HC Deb 08 May 1952 vol 500 cc711-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Butcher.]

11.19 p.m.

Miss Elaine Burton (Coventry, South)

The matter which I wish to raise tonight is one which, I might say, does not fall within my usual knowledge. About two months ago I was visited by a worker in one of our London hospitals famous for its work among children. She asked me whether I knew about lead poisoning in children. Up to the time of her visit, I did not. She told me herself of four cases in her own hospital, three of them relatively recent, and one in another London hospital. Her anxiety was not only about these known cases, but about other cases which were suspected and which she felt were not correctly diagnosed.

When she told me about these cases in her own hospital and about the symptoms in the children involved, she asked me if I would raise the matter in Parliament. It seemed to me, in view of what she had said, that I should perhaps be rendering a public service by doing so. I thought that if the matter could be brought to the attention of the Government and of people concerned, we might be able to deal with it not only by restriction but by discussion among the people affected, such as traders, manufacturers, parents, teachers, doctors or nurses.

Last week, I went into some of our big London stores, and looked along the counters there, with their attractive displays of lead toys; soldiers, Indians and cowboys, totem poles, farm workers, sentries and sentry boxes, and all those things that we knew so well. No doubt hon. Members, when they were young, enjoyed collecting these things, as I did, although a girl; but last week, I looked at them differently; I wondered how much lead went into the paint on those soldiers.

So far as infants are concerned, I am told that the danger of lead poisoning lies in two main sources. First, the application of powder, containing lead, to the skin; and I would say at this point that, although I have made inquiries, I have not been able to find out how much of the powder sold for infant skins contains lead.

The second source of danger which my woman visitor stressed was the use of lead nipple-shields by mothers of small infants. Up to five years of age, I am told, there is a danger of pica, or what the layman knows as perverted appetite. All of us know of the temporary phase through which children pass of putting objects in their mouths, and with some children, this becomes a craving of an insatiable nature for painted objects. They chew window-sills, crib railings, and lead toys. The question is whether adults are sufficiently aware of this danger to young children.

Before you came into the Chamber, Mr. Speaker, I mentioned five cases which had been cited to me by this representative of a children's hospital, and I gave the details to the Parliamentary Secretary. They were also published in the "British Medical Journal" of 17th February, 1951, and four of those five cases suffered from pica. The fifth was one where the mother, not realising the danger, had used a lead nipple shield for 10 weeks. Of those five children, one died, two became mentally backward, one has recovered, and the other it has not been possible to follow up since discharge from hospital.

I am anxious not to exaggerate the prevalence of this disease in this country and, indeed, one can find more known cases of lead poisoning in Japan, Australia, and America than we have here; but I am sure that we wish to be at the top in freedom from this disease.

I was hoping to have the opportunity of raising this matter on the Adjournment, and I had balloted in the customary way, when suddenly, on 8th April last, I read about the case of a baby living near Plymouth, named Alan Simpson. This child had this insatiable craving to chew painted objects, and one of the things he could not leave alone was the top of his cot, and unfortunately this was painted with paint containing lead, instead of the more usual cellulose paint or varnish, and the lead killed him. The doctor concerned was reported as saying that there was no evidence to show that the child was suffering from lead poisoning. Furthermore, the pathologist at the hospital in Plymouth said that lead poisoning was not suspected until after the baby had died.

That bore out what my visitor who was knowledgeable on the matter had told me. She had worried about the cases which were incorrectly diagnosed, and here was an example. Therefore, I put down a Question to the President of the Board of Trade which I subsequently withdrew when I was fortunate in securing a place in the ballot for the Adjournment. I perhaps in common with the Parliamentary Secretary, have no medical knowledge, and I do not propose to inflict on the House tonight any medical terms out of a book. I thought that it was my duty to bring this matter before the House for discussion.

Speaking as a layman, I believe that lead poisoning in children could be prevented entirely. I should like to ask the Parliamentary Secretary whether the Board of Trade would feel able to consider two recommendations: first, that lead paint, or paint containing lead, should never be used in places that children can reach, and secondly, that the sale, and presumably the manufacture, of lead nipple shields should be prohibited.

Having said that about the first point, I think that it is only fair to say that the manufacturers of our nursery equipment are well aware of the danger of paint containing lead, and that modern paints used for this purpose do not normally contain it. But there is very real danger in the old paint which does contain lead and which constitutes a great threat to children.

Those are two specific points which wish to put. My third and more general point is to ask whether the Government would feel able to suggest that discussions should take place between people who are interested in these matters. I would merely suggest, obviously, traders or manufacturers, parents, teachers, doctors and nurses. If there is this risk from the chewing of articles which are painted with dangerous paint, we might consider printing on boxes of these toys a statement that they are dangerous to children or, alternatively, there might be a notice on the counter to the same effect in shops which sell loose objects and not boxes of toys.

I have quoted five cases as well as that of the baby at Plymouth. That, I know, seems very few for the whole of the country, but two of these children have died and two will probably be mentally backward for life. I am sure that everyone would agree that if we can in any way, without exaggerating the danger, remove the source of infection so that no more similar incidents may occur, then we shall not have raised the matter in vain. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will be able to make some suggestions.

11.29 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade (Mr. Henry Strauss)

The hon. Lady was good enough to indicate to me the matters that she had in mind in raising this topic tonight with which she would like me to deal. I am grateful to her for that, and it may enable me to say a little more than I should have otherwise been able to say.

What she says about the terrible results of lead poisoning in children is, of course, true. I agree that it is very important that we should not exaggerate the extent of this danger. We certainly wish to do what we can, and this debate may be useful in that way, to make known some of these dangers, but I am sure that we do not wish to cause unnecessary alarm. The number of cases of children under five whose death can be traced to the consumption of lead paint has been very few indeed in this country. The advisers in my Department and in the Ministry of Health have been able to trace only six cases in the last 20 years.

In the 20th century there have been probably only 15 or 16 cases of such lead poisoning from all causes, and not merely from lead paint.

A frequent accompaniment or cause of these cases which the hon. Lady has mentioned and which she accurately termed pica, in the medical terminology, or perverted appetite, to make it more comprehensible, is also extremely rare. I think she will agree about the fame and experience of the Hospital for Sick Children in Great Ormond Street. It is, I understand, the view and experience of Dr. Sheldon, who, I would remind the House, is the consultant adviser in pediatrics to the Ministry of Health, that it is very uncommon indeed, and that he only comes across about two cases in a year. He is of the opinion that the disease is becoming rarer.

I only say that by way of reinforcing what the hon. Lady said about the rarity of this disease. In no case has it been established, even where there have been these unfortunate poisonings that the original manufacturer was to blame.

I will not, as indeed the hon. Lady did not, deal in detail with the cases mentioned in the article she quoted. In the case of the little girl who suffered from this insatiable pica, she chewed anything, skirting boards and window frames, and it is true that among the things she chewed was the handle of her doll's pram. That was found to contain seven per cent. of lead; but on examination the skirting boards and window frames had 27 per cent., and if there had been none at all on her toy it would have made no difference to the ultimate result. I can say the same of many of the other cases [...]ited.

I read a report in one of the newspapers of the Plymouth case which the hon. Lady was good enough to bring to my notice. That was a case in which some further examination was made by the Ministry of Health. The description of the case that did appear in the Press was accurately given by the hon. Lady. but investigations proved—I am not suggesting anything but an intention to report correctly—that it was not accurately reported. No analysis was made of the paint on the cot. It had been put on the cot by the child's father, and we have to remember in these mat- ters that it is not only the manufacturer who does the painting but also very often the amateur in the home. I doubt very much whether any hon. Gentleman would suggest that all interior decoration should be confined to non-lead paints, but nothing short of that would have prevented some of the cases to which the hon. Lady has drawn attention. If that were suggested it would require legislation, and would therefore be out of order in this short debate.

There is no compulsion to label containers of lead paint as containing something dangerous. Nevertheless, it is a fact that manufacturers generally emphasise the presence of lead as a point in selling their paint. If, therefore, this debate has brought to the attention of anybody who did not already know that lead paint can be dangerous, that will at any rate have been a useful purpose.

I know that the hon. Lady would wish me to deal with some of the articles on which the paint commonly goes. She mentioned cots. The amount of lead, if any, in the paint on cots would almost certainly be too small to be dangerous. In the case of toys, the larger manufacturers certainly do not use lead paint at present. I am not saying that no manufacturer ever does, nor am I saying it never happens in the home, for there are such things as home-made toys. I think that in the store she described, where she saw these farmyard animals and lead soldiers, she would have found that, if they came from any of the larger manufacturers, they did not contain lead paint.

She also mentioned baby powder. It is quite true that powders are dangerous in certain other countries, but I am not aware, from inquiries I have been able to make, that they are a danger in this country. I have been able to trace a non-fatal case in 1898, but that was 54 years ago. I have not been able to trace any other case in which a casualty has been attributed to it. The British Pharmacopoeia does not include any compound of lead for this purpose.

The hon. Lady also mentioned—and here I quite agree with her—the danger of lead nipple shields. They are undoubtedly dangerous, but she may like to know the action taken in that respect. In 1949 the Ministry of Health told hospitals under the National Health Service of the danger of issuing lead nipple shields to nursing mothers. It was arranged that family doctors and chemists should be warned. Lead nipple shields are excluded from the list of appliances which family doctors may prescribe under the National Health Service. Distributors were approached and immediately stopped the sale of these shields, and a warning notice was sent to the general Press.

These actions, individually and collectively, have, according to the information given to me, been completely effective in bringing about the result which the hon. Lady desires.

Is there anything more which can be usefully done? I cannot hold out any hope of excluding from the reach of the child everything that might be dangerous to it. It is literally impossible; there is no substitute for parental care. But one Statute occurs to one on this subject, and of course it has been and should be considered whether any further use should be made of it: the Pharmacy and Poisons Act, 1933, which gives the Home Secretary certain powers and duties. The Secretary of State can add poisons to or remove them from various lists mentioned in that Statute, or impose conditions regarding sale. He acts in this matter—there is a reference to the need for his doing so in Section 17 of the Act—on the advice of a Poisons Board, which is set up under Section 16.

I cannot, however, say that I think it likely that the Home Secretary would think it practicable, or that the Poisons Board is likely to advise him, to take further action in this matter in regard to lead paint. So few casualties can be attributed to the use of paint containing lead. I am not, of course, talking of the dangers involved in the application of lead by those who apply it, which is the subject of certain Regulations under the Factory Act. But paints, other than pharmaceutical paints like that with which one paints the throat, containing compounds of lead with acids from fixed oils are already the subject of a general exemption from the Act and Rules, on the recommendation of the Poisons Board itself.

While, therefore, these matters will be considered from time to time at the Home Office and watched by those at the Ministry of Health, I do not think it likely that possible action under that Act would be taken or would achieve the hon. Lady's object. We should bear in mind that the danger of lead paint, if chewed or consumed by children, is very great. It is also extremely rare. The obvious cases, such as the risk of painting toys with dangerous paint are, I think, well known, and all the great toy manufacturers, so far as I know, avoid its use. It is very unlikely to appear on a cot except, if at all, in very small quantities. But if a child has the craving it probably will he the case that there are objects in the house within his reach which it would be very dangerous for him to consume.

I do not think that a case for further legislation has been made, and I could not discuss legislation tonight. On the flatters I am at liberty to discuss, I do not think that there is any evidence that action which has not been taken ought to be taken. What I have said on the action of the Ministry of Health in regard to lead nipple shields shows that they are alive to the dangers of lead poisoning and act very promptly when a case comes to their attention. Perhaps the hon. Lady has this satisfaction that she may think, from the statistics I have given, that the extent of the evil is less than she feared and that she may herself have contributed by this debate to making it still smaller.

Adjourned accordingly at a Quarter to Twelve o'Clock.