HC Deb 02 June 1964 vol 695 cc939-42

4.20 p.m.

Mrs. Joyce Butler (Wood Green)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for the labelling of farm and garden chemicals, and matters related thereto. There is widespread public uneasiness about modern chemicals which are used on the land and their possible effects upon animal and human life and on the balance of nature. While recognising the benefits of modern science, we are all, experts and laymen alike, working in a field in which little is known about the long-term and chain reaction effects of what is being done. Happily, we have not yet reached in this country the situation set out in Silent Spring, the book by Rachel Carson, but I believe that largely we have been protected by the vigilance and the devoted work of the wild life and conservation and other interests which have pinpointed the danger signs as they have occurred and have enabled a limitation to be placed upon the use of certain chemicals.

The chemicals which are particularly suspect are the organo-chlorine pesticides and their danger lies in their persistence and in the residues which they leave behind. In 1963, of 333 bird bodies which were examined by the British Trust for Ornithology and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, 304 were found to contain these residues. Since then, the evidence has continued to come in. Only in the last few months there has been increasing evidence of residues in marine species. Residues have been found in sea birds such as shags and guillemots, which feed on fish, indicating an extensive contamination of the sea by these chemicals.

Research and study is continuing on this subject all the time. It is being increased as a result of the Government's statement in the House before the Recess and an evaluation is now being undertaken as far as is possible of what all this really means and the effect of it upon domestic animals and human beings. We may, however, rightly suspect that similar residues are in some degree beginning to affect our own health and well-being.

Public opinion has had its fears somewhat stilled by the ban on chlorinated hydrocarbon seed dressings, by the partial ban on aldrin and dieldrin, which comes into effect at the end of the year, and by the other proposed restrictions and by the Ministry's review of safety requirements for agricultural chemicals generally which is now being undertaken.

It was good news to see on television news only a few days ago that a rare pair of ospreys have managed to hatch out the eggs which, it had been feared, might be sterile as a result of chemical contamination. We would, however, be unwise to be lulled into a false sense of security because of any action which has been taken. We are using a vast sea of these chemicals on the land, on farms and on gardens every year, and we are all the time making fresh discoveries about the dangers of some of them.

For example, one organo-chlorine pesticide which is much used and has been so for almost 20 years—DDT, which is so widely used that it has become a household word—is suspect and is being specially studied for its effects. It is important, therefore, not to relax our vigilance and to provide means by which our 300,000 farmers, who are under pressure all the time from salesmen, and the 19 million gardeners, who have very little knowledge of the pesticides which they use, are given guidance on this subject. We have to recognise that most of them are not experts in this field and that when they use certain insecticides or pesticides, they do not know whether they could be harmful to species other than the insects which they destroy.

Even the horticultural advisers in the Press and on sound radio and television are not experts in this subject. The user has, therefore, to rely upon the small amount of information which is now provided on the labels of the chemicals he buys as to whether they might be harmful to domestic pets and what safety precautions should be taken. In some cases, some of the chemical contents of the bottle are mentioned on the label.

At a recent conference, the Government's chief scientific adviser, Sir Solly Zuckerman, said that we must not only collate and pool our knowledge as to how far we have already contaminated the environment and the ultimate effect of that contamination, but that the information is of little value unless it is put in the right form, known in the right places and acted upon at the right time. One of the right places in which that information should be found is where the chemicals and the pesticides are used: that is to say, in the home, in the garden and on the farm. The right form in which the information should be given is that it should be clear and unambiguous and should indicate the nature of the substance which is used. To be acted upon at the right time it should be available on the container or on the label.

That being so, I ask the House to give me leave to bring in a Bill which would ensure that the active ingredients of all chemicals used in farms and gardens are clearly stated either on the label or on their container and which would ensure the placing of a simple mark upon the label, preferably a coloured marking, which could be seen at a glance and would indicate the degree of toxicity of the chemicals concerned.

I know that the Ministry is working on this subject, but what is being done will take a considerable time. In the meantime, the information which I have received from allotment associations and all kinds of other relevant sources shows that conscientious farmers, gardeners and manufacturers would welcome such a measure and the help that it would give in preventing further damage to birds and wild life and the building- up of residues in food, soil and water and the possible danger to ourselves and to our children from these chlorinated hydrocarbons and other farm and garden chemicals.

The slap-happy user of these chemicals will always, unfortunately, be with us, giving overdoses to plants for quick effect, leaving half-used containers lying about or carelessly disposing of waste when the job is finished. The marking of containers would, however, reduce the harm that these people do and would help to protect those who are conscientious. So anyone handling a container of chemicals, from the retailer right through to the refuse disposer, should have a clear guide as to the danger, or possible danger, and be able to take the necessary precautions.

It is because I believe that the Bill would help, in the interim, while we are awaiting further Government action, to protect us from some of these dangers, that I ask the leave of the House to bring in the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mrs. Butler, Miss Quennell, Mr. William Yates, Mr. Lubbock, Mrs. Slater, and Mr. Hilton.