HC Deb 15 February 1965 vol 706 cc848-55

The following Questions stood upon the Order Paper:

60. Mrs. JOYCE BUTLER: To ask the Minister of Labour what representations were made by the Chairman of the Rubber Manufacturers Association to the Senior Medical Inspector of Factories in regard to possible cancer risks among persons employed in the rubber industry; why no detailed investigations have been made by his inspectors into these risks; and why no attempt has been made to trace the subsequent medical histories of persons exposed to these risks.

66. Mr. SHORE: To ask the Minister of Labour, in view of the death of Mr. George Lucy due to cancer of the bladder, details of which have been sent to him, what steps have been taken to contact other employees of W. T. Henley who were exposed to the same risks; what new proposals he has for more effective control of the use of dangerous chemicals in the cable and rubber industries; whether he will make an inquiry into the conduct of the Rubber Manufacturing Employers' Association in relation to research into industrial diseases and, in particular, into their alleged suppression of medical findings; and whether he will make a statement.

67. Mr. DELL: To ask the Minister of Labour whether beta-naphthylamine or products made from beta-naphthylamine may be used in the United Kingdom.

The Minister of Labour (Mr. R. J. Gunter)

With permission, I will now answer Questions Nos. 60, 66 and 67.

The subject is very complicated and I will be as brief as possible.

With regard to the past history, the House will appreciate that progress in establishing connections between new chemical substances and the development of disease involves much detailed study which inevitably takes a long time: further time is then involved in ensuring that the risks are fully known and guarded against, as well as in providing adequate testing facilities.

In the present case, it seems clear now that whereas the hazards of heavy exposure to these chemicals was early appreciated it took much longer for all concerned to appreciate the insidious and long-term nature of the hazard from smaller exposures, and to concert the necessary measures for adequate screening.

It has been suggested that medical facts have been suppressed and investigations stopped. As I understand it, the situation was that a scientific committee, which included the then Senior Medical Inspector of Factories, was set up by the Association of British Chemical Manufacturers to conduct an investigation into bladder tumour in the chemical industry.

In the course of field investigations one of the members of the committee, a medical statistician, found that cases of industrial bladder cancer were also occurring in the rubber industry, and he reported his findings to the committee. The Senior Medical Inspector and the other members of the committee thought that these findings should be published, but that it would be wrong to do so without agreement of the rubber industry, since the committee's responsibilities were only for the chemical industry.

Accordingly, the Senior Medical Inspector and another member of the committee, representing the Association of British Chemical Manufacturers, approached the rubber industry. The rubber industry agreed to publication, but asked that certain amendments should be made, mainly to stress that, on becoming aware of the hazards, rubber manufacturers had discontinued the use of the carcinogenic substances, and also, in view of this discontinuance, to omit references to the need for further investigations, as likely to cause unnecessary anxiety among workers. The material was published as a paper in the British Journal of Preventive and Social Medicine in May, 1954.

The essential point to bear in mind, as I see it, is that these omissions were purely for the purpose of publication and did not impede further action, as I will show. There is no indication in our records that strong objection was taken to the omissions at the time.

A considerable amount of action was taken within the industries concerned, much of it before the paper was published in 1954. The manufacture in this country of these chemicals for use as anti-oxidants in the rubber industry ceased in 1949 and the Rubber Manufacturing Employers' Association advised their members to discontinue their use in the same year and to destroy their stocks. The cable manufacturers discontinued use at the same time.

In 1957, the Rubber Manufacturing Employers' Association set up screening arrangements for workers who may have been at risk including long-service employees after retirement. The Association of Chemical Manufacturers published a study of the problem of carcinogens in industry in 1953, and in 1957 it published a code of practice which recommended discontinuance of the most dangerous carcinogens and strict controls in the use of others and medical supervision for those who had been brought into contact with them.

In 1960 and 1961 the Factory Inspectorate fully surveyed the dye-stuffs and textile finishing industries, in which there was thought to be some similar hazards, and it did a limited survey of the rubber and cable making industries in 1961. I have now instructed the Inspectorate to carry out a full survey of these two last industries with a view to establishing that these particular substances are no longer being used and that action is being taken to screen present and past employees.

Independently of this survey I am advising all industries and firms concerned to trace employees and ex-employees who may have been exposed and I am providing a card for this purpose which advises them to consult their doctor and gives the necessary information to the doctor. I have been promised full co-operation from the industries concerned.

My right hon. Friend the Minister of Health has assured me that adequate facilities are now available for screening these groups. It would not, in fact, have been possible for this action to have been taken earlier on a widespread scale.

Finally, I am asked about my proposals for more effective control of these chemicals. I have explained the voluntary action already taken in the industries. It was decided about two years ago that it would be desirable to reinforce these by regulations and orders prohibiting the use of certain of these substances and also their importation. These were circulated in draft for comment to interested parties in the course of 1964.

Comments have now been received, including suggestions that the range of prohibited substances should be extended. These useful comments are being carefully considered and we hope to make our views known shortly. I hope that it will be possible to make the regulations and order at an early date.

In conclusion—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I am sorry, but I have been asked to make a statement on a subject which is causing a great deal of distress among a large number of people.

I am providing a card to assist all industries and firms concerned with these chemicals to warn all workers who have at any time been at risk to see their doctor.

Adequate screening facilities are now available under the National Health Service.

I have instructed the Factory Inspectorate to make a complete survey of the rubber and cable making industries.

I am consulting the Medical Research Council about the possible need for further basic research.

I am consulting my Industrial Health Advisory Committee about the problem of carcinogens in industry.

I am also shortly to receive, at their request, a deputation on this matter from the Trades Union Congress.

Mr. Shore

While thanking my right hon. Friend for his statement on this extremely worrying subject, may I ask him whether the 500 employees of the firm in question have been contacted to date? Will my right hon. Friend consider including the disease of bladder cancer in the list of notifiable industrial diseases? If this is done, serious medical researchers will be able to gather the facts which they have been so long denied.

Will my right hon. Friend not agree that the employers' association has behaved in this matter in the most deplorably irresponsible way, first, in delaying the publication of this Report and obvious information when it became available in 1950 and then in its attempts, successful as they were, to suppress material parts of the information before it could be published in 1954?

Mr. Gunter

Briefly, the answer to the first question is that most of the 500 have been identified, but I could not say whether they have all yet been traced.

The question of notification of industrial diseases is being generally reviewed now by my Industrial Health Advisory Committee and I will certainly bring my hon. Friend's suggestion to their notice immediately.

On the question of having an inquest on what happened 10 years ago, I said in my statement that as far as I could see it had been in connection with publication only that the allegation of suppression had arisen. May I say to the House that it is very easy, in the light of the knowledge which we now have, to pass criticism about decisions made 10 years ago?

Mr. Dell

Is it not, nevertheless, remarkable, as one major chemical company in this country ceased manufacture of beta-napthylamine in 1949, that it has taken until now for the facts to become widely publicised and action by the Government taken?

Mr. Gunter

I can only say that I am inclined to agree that, perhaps, other action might have been taken at the time, but, as I have said, it is all very well to be wise after the event. As far as my Department is concerned, I have referred to the surveys already carried out by the Factory Inspectorate in the industries in question. This dangerous chemical has not, in the circumstances described in my statement, been used for some years.

However—I think that this is what my hon. Friend wants to know—to make quite sure, we are arranging that this chemical is among those whose manufacture, use and importation will be prohibited under regulations.

Mr. Godber

We shall want to study the long statement which the Minister has made. We understand the difficulty here, but could he give the House an assurance that anyone who feels that he has been affected in this matter will have the opportunity of full investigation and screening? Can he give the House an idea, also, how long the survey which he mentioned at the end of his statement is likely to take, as it will be of considerable importance for other industries as well?

Mr. Gunter

I hope that the survey will not take too long. My Ministry is now making every effort towards the identification and tracing of every person who may have been in danger. We shall get on with this as rapidly as we can.

Mr. Orbach

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the death of Lucy was one in a train of deaths caused by the use of these substances in these industries? It was the seventh death. As manufacture of these substances was, by agreement of the manufacturers, prohibited in this country in 1949, why was importation allowed, and why are the substances still used in industry today?

Further, before publishing the Order in Council, will my right hon. Friend submit the whole issue to the Medical Research Council, as there seems to be some difference among medical men on the tolerance of saturated amines?

Mr. Gunter

I said that I was consulting the Medical Research Council about this matter. I am bound to say to my hon. Friend that the continuation of imports following the suppression of manufacture in 1949 is one of the baffling features.

Mr. Lubbock

Is the Minister aware that expert opinion is in favour of having industrial bladder cancer added to the schedule of notifiable industrial diseases? Secondly, has the right hon. Gentleman yet come to a decision on the addition of alpha-naphthylamine to the list of substances to be prohibited under these two heads?

Mr. Gunter

Those two points are now under consideration.

Dr. Summerskill

In view of these serious events, will not my right hon. Friend agree that the overdue establishment of a nation-wide occupational health service is now an urgent necessity so that we can prevent similar incidents happening again in new industries which are growing up?

Mr. Gunter

I certainly agree with my hon. Friend, but I must tell her that in one of the firms most vitally affected there was such a service, with a part-time medical officer and full-time nursing staff.

Mr. Fell

While not in any way attempting to detract from the seriousness of the statement, I wonder whether the Minister could in future help the House, when he has a statement as long as this, perhaps by dividing it into two, making a short statement to the House and publishing the rest of it in the OFFICIAL REPORT?

Mr. Speaker

We cannot discuss that on this statement. It is a matter of general procedure.

Mr. Fell

But, Mr. Speaker, with the best will in the world, I attempted to keep in order by not raising this as a point of order. With respect, I thought that it was a matter I could ask the Minister about. Is there any reason why he should not answer a question about not making a statement of this enormous length?

Mr. Speaker

I agree that there is difficulty with long statements, but I doubt that we can discuss the practice at this point.

Mr. Fell

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am not asking about the general practice. I asked the Minister—I may be wrong, but I thought that this was it—a specific question, whether on another such occasion he could make his statement much shorter. That is all I am suggesting.

Mr. Speaker


Mr. Gunter

I gave a great deal of thought to this matter. I did, in fact, have a shorter answer prepared. But, in view of all the publicity, and the pressures we are under because of the disturbance in the minds of many people, I came to the conclusion in the end that it would be as well to put all the facts in a statement before the House.