The Government said it will look again at its system for avoiding risks from crop pesticides after an environmental campaigner won a landmark ruling that the current measures contravene European law.
A High Court judge said award-winning Georgina Downs had produced "solid evidence" that rural residents had suffered harm from crop spraying with toxic chemicals. He ordered the Government to reconsider how to protect the health of countryside communities.
Miss Downs, who lives on the edge of farm fields near Chichester, West Sussex, launched her independent UK Pesticides Campaign in 2001 and was recently named a "woman of the year". To support her campaign, she collected evidence on DVD from other rural residents reporting health problems including cancer, Parkinson's disease, ME and asthma they believe could be linked to crop spraying.
She accused the Government of failing to address countryside residents such as herself, "who are repeatedly exposed to mixtures of pesticides and other chemicals throughout every year, and in many cases, like mine, for decades".
Mr Justice Collins, sitting in London, allowed her application for judicial review.
The judge said: "I recognise that it is not easy to attribute a particular cause to many chronic illnesses, and a view that a cause has been identified may be wrong. But there is evidence that some long-term illnesses may be attributable to exposure. The DVD (from Miss Downs) makes it clear that those effects do in many cases amount to more than merely transient and trifling harm."
The judge added: "There is in my judgment solid evidence produced by Miss Downs that residents have suffered harm to their health - her own health is an an example - or, at the very least, doubts have reasonably been raised as to the safety of pesticides under the regime which presently exists".
The judge said Hilary Benn, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) Secretary, must now rethink and reassess the risks and how to safeguard the public against them.
He ruled Defra's current approach to assessing safety, which involved considering the impact of spraying on "a bystander" who might be close to crops, was "defective and inadequate" as it did not take into account the real impact on rural residents. It also contravened the 1991 EC Directive that harmonised the regulation of "plant protection products" throughout the EU.
Later a Defra spokesman said: "We will look at this judgment in detail to see whether there are ways in which we can strengthen our system further, and also to consider whether it could put us out of step with the rest of Europe and have implications for other member states."