HC Deb 03 February 1964 vol 688 cc820-6
The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Christopher Soames)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House, I should like to make a statement about the Smarden incident.

The Government are glad to have this opportunity of informing the House of the measures they have taken in connection with the unfortunate industrial incident at Smarden, in Kent, involving the deaths of about 20 animals.

The first deaths of cows occurred last April, and, as no specific disease could be found to account for them, local veterinary surgeons called on the Ministry of Agriculture for help. After investigation, the Ministry's scientists concluded that certain fields, ditches and ponds used for watering cattle were contaminated by an organo-fluorine compound, probably fluoroacetamide, from waste material dumped at the back of an adjoining factory. Fluoroacetamide is extremely difficult to detect in small quantities. To arrive at the truth it was necessary to give water or cows' flesh to three dogs, which were then painlessly destroyed.

As soon as the cause of the trouble had been established, the factory owners were advised to clean out the ditches and ponds and to fence them off from farming stock. This they did, and deposited the excavated material on enclosed land on the factory site. The Kent River Board, which has statutory responsibilities for the control of pollution of streams, undertook the sampling and testing of water in the vicinity, in conjunction with the Government Chemist.

To test for possible continued contamination, two cows from the Central Veterinary Laboratory of the Ministry of Agriculture were grazed for a short time on one of the affected fields. These cows died after a few weeks from fluoroacetamide poisoning. It was obvious, therefore, that there was continuing contamination in the area as late as mid-January. One source of this might be the excavated pond material lying at the back of the factory. The Government accordingly advised the manufacturers to remove this material and underlying soil to a place of safety without delay. The factory owners, under Government guidance, are arranging to deposit it into the sea beyond the Continental Shelf, where no possible harm could result to fish or other marine life. The safe removal and transport of this material raises problems. Removal will start as soon as possible, but it may take two or three weeks to complete. There is no evidence of any poisoning outside the farm land already affected. As to the future, the Kent River Board and the Government Chemist will continue to monitor the ditch and pond water as long as it is necessary.

On reviewing the incidents, the Poisons Board recommended my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to amend the Poisons Rules so as to ban the sale of the chemical for insect control and to place even more restrictions on its sale for rodent control. These restrictions will come into force on Friday next, 7th February.

The Government are urgently considering whether any further restrictions should be imposed. The Advisory Committee on Poisonous Substances used in Agriculture has been asked to review the matter without delay, and it will also be further considered, if necessary, by the Poisons Board. The principal manufacturers of the chemical voluntarily withdrew it from sale as an insecticide and called in stocks in the hands of distributors, including retail outlets. Like the excavated pond material, these stocks will be deposited in the very deep water beyond the Continental Shelf. There may remain some small quantities in the hands of farmers and gardeners, left over from last year.

Farmers have already been advised not to use the material, but to send it back to the distributors, or, in case of difficulty, to get advice from the local office of the Ministry of Agriculture. Although the garden insecticide product is a weak solution, used on roses and the like, advice has been given to gardeners living in main drainage areas that it should be poured down the drain followed by plenty of water. I am advised that this would be quite safe. Elsewhere, gardeners should return it to the local distributor.

The Government fully share the concern of hon. Members on both sides of the House about this incident, and are considering as a matter of urgency the lessons which should be learnt from it.

Mr. Peart

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the Opposition approve of the precautions that have been taken? But he has not mentioned what precautions the factory owners have taken. After all, this is where industrial production has gone wrong. It was not as a result of the use of the chemical. What precautions have the factory owners taken?

Also, do we need a major review of the use of chemicals? This is one, I know, which causes concern. It may well be that this chemical is useful in agriculture, horticulture and gardening, but may we have an assurance that everything is all right with it? Do we not still need a major review of its use? How long has the chemical been in use, and for what purpose?

Mr. Soames

The chemical has been in use as an insecticide since about 1958, for about six years, and to the best of our knowledge it has been used without any danger. As to the question about the use of chemicals, this accident did not arise from their use in an agricultural sense. It was an industrial accident at the point of manufacture. No doubt this is one of the lessons that we must learn from the accident.

Sir G. Nicholson

Does not my right hon. Friend recollect that on countless occasions he has assured the House and me personally that he was perfectly satisfied with his Department's arrangements for the control of chemicals in agriculture and horticulture and pest control? Does not this episode show that he was rather over-sanguine in his assumptions? Is he really justified in riding it off by saying that it was an industrial accident? Is there not really a question whether we are not unduly lax as a nation in our control of chemicals used in agriculture and horticulture?

Mr. Soames

I assure my hon. Friend that he should think otherwise. I must repeat that the accident did not result from the use of the chemical as an agricultural product, but as a consequence of an accident at the factory. Somewhere there was a seepage of this very concentrated poison. I fully realise that there are many important lessons which we must learn from the accident.

Sir B. Stross

The Minister has stated very clearly that it was not the agricultural use of the chemical that brought about the episode itself. None the less, has he not advised us that he himself will ensure that it shall no longer be used as an insecticide? Does not the episode make us realise that we are not careful enough about the chemical products that we allow to come into use in industry, horticulture or agriculture generally, and will he give us an assurance that greater care will be taken in screening so that these highly toxic materials do not come into use at all?

Mr. Soames

It was the Poisons Board which, as a result of this incident and all that flowed from it, decided that the substance should be put on the basis of a poison, and it will not be sold to anybody for use as an insecticide hereafter for that reason. Of course, it is necessary—I fully appreciate that it is essential—that we should use the very greatest restraint and that all the knowledge available in these matters should be employed to ensure that chemicals which could lead to risk of danger are not used in agriculture.

On the other hand, the House will equally realise that there are a number of chemicals which are extremely useful both as an insecticide in agriculture and a rodenticide for the control of pests, from which the whole country benefits.

Mr. Prior

In view of the really terrible dangers of this stuff, would it not be better to ban its use altogether in sewers and other places so that there is no question that these fluoroacetamides will have any chance of coming in contact with human beings or animals in future?

Mr. Soames

This chemical has two main uses, one for farmers and gardeners as an insecticide, and the other, in a more concentrated form, as a rodenticide. Under the present arrangements, its use will continue to be allowed in sewers, since it is very valuable in keeping down the rat population. I did say in my statement that I was asking the Poisonous Substances Committee, in the light of what has happened, to make further recommendations to me on whether or not we can safely continue to use it in this form.

Mr. Darling

Is it not the case that several deaths among farm animals due to the use of this poison had been reported to the Ministry before the outbreak at Smarden? This was reported in the Press and I understand that the evidence for it is quite sound.

Is it not also the case that this substance, which can only be detected in small quantities, was approved by the Ministry even though instructions were given to the operators that they must wear rubber clothing and face masks, completely covering the body? Thus, although the Ministry knew that a heavy dose would be lethal to human beings, approval was given to this poison. Is it not time that we had an independent inquiry into the use of chemical insecticides and pesticides? Not only are we threatening the bird and animal population of the country, but we are getting into the soil lasting quantities of this stuff which may be very dangerous to us in the future.

Mr. Soames

I have no evidence that any animals have suffered in any way from the proper use of this chemical as an insecticide. Had that been the case we would, naturally, have taken action before in the interests of the country as a whole as well as of agriculture. But this was an industrial accident and as such does not, in my view, put at issue the very real protection which lies in the hands of the Poisonous Substances Committee, of which most eminent people—doctors, veterinary surgeons and scientists—are members, advising the Government on the proper use of chemicals.

Sir R. Thompson

How can my right hon. Friend feel so sure that the dumping of so many tons of this dangerously polluted muck in the sea will not be deleterious to marine life? Are we not running a very great risk of repeating just off our shores what happened on land? Could he not find a better way of disposing of this poison?

Mr. Soames

It will not be dumped just off our shores, but beyond the Continental Shelf, in the same place as radioactive material is dumped already. I am assured that there is no danger to marine life.

Mr. Loughlin

First, is the right hon. Gentleman completely satisfied that dumping this material even in deep water beyond the Continental Shelf will not affect in any way the fishing grounds around our coasts? On what does he base his evidence? Secondly, was it really necessary to use three dogs as a means of testing whether this chemical was poisonous or not?

Mr. Soames

It was necessary to use dogs for this test. Had it not been necessary, we should not have done so. Dogs are, more than any other animals, particularly susceptible to this poison. It was necessary to make sure beyond peradventure that it was this chemical which had caused these strange deaths.

In considering the dumping of the material, not only have I taken advice from Government scientists, including those who specialise in fishery matters, but I have also gone to the fount of all knowledge on fluoroacetamide—Oxford University.

Sir G. Nicholson

Will my right hon. Friend recognise that there is mounting uneasiness in many quarters—including agriculture, natural history and sport—about the general use of chemicals in agriculture and horticulture? It is felt that the attitude of his Department is not really meeting the public's qualms. Will he give sympathetic consideration to setting up a committee to take evidence from all those interested in order to get the thing a little straighter?

Mr. Soames

I think that my hon. Friend has particularly in mind certain products—aldrin and heptachlor—with which the Poisonous Substances Committee is now dealing. I am expecting its report shortly. I do not want to give the impression that we have not to be constantly vigilant—of course we must—in watching the use of chemicals in agriculture, but we must also take proper scientific advice in these matters.