HC Deb 28 March 1960 vol 620 cc949-52
42. Mr. Frank Allaun

asked the Minister of Health, as representing the Minister for Science, if he will make a statement on the latest Harwell report showing the approximate doubling, within six months, of the strontium 90 found in British children's bones.

43. Mrs. Butler

asked the Minister of Health, as representing the Minister for Science, what consideration he has given to the official report of Harwell scientists showing an increase of strontium units, per gram of calcium, in the bones of children under five years of age from 1.5 in the latter part of 1958 to 2.8 in the first half of 1959; and whether he will make a statement.

46. Lord Balniel

asked the Minister of Health, as representing the Minister for Science, whether he is aware that the average proportion of radioactive strontium 90 in the bones of stillborn babies and young children in Great Britain in the period January to June, 1959. compared with March to December, 1958, has increased by about 60 per cent.; what consideration he has given to the consequences of this increase; and if he will make a statement.

47. Mr. Mason

asked the Minister of Health, as representing the Minister for Science, whether his attention has been drawn to the recent report made public by the Atomic Energy Authority which shows a marked increase in strontium 90 found in young children's bones; and whether he will now request the Medical Research Council to undertake an immediate review of the effects of this increased rate of deposition of fall-out.

Mr. Walker-Smith

My noble Friend and I have seen the report. The increases to which the hon. Members refer reflect the increased rate of fall-out deposition in the six months following heavy nuclear weapon testing in northern latitudes in 1958. There have been no test explosions other than the recent French test since November, 1958, and levels of fall-out in this country have fallen substantially since June, 1959. As I informed the House on the 18th February, the Medical Research Council has kept the matter under constant review and is preparing a further Report on the Hazards to Man of Nuclear and Allied Radiations which will provide a comprehensive assessment of the significance of all the available evidence.

Mr. Allaun

Is not the increase likely to continue, particularly in children born after June, 1959? Secondly, is it possible that some scientists may be mistaken about the safe level or the danger level, just as they were about X-rays?

Mr. Walker-Smith

On the first part of the hon. Gentleman's supplementary question, provided that no further quantities are injected into the stratosphere, it is unlikely that the level of strontium 90 in children's bones will rise much above its present level, and subsequently it will probably fall. In that context, the hon. Gentleman will have in mind the answer which I gave to the House in reply to a question by the hon. Lady the Member for Wood Green (Mrs. Butler) on 22nd March.

The reply to the second part of the supplementary question is "No"—no mistake. The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that this is a field in which knowledge is fast developing, and, therefore, we look forward to a new assessment by the Medical Research Council, to which I have already referred, to bring the assessment up-to-date.

Mrs. Butler

While recognising the Minister's limited responsibility in this sphere, may I ask him, as the Minister responsible for the health of the nation, to consider sending a cable today to his right hon. Friend the Prime Minister at Camp David reminding him of these figures and of the fact that failure to reach agreement between America, this country and Russia on nuclear tests will be at the expense of these babies and very tiny children?

Mr. Walker-Smith

As the hon. Lady knows, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has a very close knowledge of this subject and keeps it under constant review. I am sure that he has all the relevant considerations very closely in mind.

Lord Balniel

Does not my right hon. and learned Friend agree that this very steep increase will cause a fair amount of public concern? Will he urge on the Medical Research Council the importance of this subject and the urgency of completing its inquiry and making it publicly available?

Mr. Walker-Smith

I said on 18th February that the Medical Research Council is engaged in its revised assessment and that it will be published as a White Paper.

Mr. Mason

Is the Minister not aware that the estimates of fall-out and its effects have been wrong on four occasions? First, it was found that some countries were being affected more than others. Secondly, we thought that there was a stratospheric reservoir of strontium 90 seeping slowly to earth but it was then found from the Prime Minister's statement that it was coming down in the rainfall far more quickly than we expected. Two weeks ago in Nature a statement was made that it is coming down far faster than even the Prime Minister revealed.

Now we have the latest and very disturbing report that the strontium 90 uptake in children's bones is far greater than we expected. This is a matter of urgency, and the Medical Research Council ought now to be considering a fresh threshold level. Is it not the case that all strontium 90 is dangerous, particularly for young children?

Mr. Walker-Smith

The levels will be reviewed by the Medical Research Council in the context of its assessment of all the evidence available since 1956, which it is taking into consideration in the compilation of the White Paper to which I have referred. The Council will, of course, complete the White Paper as quickly as is possible, compatible with making a thorough, detailed and satisfactory assessment of a very difficult and technical subject.

Dr. Summerskill

The Minister seeks to reassure the House, but has he forgotten that the Scientific Committee of the United Nations stated that there was no threshold dose in genetic effects?

Mr. Walker-Smith

I have all these considerations in mind, but for the up-to-date scientific assessment as we see it in this country we must await the report of the Medical Research Council. It would be wrong of me to anticipate by piecemeal observations what will be included in a general and authoritative survey by the Council.

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