HC Deb 04 February 1963 vol 671 cc195-206

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Hughes-Young.]

11.20 p.m.

Sir James Duncan (South Angus)

I rise tonight to comment on the fog which took place between 4th and 7th December last year. I do so for a number of reasons. First, I had to live through it. When I got home to Scotland that weekend I had to go to bed because I was so affected by it. Secondly, it coincided bath last year and in 1952 with the Smithfield Show; and a large number of my constituents and a large number of animals from Scotland go to the Show to win prizes. In 1952, the fog was so bad that many animals had to be slaughtered on humanitarian grounds before even getting into the ring, so badly did they suffer from the fog. I am glad to say that in 1962 they all got into the ring, although one or two afterwards suffered inconvenience from the fog.

My third reason is that my constituency surrounds Dundee, where a good deal of argument is going on at the moment about the Clean Air Act and whether or not Dundee should proceed with the provisions of that Act. I would say, in passing, that one of the considerations before proceeding with the Act must be the reasonable accessibility and reasonable price at which smokeless fuels should be available. That is worrying the people of Dundee, because in this sort of weather the price of electricity, gas and the cost of smokeless fuels—and the availability of them—are causing a certain amount of trouble.

My four reason concerns the general merits of the Clean Air Act. In 1956, that Act was passed and it is fair to compare at this stage, in a short debate such as this, the difference between the 1952 fog and the 1962 one. In 1952, as far as I have been informed, 4,000 people died and an unknown number were treated in hospital. In 1962, 400 people died. These are comparable fogs lasting roughly three or four days each. During the 1962 fog a large number of people were also treated in hospital. Most of these people are old and are suffering from bronchitis and various lung and bronchial infections. It is a terrible affliction for the elderly, although I must admit that the casualties and deaths have been materially reduced.

The other factor in this short debate is that in the last fog there was fourteen times more than the normal amount of sulphuric acid in the atmosphere. It is this acid in which I am mast interested, for to put the problem in a sentence: fog is an act of God, but smog is an act of man. I want to eliminate the smog from the fog. Three aspects are involved hare: first, the effect of the Clean Air Act and what has happened since 1956; secondly, what is the promise for the future; and, thirdly, what are the scientific aspects?

I am grateful to the Parliamentary Secretary for Science and the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government for being here tonight, since these two aspects are involved. I will deal with the Clean Air Act aspect first. It will be remembered that the object of the Act was to eliminate visible smoke, not to eliminate the poison. Although it is right that we should eliminate the visible smoke, in the future we must also try to eliminate the poison from our atmosphere in these conditions.

I should like to quote figures from Command Paper 1890, "Smoke Control (England and Wales) 1962–1966", which reviews the progress made and prognosticates progress up to the final objective in the black areas. I shall deal only with London, although I could deal with every area in the country. I was once a London Member and, therefore, have a sentimental interest as well in this subject. It is clear from these figures that we are not making as fast progress as we might. The number of premises covered by Orders up to 31st December, 1961, in Greater London was 505,000. It has been proposed that an additional 277,000 premises will be covered in 1962. The final objective is nearly 2½ million premises in Greater London, in the "black" areas. In the County of London 307,745 premises have been covered by Orders up to 31st December, 1961, and 152,000 are expected to be covered by the end of 1962. But the final objective is 1,105,000 premises. We are a long way off the final objective.

We have reached in acreage in Greater London 19.4 per cent., and 22 per cent. of the premises. This again proves that we are a long way from our objective. This is left to the local authorities, and their success has varied considerably. In Lambeth, for instance, it is not proposed to reach the objective until 1975. The same applies to Wandsworth. Battersea will not have completed the task until 1972. Fulham, on the other hand, hopes to reach its objective by 1964, and Westminster by 1965. I should like the Parliamentary Secretary to say, therefore, whether he is satisfied with this progress in Greater London or, indeed, in the County of London, because by the progress in Lambeth, Wandsworth, Battersea and Westminster we in the House and the Palace of Westminster are vitally affected.

If conditions are such that the atmosphere does net move very much we in the Palace of Westminster wall be affected by what happens in the neighbouring boroughs. Far greater urgency should be instilled into the progress made in implementing the Act in the London boroughs, so that these objectives shall be reached long before 1975, if that is possible.

This is not the whole story, because under the Clean Air Act local authorities are responsible only for the elimination of smoke and the transfer from ordinary coal fires to smokeless fuels in domestic premises. But I believe that the biggest danger from modern smog is not from domestic fires as much as from other agents which do far more damage to our lives and our health by the ejection of poisonous fumes.

First, there are the power stations. There is only one, Battersea Power Station, with a filter of any kind. None of the other power stations has any filter at all. It seems to me quite wrong that these great power stations, although their chimneys are high in the air, should be responsible for the emission of sulphuric fumes which convert themselves on reaching the atmosphere into sulphuric acid which is a deadly poison.

I hope, therefore, that the Minister for Science, in conjunction with D.S.I.R., is taking strong steps, as soon as a proper process has been discovered, similar to and perhaps better than the Battersea Power Station process, to produce a process which will be enforced on all power stations.

I would call attention to an article which appeared in The Daily Telegraph of 20th December last year, in which is described the Reinluft process, a German process introduced from Essen by a German professor. It is suggested that these sulphur fumes can be trapped by a dry system instead of the present Battersea Power Station wet system, and that sulphur dioxide can be trapped and converted into something that can be used again.

The Daily Telegraph stated: Initial small-scale experiments with the Reinluft process by the D.S.I.R. 18 months ago had yielded promising results. A pilot plant has been installed and it is hoped to give a definite opinion on the process in two or three months. Now that those two months are over, can my hon. Friend say whether this Reinluft process is a success and what he is going to do to insist that these power stations adopt it if it is proved to be a success?

In these days hotels, factories and blocks of flats all use diesel oil for their heating, and it seems to me that in some atmospheric conditions this produces poisonous fumes. I am not concerned so much about the smoke. It is the poisonous fumes which are emitted when mixed with the atmosphere which produce sulphuric acid. This is coming down on the streets and the people of London, even on the policemen, who probably have to use the streets more than any other Londoner. As my hon. Friend will probably remember, they had to use smog masks last time we had a fog, in order to be able to work in the streets.

What is being done to see that filters are used to prevent these poisonous fumes from being emitted from these places?

Nothing at all at the moment. They do not come within the Clean Air Act provisions, and it seems to me that the time has arrived when our scientists should be able to produce something which will filter the poison from these emissions so that the people of London can live without being poisoned in conditions of fog.

My other suggestion is that the time has now arrived when we ought to take more seriously the diesel fumes coming out of buses, taxis, heavy lorries, and so on. They emit their fumes at street level. Even my tractors on my farm, which use diesel fuel, emit fumes above the head of the driver. But in London these fumes come out at street level, and people who have to use the buses and have to be out in the streets have to absorb these poisonous fumes day in and day out.

Whereas in normal atmospheres and conditions the wind carries the worst of these poisons away, and in other cases they become absorbed into the atmosphere, in fog conditions these fumes hang about the streets at human level. It seems to me that again it should be possible to put some sort of filter on the exhaust of diesel vehicles so as to eliminate the danger of the exhalation of poisonous fumes.

The Clean Air Act has done quite a lot, but it has hit, so far as I can make out, the domestic consumer of coal, the domestic consumer of heat, more than the industrialists, more than the big hotel keeper or the owner of a big block of flats, or the power stations. What we have got to get at is the big industrialist, the big power station, the big hotel, to see that they do not poison the people of London.

I therefore trust that my hon. Friend will be able to give the House not only a hopeful exposition of the progress of the Clean Air Act, but also that he will, from the scientific point of view, give us some hopeful news about the elimination of the horrible, poisonous fumes which we have to suffer from time to time in London and in our other great cities.

11.36 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary for Science (Mr. Denzil Freeth)

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for South Angus (Sir J. Duncan) for giving me this opportunity to report upon the smog which hit London and the Home Counties last December and to discuss the effects upon it of the working of the Clean Air Act and the research which has been completed in the past; and also to say something about the research now going on, from the results of which we shall hope to benefit in future years.

Perhaps in the short time available to me I should leave to my right hon. Friends the Minister of Power and the Minister of Housing and Local Government the questions of availability of smokeless fuel and the quicker implementation of the Clean Air Act. I am supported tonight by the presence of my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government who will have taken note of the points which my hon. Friend has made.

Smog is, of course, the result of weather conditions preventing pollutants in the air from blowing away with the result that they are retained near ground level. Now, air pollution, as my hon. Friend said, is clearly unpleasant, dirty and detrimental to property. It certainly has an effect on health, but such effects are not always quite what is popularly believed, or even what have been printed recently in the Press. Smog is a complex mixture of particles, droplets and gases and among the pollutants suspected of having an ill effect upon health are smoke, sulphur dioxide and sulphuric acid, upon which my hon. Friend laid emphasis.

Experiments with pure sulphur dioxide alone, in concentrations such as have been found in smog, have so far failed to produce consistent effects on the functions of the lungs. But the results of recent research do suggest that the action of irritant gases, such as sulphur dioxide, may be enhanced by the presence of inert particles of salts or acids. There is even some good evidence that the chemically inert particles alone may make breathing difficult. Town smoke is rich in certain hydrocarbons which are capable of producing cancer in the skin of animals.

These problems are being investigated by the Air Pollution Research Unit of the Medical Research Council, for which my noble Friend is responsible. This Unit is sampling and analysing the air in streets, bus garages and tunnels, and the significance of polluted air, particularly in relation to lung cancer and chronic bronchitis.

The Council has also awarded grants in support of studies on the relationship between air pollution and death rates from lung cancer in various rural and urban districts of England and Wales, and results have shown that mortality from lung cancer is greater in smoke polluted areas, such as the large towns. So far no specific constituent or characteristic of air pollution can be accused of causing death. But 3,4 benz-pyrene and certain other hydrocarbons found in smoke are thought to be particularly important in relation to lung cancer, and smoke, sulphur dioxide and sulphuric acid in the case of bronchitis.

In addition, morbidity and mortality studies are undertaken by the Medical Research Council's Statistical Research Unit, partly in conjunction with London Transport Executive. I must tell my hon. Friend, in view of what he said about diesel fumes, that there is no evidence of significantly greater mortality from lung cancer for men working in diesel bus garages than elsewhere. I think that this is a very significant fact.

I turn now from the general to the particular, that is, to the effects of last December's smog compared with that in December, 1952, when the smog lasted for one extra day but during which the weather conditions were no more unfavourable than at the end of 1962. I agree in general with the figures for extra mortality as a result of the smog quoted by my hon. Friend, although I should not like to commit myself as being certain that the figure of 400 is right for 1962. We have not yet got all the statistics and we have not, therefore, been able to make an accurate analysis of them. However, I think it is true to say that a very great improvement has been made. My hon. Friend was able to refer to a similar improvement with regard to the animals up for the Smithfield Show.

I believe that this improvement has been due at least in part to the implementation of the Clean Air Act. In 1952, emission of smoke for London as a whole was no less than 141,000 tons. In 1960, the last year for which I have accurate figures, the total had fallen to 89,000 tons, a decrease of about 37 per cent. It is reasonable, therefore, to assume that the smoke concentration in last December's smog in London was nearly 40 per cent. less than ten years before. In the period between 1955 and 1960, the period covered after the beginning of the operation of the Clean Air Act, the fall in smoke emission was 32 per cent. Of course, further to reduce the emission of smoke is one of the main aims of the Act.

When we come to sulphur dioxide, however, there is likely to have been an increase in the amount over the figure for 1952, as a result of increased fuel consumption arising from greater power and heating requirements. My hon. Friend will be familiar with the work of the Alkali Inspectorate, but I believe that the Clean Air Act has probably indirectly reduced the amount which might otherwise have been present. There are three ways in which this may well have happened.

First, in smoke-control areas coal for domestic heating is often replaced by coke, and only 80 per cent. by weight in the amount of coke, compared with the amount of coal is needed to maintain the same standard of comfort. Leaving aside any improvement in such standards —I agree that this may well have taken place—as, on average, coke and coal contain the same percentage of sulphur, the change from coal +to coke should have reduced the amounts of oxides and sulphur emitted by about one-fifth.

Secondly, as a result of smoke-controlled areas many householders are changing from coal fires, to electric, gas or oil heating. The first of these, electricity, eliminates sulphur dioxide pollution at the point where the electricity is consumed, while gas and oil reduce it by 97 per cent, and 95 per cent. respectively. My hon. Friend referred particularly to oil heating. I know that he will be glad to learn how relatively harmless it is in this respect.

Thirdly, the removal of smoke lets more of the sun's heat through the atmosphere, thus setting up convection currents and adding to the dispersion of pollutants.

Quite frankly, I have to tell the House that an economically acceptable solution to the problem of pollution by sulphur compounds is difficult to envisage unless some radically new and brilliant ideas are produced. Sulphur can be removed from the lighter fractions of petroleum oil but the possibility of doing this economically with the heavier fractions is rather remote.

It is true that the power stations at Battersea and Bankside—not only Battersea—remove over 90 per cent. of the sulphur dioxide from their flue gases by washing them with water from the Thames and in 1961 no less than 24,000 tons of sulphur dioxide were removed in this way. But these washing processes are very expensive and can only be applied to large installations and only where there are ample supplies of water. There is also the further complication that the washing cools the flue gases, so that in certain weather conditions they come down to ground level rather than being harmlessly dispersed into the upper air. The Department of Scientific and Industrial Research is, therefore, undertaking a dual programme of research to help to remove or disperse smoke and sulphur pollutants.

The Clean Air Act gives local authorities power to control the height of new chimneys, and a study of the dispersion of chimney gases from high, isolated chimneys is being undertaken by the Central Electricity Generating Board and the Warren Spring Laboratory of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research. At the request of the Federation of British Industries, Warren Spring is studying the dispersion of flue gas in relation to the chimney's surroundings, and dispersion from multiple sources, such as all the chimneys in a single built-up area, is being studied by the Laboratory. A detailed investigation on these lines is being made in Sheffield in conjunction with the Department of Geography of the university there. With the help of local authorities, a national survey of smoke and sulphur dioxide is being conducted by the laboratory to assess the effects of the Clean Air Act and to see what further action is most urgently needed.

Secondly, the Warren Spring Laboratory has carried out laboratory tests into the Reinluft process, to which my hon. Friend made reference. The point is that we have already done laboratory tests, and a small pilot plant has now been built to treat about 16,000 cubic feet of gas an hour. There are still a number of problems to be solved of a chemi- cal engineering nature, such as ensuring correct working temperatures without causing fires in the absorbing material, and these must be solved before a detailed scientific and economic appraisal of the process itself can be made.

I must tell the House that there are considerable technical difficulties to be overcome in scaling up a process of this nature from the laboratory bench to full industrial scale. The work at Warren Spring Laboratory represents the first stage of the scale-up process, and the results of this work should indicate whether it will be feasible to scale it up further to suit really large plant. The Warren Spring Laboratory is keeping the C.E.G.B. fully informed of the progress of this work.

I am not yet ready to answer a specific question with regard to time, to which my hon. Friend referred.

Sir J. Duncan

What about cost?

Mr. Freeth

Cost is still one of the questions yet to be answered.

I said earlier that there was no evidence that the exhaust fumes of diesel engines produced cancer or chronic bronchitis. Nevertheless, this provides no excuse for neglecting to deal with offensive smoke from the exhausts of diesel-powered vehicles. It has been conclusively shown that such vehicles which are properly maintained, properly driven and not overloaded, do not emit smoke. The Warren Spring Laboratory is collaborating with the Ministry of Transport in devising test procedures for the roadside measurement of exhaust smoke from badly maintained, badly driven or overloaded vehicles. In addition, the British Internal Combustion Engine Research Association is studying the effect of combustion system design on the concentration of nitrogen oxides in the exhausts of diesel engines. This research association is grant-aided by the D.S.I.R.

Another grant-aided research association, that of the motor industry, is looking into the exhaust fumes from petrol engines which contain carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons which may be harmful to health. The association is also co-operating with member firms in the study of the problems of completing the combustion of constituents in the exhaust gases of motor cars, as well as in the development of both direct flame and catalytic after-burning devices.

I hope, therefore, that my hon. Friend will agree that, partly as a result of the Clean Air Act and action taken under it, and partly of past research, the effects on health of last December's smog, though to be deplored, were not as bad as those from the smog of 1952. I hope that my hon. Friend will also agree that the programmes of research to which I have referred and which are being undertaken, or financed, by the Medical Research Council, the D.S.I.R., the C.E.G.B. and various grant-aided re- search associations show the Government's determination to try to reduce future amounts of smog and its harmful effects.

I can assure my hon. Friend that no promising line of research is being neglected through shortage of funds. In addition, the progressive implementation of the Clean Air Act will play a major role in making and keeping the air of Britain clean.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at ten minutes to Twelve o'clock.