok,” the UK Government’s initial response via the Chief Medical Office (CMO), Sally Davies – and on advice from Public Health England – was to play down any risks to the people in Salisbury.

Professor Davies has continued to insist that the risk to the public is “low”, although did admit that contact with the nerve agent could pose a risk with “prolonged, long-term exposure,” a warning that astonishingly took around a week to deliver to hundreds of concerned citizens who were in the areas of contamination or thereafter.

In fact the CMO said the number of people that could have come into contact with Novichok is as high as 500. The CMO then advised – again a week after the release of this powerful and deadly nerve agent – that those who had been in the affected areas should wash their clothes and personal belongings, including that potentially contaminated items such as watches should be cleaned with “baby wipes”. Yet unless baby wipes actually secretly contain powerful nerve agent decontaminants (in which case parents should know that surely!) then this advice was highly inadequate.

This was also the verdict of Dr. Vil Mirzayanov the scientist who helped create Novichok who said such measures was “not enough, absolutely not.” He emphasised that Novichok was designed to do “irreparable” damage to the human body, and that anyone who may have been exposed to even miniscule amounts could be in danger of developing symptoms in years to come including neurological effects – headaches, difficulty thinking, co-ordination issues – and lots of other problems. He advised that those exposed should be offered “permanent medical surveillance”.

Dr Mirzayanov said that Novichok, which means “newcomer”, can be made from two separate compounds related to chemicals used in agriculture, and which crucially are not on the chemical weapons convention banned list. The fact that Novichok, an organophosphate compound, can be created from common, unrestricted and undetectable industrial and agricultural chemicals available worldwide may come as a surprise to many. But not to those of us who have spent decades researching the organophosphate group of chemicals, along with many other neurotoxic agricultural pesticides that have been permitted for over three quarters of a century – under successive UK Government sanction – to be sprayed on crop fields all over the UK.

Agricultural pesticides originally developed as ‘nerve gas’

A brief glimpse into the history of agricultural pesticides shows the true and deliberate toxic purpose of these chemicals. In 1937 the first organophosphate compounds were synthesized by a group of German chemists. These very potent compounds were originally developed as ‘nerve gas’ chemical warfare agents for potential use during World War II.

After the war, in search of new outlets, these highly toxic compounds were then remanufactured as agricultural insecticides, and organophosphate (OP) pesticides continue to be used today in the UK and in many other countries around the world.

The organophosphate insecticides are cholinesterase inhibitors. They are highly toxic by all routes of exposure. Symptoms of OP poisoning include headaches, blurred vision, giddiness, pain, weakness, numbness, damage to memory, slurred speech, chest tightness, loss of coordination, uncontrolled urination, seizures, coma, and death due to respiratory failure and/or cardiac arrest. Repeated or prolonged exposure to organophosphates may result in the same effects as acute exposure.

A Working Party in 1951 – that had been set up by the then UK Government -recommended that the container labels of organophosphate pesticides should be required to show the words “Deadly Poison” in large, clear type, along with a concise statement of the dangers and precautions to be taken, and antidotes where known.

Another type of pesticides – herbicides – were developed after WWII in order to increase food production and create possible warfare agents. In 1946, the first commercially available chlorine-based herbicides were marketed to kill broadleaf plants. Since then various different herbicides have also continued to be extensively utilized in agriculture globally, including the well known organophosphate based herbicide glyphosate.

Other pesticide groups are also known to be neurotoxic to humans – such as carbamates and pyrethroids – which are also widely used on crops.

Carbamates can cause headaches, genetic mutations, vomiting, birth defects, dizziness, reduced fertility, seizures, kidney damage, shortness of breath, nervous system damage. Pyrethroids can cause lack of coordination, convulsions, pneumonia, muscle paralysis, vomiting, asthma, and death due to respiratory failure.

Yet despite the clear toxic and poisonous nature of agricultural pesticides some of the press coverage in recent days has given the impression that the original chemical compounds involved in the creation of Novichok on their own would have been “benign” – as one UK journalist wrongly stated, and that it was only when they were combined together that the concocted mixture became a deadly neurotoxin.

There is no doubt that some pesticides when mixed together can result in increased toxicity and synergistic effects. For example, the synergistic effects of mixtures of anticholinesterase pesticides have been described in the medical literature for over 50 years.

But the fact is that all chemical pesticides are deliberately designed to be toxic, that is their purpose, and therefore all pesticides have inherent hazards for human health even when used individually on their own.

The dangers of each individual pesticide product can clearly be seen on the manufacturers material data sheets themselves that carry various warnings such as “Very toxic by inhalation,” “Do not breathe spray; fumes; vapour,” “Risk of serious damage to eyes,” “Harmful, possible risk of irreversible effects through inhalation,” “May cause cancer by inhalation,” and even “May be fatal if inhaled.”

Considering these are the types of warnings for individual products and considering mixing just a couple of compounds related to such agricultural chemicals appears to have led to the stated deadly nerve agent Novichok, then what on earth does that say about all the untested cocktails of agricultural poisons sprayed widely in the UK.

Widespread use of poisons

There are in fact around 2,000 pesticide products currently approved for UK agricultural use. Government statistics show that in relation to just pesticides alone (ie. not including chemical fertilisers and all the other agro chemicals used in conventional farming), in 2014 the total area treated with pesticides on agricultural and horticultural crops was 80,107,993 hectares, with the total weight applied being 17,757,242 kg.

The reality of this widespread pesticide use on crops across the country has never been properly assessed in any policy either here in the UK or indeed in any country around the world. Also, unlike what we are seeing with the Salisbury nerve agent attack in which specialists are investigating where traces of the alleged Novichok are located, the contamination of where harmful agricultural chemicals end up once they have been dispersed – with the exception of monitoring in rivers and other water courses – has simply not been monitored in any other capacity by any UK Government to date.

Yet it is a matter of fact that pesticides have been identified in many scientific studies to travel miles away from where they were originally applied. Such studies have also calculated health risks for residents and communities living within those distances.

Even a key scientific advisor to the Government, Professor Ian Boyd, has recently issued a damning assessment of the regulatory approach used around the world for pesticides sprayed on crops – albeit the failings were still not detailed strongly or extensively enough by any means. He also criticised the lack of any real monitoring.

Professor Boyd’s article published in the journal Science said regulatory systems worldwide have ignored the impacts of “dosing whole landscapes”, and so the assumption by regulators globally that it is safe to use pesticides at industrial scales across landscapes “is false” and must change.

Unprotected residents

The same stark disparity we have seen in the Salisbury investigation – with specialists clad in full protective equipment, whilst innocent members of the public in the same contaminated areas have no such protection – can be found in rural areas across the UK. As whereas operators and farmworkers generally have protection when using agricultural pesticides – such as use of personal protective equipment, respirators, and will be in filtered cabs etc. – rural residents and communities in the crop sprayed areas have no protection at all. In any event rural residents would obviously not be expected to wear such equipment on their own property and land!

The existing chemical conventional farming system has clearly been an untested, unregulated, and unlawful experiment with human health and the environment for which untold damage has already taken place, as it has resulted in thousands of residents suffering devastating, even fatal, consequences on their health and lives.

This can be seen in the truly horrific testimonies from affected residents in an ongoing petition which calls on the Prime Minister Theresa May, and DEFRA Secretary Michael Gove, to urgently secure the protection of rural residents and communities by banning all crop spraying and use of any pesticides near residents’ homes, schools, and children’s playgrounds. The petition has been signed by a number of prominent figures including Hillsborough QC Michael Mansfield, Jonathon Porritt, Gordon Roddick, Ben Goldsmith, and Caroline Lucas MP, among others.

A catalogue of adverse health impacts

It is beyond dispute that agricultural pesticides can cause a wide range of both acute, and chronic – including irreversible – adverse effects on human health.

Some of the acute adverse health effects that are recorded annually in the UK Government’s very own monitoring system include: chemical burns (including to the eyes and skin); rashes and blistering; throat irritation (eg. sore and painful throats); damaged vocal chords; difficulty swallowing; chest discomfort; sinus pain; respiratory irritation; breathing problems; shortness of breath; asthma attacks; headaches, dizziness, nausea; vomiting; stomach pains; flu-type illnesses; and aching joints.

These are the same types of acute effects reported by residents – as well as children attending schools near sprayed fields – to my campaign since the outset in 2001.

Irreversible – and fatal – impacts

Residents suffering repeated acute health effects from exposure to pesticides from crop-spraying – which can occur on a regular basis for those living near sprayed fields – have an increased risk of developing cumulative chronic long term effects.

The former Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in a 1975 document stated that, “The repeated use of pesticides, even in small quantities, can have cumulative effects which may not be noticed until a dangerous amount has been absorbed.”

This clear statement from 43 years ago shows that successive Governments’ have always been well aware of the cumulative effects of pesticides, but again no action has been taken to prevent the exposure and adverse impacts occurring for residents.

Regarding chronic health impacts, reputable scientific studies and reviews have concluded that long-term exposure to pesticides can disturb the function of different systems in the body, including nervous, endocrine, immune, reproductive, renal, cardiovascular, and respiratory systems.

Cornell University’s teaching module ‘Toxicity of Pesticides’ clearly states that, “Pesticides can: cause deformities in unborn offspring (teratogenic effects), cause cancer (carcinogenic effects), cause mutations (mutagenic effects), poison the nervous system (neurotoxicity), or block the natural defenses of the immune system (immunotoxicity).”

It goes on to warn that “Irreversible effects are permanent and cannot be changed once they have occurred. Injury to the nervous system is usually irreversible since its cells cannot divide and be replaced. Irreversible effects include birth defects, mutations, and cancer.”

The most common chronic long-term effects, illnesses and diseases reported to my campaign from residents living in the locality of crop sprayed fields include neurological conditions such as neurological damage, Parkinson’s disease, Motor Neurone Disease, as well as various cancers, especially those of the breast and brain, leukaemia, non-Hodgkins lymphoma, amongst many other chronic conditions.

The health and societal costs of such chronic health impacts are colossal.

Obviously it goes without saying that the personal and human costs to all those suffering such chronic conditions – including loss of lives – and the impacts on all those around them cannot be calculated in financial terms.

In my own case I have had over 34 years of exposure to the innumerable cocktails of pesticides sprayed in the locality of our home and garden. Previous blood and fat sample results found a number of different pesticide groups in my body including organophosphates, carbamates, pyrethroids, organochlorines, amongst others. Such pesticide groups individually are known to be neurotoxic and capable of damaging the central nervous system, as well as other systems within the body, even before considering the enhanced toxicity and synergistic effects of such chemical mixtures.

Unsurprisingly, the long-term health problems I have are neurologically based. They include headaches, dizziness, giddiness, as well as periods of high speed rotational vertigo with a complete loss of all balance and co-ordination, tinnitus, memory and concentration problems, numbness and tingling, amongst various other symptoms.

I have also previously been hospitalized with severe muscle wastage, muscle weakness and other chronic effects. The nature of the neurological symptoms previously led to tests and scans to rule out a number of neurological diseases, such as Multiple Sclerosis (MS), Motor Neurone Disease (MND) and Parkinson’s disease.

Following the blood and fat results in 2004, my chronic neurological symptoms of many years were confirmed by experts as being neurological damage and injury as a result of exposure to all the neurotoxic pesticides sprayed for decades in my locality.

Previous scans have also confirmed that I have osteoporosis with a high risk of fracture. There have been a number of studies that have found that pesticides – in particular organophosphates – can cause impacts on bones leading to osteoporosis.

Thousands of poisoned residents

A few examples of some of the truly harrowing experiences from other rural residents affected by the spraying of agricultural pesticides across the UK – as taken from the many thousands of cases within the ongoing petition – include the following.

Scott Manning from Buckhurst Hill: “My entire family have been made seriously ill / had to move house / had to remove our child from school / been ignored by local government / been ignored by parliament / learned to realise the HSE are a pathetic, useless organisation / learned that – so far – capitalism dictates that profits are more important than the future of civilisation, etc, etc..”

Patricia Stebbing from Eyemouth: “I live right next to a sprayed field and have had two different cancers. I cannot understand why these farmers get off with spraying poison next to my home. My oncologists agree there is a danger but nothing is done with them by any Government.”

Linda Byrne from Haxey: “I live next to many farming fields. I have cervical cancer, my female dog has stomach cancer. My male dog has bowel cancer. My next door neighbour died of chest cancer. My next door neighbour died of various cancers. 4 doors away they have their 3rd case of bladder cancer. 2 doors away breast cancer. How much evidence is needed. But I don’t think rural lives matter!”

Jessica Hothersall from Worlingham: “Having suffered chemical burns from ankle to thigh, and nearly choked to death on spray fumes at 5am through an open bedroom window, I know this stuff is toxic, and you have no right to expose my children to this poison just because big corporations want to make money! What price the rural nation’s health? The pollution in the Cities is nothing compared to life in the country!”

Patricia Denny from Chichester: “My family have always lived next to fields sprayed with chemicals. My husband and my son died from neurological diseases. Our neighbouring farmer and his wife both have MS. That’s why I’m signing.”

John Elson from Uckfield: “I have been personally affected by this issue and am still suffering the effects of inhaling pesticides over 30 years after the event. I suffer from loss of voice, from pain in my chest and throat, and I have trouble breathing. I had to retire 12 years earlier than planned, which incurred loss of pension.”

Keith Anthony Taylor from Croydon: “I have been directly affected by spraying throughout my life starting as a child when crops were sprayed within a few feet as I walked to school and all day as I attended alongside fields that were sprayed. Throughout my life I have struggled with my health as a direct result.”

Gillian Arnott from North Berwick: “Where I live is surrounded by fields. Which are sprayed, year on year on year. We all know pesticides are dangerous to humans, and on so many different levels – so why is this still be allowed to continue?”

Victoria Pearson, Curry Rivel: “I am signing because it is absolute madness that there is currently no protection for anyone living, working or going to school in these rural areas where these poisonous chemicals are sprayed on crop fields. I have witnessed crops being sprayed just metres from my Daughter’s rural school and have had signs of chemical scorching on our fruit trees in our garden, from the adjacent field being sprayed. (Just metres from my Daughter’s sand pit!)”

Brenda Marks from Toddington: “Both our children have rare kidney diseases. The farmer has sprayed fields on three sides of our house for over 30 years without telling us when he will spray or what he will spray. There is no law to stop him or even to make him tell us in advance. This is WRONG!”

Angela Burton from Kilham:”I live in a rural area and have done all my life. Spraying of crops is carried out almost daily with massive machines. I suffer from 2 chronic diseases, one of which is fatal and I have long suspected that the use of pesticides, herbicides and fungicides have a detrimental effect on the health of all of us.”

Nicola Chester from Upper Green: “I have brought my family of 3 up next to a frequently sprayed arable field. On many occasion the sprayer has come in and gone over them while they have played. It has covered washing hanging on the line and blown through our open windows at night. It also, at least three times a year kills the plants at the end of the garden and our grass path. We are long term tenants and treated as if this is nothing to do with us. We do not know what chemicals these are, year after year, only that the farmer, when mixing and pouring them into his tank wears full protective clothing, then sits in a protected cab. Once, when the spray boom went right over my children, misting them completely, and we complained – we were told it was only water. Of course it wasn’t. It killed most of our garden hedge.”

Emma Mould from Chichester: “I live in a cottage surrounded by fields and the sprayers turn up nearly every week. I have seen yellow spray which surely cannot be good to the crop or nature and especially me. I have neighbours who have been hospitalised because the farmer sprayed right up close to their fence and know of two farm hands that both got esophical [sic] cancer after using spray tractors. Pretty disgusting on this day and age. I also see loads of dead bees!!!”

Dale Beckwith: “The safety of most commonly used pesticides is doubtful from the offset. The practice of spraying these chemicals in the vicinity of places where people may be subjected to prolonged or repeated exposure is outrageous.”

Charlotte Davis from London: “As a teenager I lived near crop spraying. The chemical overload I experienced at this time, led to devastating health consequences for many years. I had to defer my place at Cambridge University for 3 years as I was too unwell. I had to have lots of medical treatment and I still do. I would not wish what I experienced on anyone else. The safety tests that are currently used (short exposure by a man in a mask) in no way replicate the exposure levels experienced by people living next to fields that are regularly sprayed. Please sign this, thank you.”

Fiona Humphreys: “I also live next to a field in which the farmer is constantly spraying pesticides and I have two young babies who I am very worried for.”

Tamzin Pinkerton from Brighton: “I’m signing because I feel sure pesticide spraying was the cause of my daughter’s leukaemia, and most likely many of the other cases of leukaemia in the local area – a cluster way above the national average for leukaemia incidence. The law needs to change to help protect rural residents from the proven damaging effects of these chemicals.”

Another lady (anonymised as requested): “I am sprayed with Cocktails of pesticides by my neighbour, a fruit farmer, around 20 times per year. As a toxicologist I know that these agents are not meant to be used anywhere near residences and yet my home is covered with these chemicals every time he sprays. I have been to HSE, Environmental agency and Dow and they all agree with me but there is no legislation in the UK to protect innocent neighbours.”

Gwyneth Rushton from Selborne:”My Dad dies after working in a grain dryer for several summers, not realising that the chemical sprays that had been used on the crop were killing him. This is such a serious problem and the people in the tractor cabs seem completely removed from the devastation that is being caused around them. Thank you Georgina.”

Matthew White from Moffat: ”I am signing because I have been poisoned by pesticides and I know many other people suffering from the horrible health problems caused by pesticide poisoning. I was an Agricultural Training Board apprentice shepherd and have worked in food production all my life.”

Chris Jakins from Sawtry: “We have farmers spraying near our home and school. The fumes cause headaches, dizziness and burn the throat. It not just the environment, there is a real human cost to intensive farming that we will be paying back for many years.”

Barbara Robinson from Tuddenham: “I have been directly affected for 40 years living 8 feet from the sprayed field.”

Jackie Scoones from London: “I have had to move twice in the last 10 years because I was made ill by pesticide spraying. The public has no protection whatsoever from being poisoned this way and it needs to stop now, before further people lose their health or die.”

Ben Waters from Watercombe: “My neighbour sprays so close we can sometimes feel the drops on our face and there is nothing we can do, my children are at risk from this!!!!”

Jean Mair from Canterbury: “I live in an intensively sprayed area where agricultural land, fields and crops within just a few miles or less of each other can be treated with pesticides/herbicides even on the same day. This state of affairs puts rural residents in particular at risk as it is almost impossible to avoid the chemical fumes and vapour, but also walkers and visitors are endangered when they use public rights of way through or near to crops which might have been treated with very toxic chemicals only hours before.”

Daphne Dear from Winchester: “Humans and wildlife alike are suffering the ill effects of these filthy, foul smelling chemical pesticides which are used to spray crops. People’s lives are being made a misery by the illnesses they suffer as result of crop spraying. No wonder our National Health Service is stretched to the limit. Crop spraying anywhere near homes, schools etc. should be banned should be immediately.”

Philip Walkley, Newport: “The human costs are terrible. But the healthcare and welfare costs are also a huge and increasing burden which Britain cannot afford.”

Sian Withers from Llandovery: “Spraying crops is insane and does damage to the human body. Chemicals cause many of the diseases of the western world including cancer. It’s crazy to spray poison into our food chain. STOP!”

Robin Clark from Petworth: “Enough is enough. We are being poisoned. These chemicals are toxic.”

Jenny Hicks from Caversham: “I am signing because i dont want pesticides near me and my airspace and Prime Minister would you like chemicals sprayed near your home? Ban harmful chemicals, go eco control natural instead.”

Jenny Jowett from Epping: “This affects so many people and no one in government seems to care. #StopTheSpraying.”

Iain Lee from Markinch: “I’m signing this petition because the toxicity of these sprays has now been proven beyond doubt. Peoples lives have and are being ruined due to the lack of proper testing and scrutiny, and also to the uncontrolled power of the corporations who manufacture and distribute the products.”

J Cresswell: “I live in a rural village with my children. We are surrounded by arable land where pesticides and herbicides are clearly deployed. We have a right to live here safe from the risk of harm that these poisons are subjecting us to.”

Matt Cummings: “It should be obvious why people sign petitions against these toxic chemicals. There’s no sane or justifiable excuse for spraying hazardous chemicals on to children and their environments. It’s absolutely appalling that this goes on in the name of ‘science’ or progress or with the terrible excuse that it is necessary to feed the world. Chemical/industrial farming practices have destroyed 80% of our usable top soil and toxified the environment.”

Elizabeth Butterworth: “It is a no brainer to me that this is a public health scandal. I have grandchildren and great grandchildren so these toxic sprays need to be banned now to protect not just us today but those future generations too.”

Hypocrisy and double standards

With millions of rural residents exposed across the UK there will undoubtedly be many more unreported cases, but the many thousands of known cases of affected residents have continued to be blatantly ignored by the UK Government, as I detailed in my previous article Poison in the Fields: Agriculture as Chemical Warfare.

The UK Government is continuing to turn a blind eye to this scandal. Yet the first duty of any Government is supposed to be to protect its citizens, especially those most vulnerable. Successive Governments’ have continued to fail to act to secure the protection of rural communities from the poisons sprayed on crops. Instead, the relentless and extraordinary attempts by successive Governments’ to protect the vested and self-serving interests of the multi-billion pound pesticides industry and not the health of rural residents can only be described as a national disgrace.

Irrespective as to exactly who was responsible for the alleged organophosphate nerve agent attack in Salisbury, the Prime Minister Theresa May rightly condemned it, and clearly stated in the House of Commons that “…we will not tolerate the threat to life of British people and others on British soil…”

Yet her Government’s robust response to the spy poisoning is at serious odds with its lack of any action over the millions of innocent people – including babies and young children – exposed to organophosphates and various other neurotoxic poisons that are sprayed on UK crop fields, and which is under direct Government sanction!

By any definition knowingly exposing someone to poison is a crime and so there should never have been any exemption on that in relation to agriculture.

The double standards and sheer hypocrisy of this Government is truly sickening to those of us damaged by the poisons permitted for over 7 decades to be sprayed next to our homes, schools, children’s playgrounds, nurseries, hospitals, and other areas.

It is vital that the Prime Minister – who has the ultimate responsibility for the policy decisions of the UK Government – hears the facts and evidence of the impacts on residents first hand to see the enormity of this appalling policy failure that has destroyed countless human lives, and which will inevitably affect many more if the necessary urgent action to protect rural residents and communities is still not taken.

The chemical warfare in the countryside under the guise of ‘conventional farming’ has to stop for the protection of all rural citizens now, and for future generations.

Georgina Downs is a journalist and campaigner. She has lived next to regularly sprayed crop fields for more than 34 years and runs the UK Pesticides Campaign which specifically represents rural residents affected by pesticides sprayed in the locality of residents’ homes, as well as schools, playgrounds, amongst other areas. 

To sign the petition to the Prime Minister Theresa May, and DEFRA Secretary Michael Gove, to ban all crop spraying of poisonous pesticides near residents homes, schools, and playgrounds see here.


Georgina Downs is a journalist and campaigner. She has lived next to regularly sprayed crop fields in the UK for more than 30 years and runs the UK Pesticides Campaign