HC Deb 11 February 1964 vol 689 cc333-46

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

9.50 p.m.

Mr. John Farr (Harborough)

It is unfortunate that we have to try to compress into a very few minutes a debate on such a subject with so many far-reaching effects and side effects as fluoroacetamide. However, fortunately enough, the various aspects relating to recent occurrences at Merthyr Tydfil and Smarden are fairly fresh in the minds of hon. Members. Therefore, to save time in the limited period available, I will confine myself to reminding the House of a couple of salient features in each of those outbreaks.

The first outbreak occurred at Merthyr Tydfil a few months ago, when approximately 100 animals, chiefly dogs and cats, died as a result of being fed with the flesh of a horse which had been grazing on a local refuse tip. It was subsequently established that the tip was believed to have been treated with a fluoroacetamide preparation to kill rats which were infesting it. By some process more or less unknown, the poison was transferred from the refuse tip into the horse which had been grazing on or around the tip and was then transmitted to the cats and dogs which ate the horse after it had been slaughtered.

The second outbreak of this fluoroacetamide poisoning occurred more recently at Smarden, in Kent, where about 30 animals, including cattle from a milking herd, have had to be destroyed or have died as a direct result of chemical sludge which has seeped into a ditch or stream from an adjoining factory owned by Messrs. Rentokil Limited, which was, and still is, manufacturing a number of chemical preparations including fluoroacetamide.

It has been established that at Smarden fluoroacetamide left the factory in a type of chemical sludge and percolated by way of the water course into several ponds within a mile or two of the factory. It has been established by tests that not only are the waters of the stream and the ponds in the vicinity of the Rentokil factory highly toxic due to the presence of fluoroacetamide, but that the sludge or silt in the bottom of the stream, the soil in the surrounding fields and, moreover, the grass which grows in that soil contain a certain amount of toxic organic fluoride.

The up-to-date position as far as the House is concerned is perhaps completed by the statement made by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture to the House on 3rd February. I, for one, welcomed the steps which my right hon. Friend announced as having been taken. In my humble view, they were sensible and practical steps, though possibly not quite adequate to deal with the situation as I see it. I particularly welcomed the statement that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary would amend the Poisons Rules—and this has been done—to ban the sale of the chemical for insect control and to further restrict its sale for rodent control. These restrictions came into effect on 7th February.

The score is still pretty wide, inasmuch as there are still many people who are authorised to purchase or who can authorise others to purchase this poison. Anybody may buy it, for instance, on the production of a certificate signed by a medical officer of health of a local authority or a port health authority, or by an authorised officer of the Ministry of Agriculture or the Department of Agriculture for Scotland. I shall try to persuade my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture that what his right hon. Friend and mine has outlined is not sufficient a rid that this poison, fluoroacetamide, should be banned completely. To begin with, there are many other efficient and older rat poisons about which more is known and to which fewer dangers are attached. It is obvious that a great deal is still unknown and will be for many years unknown about the properties of fluoroacetamide. Its use, which is still authorised as a rodent killer, is the very use which caused all the deaths at Merthyr Tydfil.

I would ask my hon. Friend also whether it is as safe as is apparently thought by some people to put this stuff into sewers because, as I have said, a great deal is unknown about its properties. Most sewers lead to sewerage farms and most modern sewerage farms return the sludge as a form of compost fertiliser to be applied to farm and garden land. Is this safe when we do not know how long fluoroacetamide can remain potent?

The second point is connected with the siting of factories engaged not only in the production of fluoroacetamide but many other chemicals which are applied to farms and garden land in various forms and in varying degrees of toxicity. I feel that it is not too much to expect manufacturers of insecticides, pesticides and fungicides not to put their factories in the centre of some of the most fertile counties, as has been done and is still being done. It is not too much to expect them to site the factories in the more barren, the less populated and least cultivated parts of the country, preferably on the coast near to some deep sea water. Better still, why not put it in the Orkneys, or in the middle of the Sahara Desert as far as I am concerned. The time has come when there should be specific control—

It being Ten o'clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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

Mr. Farr

Specific control must be exercised over where factories turning out such chemical products are established and operated. It would perhaps be preferable if the Ministry of Housing and Local Government were in future required not only to examine the sites where factories are now operating to prevent another Smarden occurring somewhere else in the country, but also carefully to regulate and position any factories which start production of these poisonous chemicals.

Finally, I want to put to my hon. Friend a point to which I am sure he will be able to give me the answer in his usual knowledgeable manner. Can he tell me whether there is any lesson that we can learn from the two incidents to which I have referred? I understand mat inorganic fluoride is perfectly safe and is, indeed, a substance which is used in the fluoridation of our water supplies, but I also learn that there is a type of aquatic plant which can turn this inorganic fluoride into the highly toxic organic fluoride which has caused the tragedies in Merthyr Tydfil and Smarden, and I ask my hon. Friend to confirm that this highly dangerous aquatic plant is of a non-indigenous variety.

10.2 p.m.

Mr. James H. Hoy (Edinburgh, Leith)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) on raising this subject so soon after the Minister's statement. There are two things on which I differ from him. I do not understand why he has such a detestation for the Liberal leader that he wants to send this stuff up to the Orkneys. Scotland will not welcome this suggestion.

Secondly, we were not satisfied—I myself was not satisfied—with the statement made by the Minister. His suggestion that this poisonous material should be dumped into the sea did not bring any satisfaction to the fishing industry. On the other hand, it has brought it considerable alarm. Only today I received a letter from the chairman of the British Trawlers' Federation, and this is what he has to say about the suggestion that the substance should be dumped in the sea: We are very concerned, as you may well imagine, at the prospect of having yet another consignment of poisonous material dumped into the sea off the British coast. I refer, of course, to fluorocetamide waste from the Smarden factory. We are far from satisfied that this persistent and virulent poison will lie on the seabed, and not be carried by upward currents to the fishing grounds. Even its inventor has said that he does not know what dilution is necessary to render the poison harmless, or whether in fact it can ever be rendered harmless. If this material is nevertheless dumped in the sea, and at some time in the future there is just one serious illness attributable to consumption of fluorocetamide through eating fish, our whole industry could he ruined for months and perhaps for years and the nation deprived of a valuable item of diet. I understand that the whole matter is to be raised in an adjournment debate tomorrow; and should greatly appreciate your help in ensuring that the Minister is made publicly aware of our anxiety. This, to us, is an extremely important industry, providing a considerable part of the nation's food supply, and I am not exaggerating, as this letter proves, in saying that the people in this industry view with alarm the very suggestion that this poison should be placed in the sea. The Minister said in reply to Questions at that time that he had had an assurance from so-called experts that this would be rendered harmless if it were to be dumped into the sea at a particular distance but, after all, it was the experts who advised on the use of this material to begin with and they proved to be wrong. So what greater assurance can we have that another assurance, which the experts have given the Minister, that the stuff will do not harm to the fishing grounds, can be relied on?

This is extremely important to this industry. It is already going through a very difficult time, and any further threat to it will be more than it can stand. I do not want to detain the House now to enlarge on it, but it is a very serious matter, and I want on behalf of the industry an assurance from the Minister that nothing will be done which will in any way affect the fish life in our oceans, if this is a threat to fish life, then we want an assurance that the Ministry will find some other way of disposing of this stuff rather than merely dumping it into the sea.

It will be interesting also to have the Minister's opinion on that part of the letter which says that the man who invented this does not find any way in which to dilute it, to counteract it. I am not expert enough to give a judgment on the matter, but that is what the letter quite clearly says, and if it is true then dumping it into the sea, although that will get the stuff out of sight, will not take away the danger which this material contains. I certainly hope that the Minister will be able to give an assurance in this debate, not only to the industry but the people of this country, that this valuable foodstuff is not going to be affected by any action the Minister may take to dispose of this refuse.

10.3 p.m.

Sir Richard Thompson (Croydon, South)

Like the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Leith (Mr. Hoy), I am mainly interested in the question of the disposal of this deadly waste, so poisonous that it is lethal even when in a solution and hardly to be detected by chemical analysis. It is said that one part in 10 million is deadly to animals, including dogs.

I asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food about this last week, and he seemed to think that by dumping it in a depth of two and a half miles at sea there would be no danger. I am quite sure that he was sincere in that belief, but I wonder whether he was really well advised. To start with, the proposition was to put the stuff out to sea, but it was pointed out that that would not do, because waste dumped in that way does not fall to the bottom of the sea and become innocuous, but that some will float, some will drift about on the swells, and so on.

Today I see from the Daily Telegraph that it is now apparently intended to put 2,000 tons of East Kent into 40-gallon steel drums topped with a concrete layer and put them off the coast. So obviously somebody has had second thoughts about the wisdom of just chucking it out loose even in two-and-a-half miles of water. I suspect that if this is done, long before the drums reach a depth of two and half miles they will cave in under the enormous pressure of water, and then we shall be back where we started, with this deadly stuff released at sea and having heaven knows what effects.

It was said in answer to my question, and those of other hon. Members last week, that all this was the result of an industrial accident. I disagree with my right hon. Friend about this. The truth is that the process of manufacturing this stuff requires the equipment—pipes and so forth—to be flushed through with water from time to time in order to carry away the silt and sludge which the process forms.

Originally, this was got rid of in some way which I have not been able to extract from my hon. Friend. The trouble really arose because when things froze up la; winter and lorries which used to take the stuff away refused to run, the stuff was run out on waste land at the back of the factory. But how was it disposed of before then? How do other manufacturers get rid of their wastes? Is my hon. Friend sure that a chemical so difficult to detect can be said to lave been wholly removed when these two 2,000 tons of soil have been excavated?

What about the infected water from this? It is draining into a specially dug ditch and is being taken by lorries to be put into the sea at Dymchurch. I shall be told that this is great dilution, but if it is necessary to drop the soil into the depths of the ocean, is it right to allow the water to be put into the sea so close to the coast?

Is it not time that we looked afresh at this systematic poisoning of the soil, the sea and the air? The scientists, who have so often been cocksure and wrong before, are quite capable of being wrong again and the stakes here are far too high to presume on any assumptions that they might be right. We have to be careful that we are right this time, and I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to give satisfactory assurances.

10.12 p.m.

Mr. John Wells (Maidstone)

There is very widespread anxiety in the country about this matter, and I should be grateful if my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary would reply to one or two small points. If he cannot do so tonight perhaps he will write to me.

First, I understand that this substance was manufactured in America, where it has been banned for about four years, and that it has only been reprocessed in this country. That seems to be a curious story and perhaps my hon. Friend will write to me on the point. It seems very strange that it should have been banned and then reprocessed.

Secondly, I go the whole way with my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Sir R. Thompson) in his point about the ultimate dilution of the water and the dumping of it in the sea at Dymchurch. That is surely an extremely dangerous practice and we should have some assurance about that tonight.

Thirdly, there is the question of the workers involved. I understand that one worker at the factory was suspected of some other disease but nothing really concerned with this affair. Perhaps my hon. Friend can also elaborate on that tonight.

There is also the fundamental fear of many horticulturists and fruit growers in Kent lest this one villainous, murderous chemical should lead to a general witch-hunt of chemical production. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) for introducing this valuable debate, but I am a little alarmed about his remarks concerning the siting of chemical factories.

It is essential to the horticultural and agricultural industries that small chemical factories be sited sensibly, and I should not like to see a witch-hunt against well-established factories. There is one in my constituency which is of great value to the horticultural industry. I should not like to see a witch-hunt because of one chemical.

10.15 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. James Scott-Hopkins)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) for bringing this matter to the attention of the House and giving me a chance to go into rather more detail than has been possible so far. He and others have expressed concern about recent events involving poisonous chemicals. That anxiety is shared by many other hon. Members and is widespread throughout the country.

My right hon. Friend and the Government generally—for this matter transcends Departmental responsibility—fully share this concern and are determined to take the most active measures both to clear up the two accidents at Smarden and Merthyr Tydfil and to ensure, as far as they can, that such accidents do not occur again. If, in die course of my reply, I am able to remove some of the misapprehensions and anxieties which have gained currency in recent weeks then the debate will have served a most useful purpose.

First, I will deal with the incident at Smarden. The House will recall that my right hon. Friend made a statement on 3rd February and explained the background to the action taken by the Government up to that date. For a proper understanding of the matter it is important to appreciate that the accidental contamination of a small area of land at Smarden was not caused by the use of fluoroacetamide as an agricultural spray or as a rat killer.

It arose from the manner in which the industrial wastes of the manufacturing process were disposed of, as a result of which the poison leached into an adjoining farm ditch and from there to farm ponds. My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Sir R. Thompson) was right there, but I repeat that this was an industrial accident and that it was not caused by the use of fluoroacetamide either as a rodenticide or as an agricultural insecticide.

It is unhappily true that in any highly industrialised nation like ours accidents do happen despite all precautions, and Smarden is an example. My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South, may indeed have touched on one of the reasons for this. Nevertheless, to protect the public the Government are urgently considering whether there are any gaps in our defences which should be closed against the consequences of accidents, or, indeed, of carelessness of this kind.

The important step to be taken at Smarden is to remove the original source of contamination. As my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South said, this consists of about 2,000 tons of soil, including sludge removed from the ponds and ditches into which the poison seeped. The material is lying outside the factory premises and must be removed to a place of complete safety.

I should like to dispose of the suggestion that the poison may have penetrated the ground on the factory site to a considerable depth and that it may be necessary to dig down about 18 ft. This is not so. The factory and the surrounding farms in that part of Kent stand on Weald clay hundreds of feet deep and this is a soil which is extremely impermeable and difficult to drain. My right hon. Friend is advised that water cannot penetrate more than a very few feet at the most, and this section of the soil will be removed. It is included in the 2,000 tons.

As hon. Members will know, the manufacturers have accepted advice to deposit the contaminated material off the Atlantic shelf. This deals with the point raised by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Leith (Mr. Hoy) and my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South. The site has been recommended by the eminent biochemist Sir Rudolph Peters who has worked with fluoroacetamide for many years. It will be dumped off the continental shelf far from the fishing grounds. I understand the point of the hon. Member for Leith concerning the anxiety of the trawler fishermen, and I entirely agree with what he said about the importance of this industry. I assure the hon. Member that the expert independent advice of someone who is an acknowledged expert in this matter is that this chemical dumped at this depth at this place off the continental shelf is the correct method of disposal.

The movement of the material into containers will start next week under Government supervision. Trial fillings will begin in the next day or so to determine the safest methods. As was mentioned in another place last week, the advice we were given was that it was not necessary to put the material into containers, but in practice it is difficult to ensure leak-proof conveyance with-not doing so. Actual shipping will start in March, and all precautions will be taken. We are advised that the chemical is highly soluble in water and the enormous dilution which would take place when it was released in very deep water would in any case ensure that no possible harm could be done to marine life. This is the point to which my right hon. Friend the Minister referred when he was answering questions in the House on 3rd February.

The Government will continue to maintain a close watch on the situation at Smarden after the soil has been removed. Ditch and pond water is monitored by the Kent River Board and the Government Chemist is undertaking the analysis of samples. This will go on as long as necessary, and if any further remedial action is required, including, if necessary, the removal of further soil, the Government will see that it is taken promptly.

The manufacture of fluoroacetamide at Smarden was stopped in the middle of the third week of July. As far as farming in the area is concerned, the Ministry's local officers are in close touch with the situation and will provide advice to farmers on the land affected. The veterinary surgeons in the area understand the position only too well. We all hope that continued sampling of the affected ditches and ponds, together with the remedial action which is being taken, will show that the resumption of normal farming need not be long delayed.

Although some concern has been expressed about the extent of the area affected by the original escape of poison from the factory, there is no evidence to support suggestions that contamination may have spread beyond the affected ditches and ponds and some of the fields immediately adjoining. Disposal of the substance at Dymchurch was approved because the dilution of the substance is so great. This has been approved by the river board, which has been in very close touch and consultation throughout.

It is I think deplorable that the local residents, already much concerned about this unfortunate incident in their midst, should be regaled, as has happened from some quarters, with stories about the decimation of all animal and insect life in the area. This is not so, but I certainly understand their concern.

I turn to the incident at Merthyr Tydfil. This also involved an organofluorine compound, probably fluoroacetamide, but arose from a different cause. In this case a number of cats and dogs died last September in circumstances which suggested poisoning. This was quickly traced to the flesh of a pony which had been sold as pet food. Urgent inquiries by my Ministry showed that the pony had been found dead near a rubbish tip at Rhymney, a few miles from Merthyr Tydfil, and sent by the police to a local knackery. A scientific investigation established that the pony's flesh contained an organo-fluorine compound, possibly fluoroacetamide, and this was announced by my Department at the beginning of October. Despite the most careful inquiries, it has not been possible to establish how this poison entered the pony's body. The most likely explanation—though this is not capable of proof—is that the pony picked up some rat bait, possibly on the tip near which its body was found.

May I sum up these two unfortunate and unpleasant incidents. The first, at Smarden, was due to an industrial incident at a factory manufacturing the material. All the evidence concerning the second, at Merthyr Tydfil, goes to show—although I cannot give the House positive proof on this point—that the pony died as a result of eating some of this rat poison.

Although there has been no evidence of any damage caused by the proper use of this chemical in agriculture, nevertheless, because of these incidents, the Government have thought it right to widen the safety margin. As the House will be aware, its sale as an insecticide has been banned since last Friday under an amendment of the Poisons Rules. Steps have been taken to call in stocks or otherwise to dispose of them safely.

It has been suggested that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary was slow in amending the Poisons Rules, but I am sure that hon. Members will agree that he acted with the utmost expediency. Hon. Members will appreciate that no crop spraying or use in gardens would have been necessary while these matters were under consideration by the Home Secretary, because of the time of year—October until now—when these things are not in general use.

The sale of this chemical, even for killing rats, has been placed since last Friday under more severe restrictions. It may now be purchased only on a certificate signed by a medical officer of health, or an authorised officer of one of the Agricultural Departments, for use by employees of a local or public health authority or a pest control business. Hon. Members will realise that on the licence to be issued to any of these authorised persons it will be stated where the chemical can be used—ships, aircraft, industrial premises and, of course, sewers. The restrictions on the use of this poison under the new procedure brought in by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary answers the criticisms of hon. Members. The licence not only specifies where it is to be used but what amount of the chemical is to be bought. My right hon. Friend has issued a circular to local authorities advising them of the changes and re-emphasising the need for taking especially strict precautions when this substance is used.

Its use against rats has cleared complete sewer systems in this country for the first time in history and there is a distinct possibility that whole towns can be cleared, with great benefit to health and sanitation. There may be other poisons capable of doing that, but this is the first poison which has accomplished it. Nevertheless, my right hon. Friend is anxious that no reasonable safeguard for the public should be neglected and at his request the Advisory Committee on Poisonous Substances is again reviewing its use as a rat poison and will report to my right hon. Friend as soon as possible. As my right hon. Friend said in the House on 3rd February: I fully realise that there are many important lessons which we must learn from the accident." [OFFICIAL REPORT, 3rd February, 1964; Vol. 688, c. 823.] I have been asked why the Advisory Committee on Poisonous Substances recommended the use of this chemical in the first place. The Committee thoroughly examined fluoroacetamide in the light of all the knowledge and data available at the time, including data as to any residue which might be left after use. It concluded that it could be safely used, provided that certain precautions were strictly observed, and the House will forgive me if I repeat that neither of these two incidents arose from the recommended use of this chemical. However, as they arose from other causes, the Government thought it right to take the action which I have described.

My hon. Friend the Member for Harborough mentioned a kind of plant, but I can assure him that while it occurs in South Africa and Australia, it is not indigenous here and does not grow here, so that his anxieties on that can be cleared. I can assure my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone (Mr. J. Wells) that the chemical is not brought from the United States and in part manufactured over here, but that the complete process is undertaken in this country.

I cannot pretend that there are not lessons to be learnt and that anxiety has not been caused by what has happened in these two incidents, but I hope that the House will realise that the Government are taking all precautions and all the steps in their power to prevent further incidents of this nature. The matte: is being referred to the Advisory Committee on Poisonous Substances so that the best possible advice on this subject can be obtained.

Mr. Charles A. Howell (Birmingham, Perry Barr)

Can the hon. Gentleman tell the House where the refuse was dumped before this industrial accident?

Mr. Scott-Hopkins

It was not dumped in the sense that the hon. Gentleman has in mind. The amount of waste concerned was not causing difficulty at the time, and indeed it is not certain that there was real waste to be dumped.

The Question having been proposed at Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at half-past Ten o'clock.