HC Deb 08 July 1971 vol 820 cc1675-86

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

11.14 p.m.

Mr. Laurance Reed (Bolton, East)

This country as a matter of policy disposes of large volumes of domestic and trade waste to the sea every year, either from pipelines along the coast or within selected spoil grounds adjacent to the territorial sea. The oceans' capacity to degrade and dilute waste products is enormous and it is perfectly legitimate in this manner to use them as a receptacle for waste.

But the self-purifying powers of the oceans are not unlimited and coastal waters very often can provide less dilution than is popularly supposed because the pollutants tend to get trapped in the coastal zones and are prevented from escaping to the open sea. Nor is the behaviour and fate of persistent wastes fully understood. Unless certain limits are set and observed about the nature and volume of waste discharged, serious and lasting damage can be done to the marine environment.

Pollution of the seas threatens to engulf our coasts in gross ugliness and to undermine the marine life in coastal areas. But tonight I want to highlight the risks to public health associated with marine disposals. In England and Wales, the sewage refuse from 6 million people living in coastal towns is discharged into the sea, and the majority of the sea outfalls run out no further than low water mark, and the majority of discharges are not treated.

The Coastal Anti-Pollution League lists nearly 200 resorts in Britain which are defiled by human faeces and sewer contents. In some places it would seem that it is more a matter of going through the motions than going swimming.

Sewage refuse and other matter create some unsightly conditions and pungent odours and anxiety has also been expressed about bathing from polluted beaches. This fear has a rational basis, because raw sewage contains pathogenic bacteria. A study by the Public Health Laboratory in 1959 concluded that for all practical purposes the risk could be ignored except in areas so obviously and visibly polluted that no one would think of swimming there anyway.

But these findings have not gone unchallenged. For example, a report by the French Consumers' Federation in 1970 claimed that several beaches on the French side of the Channel were positively dangerous, and diptheria and cholera were mentioned. Bathers, said the report, took their lives in their hands.

Likewise, a survey by the Belgian Consumers' Union of resorts on the Continent, published this year, claims that holiday makers run a high risk of contracting any one of nine diseases known to be caused by faecal pollution, including conjunctivitis, enteritis and typhoid. The Italian coasts are rated as the worst, followed by those of Belgium, the Riviera and Spain. The president of the union said: …. the tests were necessary because authorities, under pressure from commercial interests, had refused to investigate possible links between coastal pollution and disease ". Infection can also be picked up by eating shellfish which have filtered pathogenic bacteria and viruses out of sewage contaminated waters. Hepatitis virus are carried by oysters, and shellfish harvested from polluted areas have been collected containing polio virus. The Public Health (Shellfish) Regulations, 1934, allow local authorities to make Orders proscribing or regulating the sale of shellfish from grounds which have been polluted.

The contamination has been spreading for years and cultivation has been either completely stopped or severely restricted in the rivers Blackwater, Colne, Exmouth, Lynham, Lytham, Roach and Whitstable and in Morecambe Bay, Poole Harbour and the Wash. Free swimming fish can also carry diseases picked up in anaerobic waters. Herrings, sprats, canned and smoked salmon have been identified as vehicles of infection.

Full treatment will kill bacteria living in the sewage, but existing methods of treatment do little to remove nitrates and phosphates in the sludge. These nutrients are harmless in themselves, but they can have a malignant effect because of the changes they induce in the environment. An acceleration in the fertilisation of plant life is caused which gives rise to phenomena called "plankton blooms".

These blooms consist of masses of planktonic organisms. They can spread over hundreds of square miles, liberating toxins which kill or stun fish, and poison shellfish. The phenomenon occurs spontaneously in the marine environment, but it appears that sewage-derived waste can act as a triggering mechanism. In 1968, a spectacular bloom was recorded over the North-East coast of England. It spread out from the mouth of the Forth and stretched right the way down the coast to Flamborough Head in Yorkshire. The bloom was followed by an outbreak of paralytic shellfish poisoning, and 85 people were taken ill.

Marine organisms can extract pollutants in sea water and they store them in their bodies. Their ability to concentrate substances in this way varies from a few hundred to several hundred thousand times the value of such substances in the surrounding sea solution. Contaminations once absorbed can be amplified by marine food webs until toxic levels are reached in predators at the head of the chain—including seabirds, sea mammals and man.

The bio accumulation of pollutants is now recognised as a major health hazard. In America contamination has rendered nine species of fish unfit for human consumption. Last year, as is well known, nearly 1 million cans of tuna fish were withdrawn from the market after it had been found that samples contained un-acceptably high levels of mercury. I agree that this particular episode may have been a false alarm but the fact remains that mercury even in low doses can disrupt the central nervous system and in heavy doses will lead to madness and even death.

In 1953 a mystifying disease made its appearance in Minimata Bay, Japan. A bright, agile teenage child found one morning that he could no longer button his clothes. Soon he began exhibiting infantile behaviour. His parents, who were naturally worried, took him to hospital. The doctors could not explain his sudden retardation and the child became a hopeless invalid. Another victim was a middle-aged barber whose health gradually deteriorated until, devoid of hearing and body control, he too became a complete invalid.

An elderly fisherman was similarly stricken. Within a week he could no longer walk. Within a month he was severely demented. Between 1953 and 1960 there were 116 cases of "Minimata disease", including 19 in infants. A total of 43 people died and the rest suffered permanent disability. The source was eventually traced to fish and shellfish caught in the bay which had been contaminated by the discharge from a nearby chemical factory.

There was a second outbreak in Niigata in 1965, affecting 30 people and killing five. There have also been oases of mercury poisoning in Sweden and people there are officially advised not to eat fish more than once a week. Sea foods are becoming increasingly contaminated by oil spills and concern has been expressed about the potential cancer risks. Cancerous growths have been found in a variety of free-swimming fish, including Dover sole and it is thought that oil-polluted waters may be the cause.

Research data from the United States confirms that hydrocarbons of the kind that can cause cancer in humans are concentrated by oysters and mussels in contaminated waters. No one has yet shown positively that cancer in man has resulted directly from the consumption of carcinogens in sea food but public health officials, in America at least, do not discount the possibility.

Submarine waste tips are another hazard. In 1945 the Allies ditched something like 20,000 tons of German chemical warfare material, nerve gas and mustard gas, in the Baltic. Fishermen handling nets and fish contaminated with the gas have been badly injured on several occasions. Although the containers were originally dumped 25 miles offshore in 300 feet of water, the tides and currents have shifted some into shallow areas only a few miles from holiday coasts. Underwater currents and internal waves can make the bottom of the sea as restless as the top.

There was a very interesting case in California some years ago where the State Narcotics Agency dumped confiscated drugs in San Francisco Bay. It was so concerned about the possibility of being hi-jacked by drug pushers that it actually armed the vessel with submachine guns.

Exactly a week later bottles labelled "Metherdine" were washed ashore and the beach had to be staked out to prevent beach-combers from collecting the exotic jetsam. It happened nearer home. Last summer the Royal Navy dumped some ferric chloride containers near the Nab Tower, Portsmouth. A few weeks later several hundred canisters were washed up on the beaches of the Isle of Wight.

Legal controls over marine disposals in Britain are few and far between. In the case of ship-borne dumping, there are no statutory controls outside the three-mile limit. A voluntary arrangement is operated by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food under which companies agree to keep to the spoil grounds and co-operate with effluent tests. But there are no sanctions and only a random sampling system is applied.

In common with the Jeger Committee's Report, and with legislative proposals in the United States and Scandinavian countries, I believe that the time has come to introduce proper supervision and control over ocean-dumping. I should like to see a compulsory system of licensing which would include power to ban the dumping of specific materials and to designate safe sites, with provision for enforcement and sanctions for the violation of the provisions.

The law is also defective for discharges along the coast. Sewage outfalls, outside estuaries and controlled waters, are not subject to any external control. I know that local authorities require loan sanction from the Department of the Environment for disposal schemes and I understand that this is not given unless the scheme avoids risk to public health and amenity. But in times of financial stringency there is inevitably considerable pressure on Ministers to accept the cheaper scheme rather than the safer.

In the case of industrial effluent, the sea fisheries committees are empowered to regulate discharges which are detrimental to sea fishing and sea fish. But these powers cannot be used to control risks to public health, whether direct or indirect. It seems to me clear that we need some form of maritime authority or series of authorities to regulate consents within the coastal belt and prevent degradation of the environment.

I know that the Department of the Environment has all these matters under active consideration, and I am not asking my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for any firm commitments tonight. But I have four questions to ask him. First, the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution is currently examining our coastal waters and the state thereof. Will it comment on the health hazards of marine pollution in its report? Secondly, when granting loan sanctions for sea outfalls, do the Government agree that as much attention should be paid to the potential health hazards as to amenity and fishing interests? Thirdly, what support are the Government giving to the World Health Organisation in its attempts to identify the healths risks in this field and to draw up an internationally agreed list of proscribed substances? Fourthly, what arrangements have the Government made to keep a running check on the level of pollutants in sea fisheries and sea water, and are any safe limits to be laid down?

In considering the noxious and the obnoxious, it is wise to err on the side of caution. Rules and regulations that prove to be too severe can always be relaxed, whereas damage, once done, would take years to repair and could be irreversible. Italy should be an object lesson to us. Her coastal waters are already dead as a source of food and as an amenity. Nobody in his right mind would eat shellfish in Italy, and about 70 per cent. of her beaches are acknowledged as a health hazard. In the words of Professor Mortarino, It is not a question of when the sea will be dead. For the Italians it has already happened.

11.28 p.m.

Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles (Winchester)

My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, East (Mr. Laurance Reed) has drawn attention to a very serious and topical problem, but, to put it into perspective, I am sure that he would agree that we must recognise that the vast majority of pollution is caused by urban sewage discharge and industrial discharge from shore.

I hope that in his reply the Under-Secretary of State will agree that it is important not to undertake any panic measure by restricting the use of ship or yacht w.cs. and, equally important, not to indulge in hysterical legislation about accidental spillage from tankers

11.30 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Michael Heseltine)

The brief intervention of my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Winchester (Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles) calls for little answer from me. I am sure that he will accept at once that the points to which he referred are things that my right hon. Friend must consider; but it would not be the practice of my right hon. Friend to adopt ill-considered or panic measures. Undoubtedly, the matters raised by my hon. and gallant Friend are matters of concern, and they will obviously be taken into consideration by my right hon. Friend. I am glad to have the opportunity of replying to this debate. It is not always that we have an Adjournment debate on a subject of such massive international concern, and one in respect of which a Member of this House has made such efforts to acquaint himself with the problems involved.

There is not the slightest doubt that large-scale pollution arising from human activities is a comparatively recent phenomenon, although both coastal waters and oceans around the various shores of the world have been subjected through the centuries to pollution of one sort or another, and this is something which, with the development of industrial and human societies, has become an increasing problem.

It is true that our pollution, in many cases, makes no more than a marginal change in the state of the sea. But such a marginal addition could tip the equilibrium from safety towards risk. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, East (Mr. Laurance Reed) has spoken of the risks, and I recognised at once that they are there. He rightly points out that the sea has a tremendous capacity—but not an unlimited capacity—to absorb many of the pollutant influences to which it is subjected.

Substances which can be broken down by the natural living processes of the sea—biodegradable pollutants, of which domestic sewage and sewage sludge are the chief examples—generally speaking have no more than local effects, because they are able to be absorbed in great degree. But non-biodegradable pollutants, which are sometimes present in very small concentrations in sewage, present a more serious problem, especially when they can be accumulated by living organisms through a food chain or some similar process. The examples that we are familiar with are mercury and organo-chlorine pesticides, such as D.D.T.—the most familiar example. More recently, polychlorinated biphenyls, which are used as plasticizers, have come to be recognised as being in the same category.

Differing points of view have been put forward on the crucial questions on how far the marine environment has so far been damaged and the outlook that we can expect in the future. There is certainly no lack of alarmist reports, but I must make it plain that in our view, whilst there are undoubtedly serious problems—such as those to which my hon. Friend has referred—many of the popularised accounts seem to go far beyond the basis of fact established and accepted in scientific literature. In our home waters there has been damage to fisheries at the mouths of some rivers, but fishing and fish nursery grounds are otherwise generally unaffected, even a little way outside these estuaries. My hon. Friend took a balanced and helpful view of the degree of the problem.

I agree that what we need is more basic knowledge of this subject. The Government attach particular importance to the work contained in the scientific reports of the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas—which has reported on the North Sea—and the Joint Group of Experts on the Scientific Aspects of Marine Pollution on the wider aspects of the problem. Both these bodies have reported on the unsatisfactory features of the present position, and their work is fundamental to the international activity about which I shall have something to say in a few moments.

Risks to health must be considered from two aspects; first, possible hazards arising from the consumption of contaminated food and, second, possible hazards from bathing in contaminated waters.

The main danger to human health which can arise from marine pollution is from the presence in fish or shellfish of heavy metals, bacteria or oil. This is quite distinct from the risk to fish stocks of pollutants which can kill or damage fish but involve no consumer risk.

The best known hazard arises from the consumption of shellfish from sewage-contaminated waters. The risk of contracting enteric fever or food poisoning from contaminated shellfish has been known for many years, and stringent precautions are taken by public health authorities. The Public Health (Shellfish) Regulations of 1934 give local authorities powers to make orders prohibiting the sale of shellfish from grounds which have been polluted unless the shellfish have been cleansed, sterilised or relaid in clean water. Frequent samples of shellfish are taken for bacteriological examination. The precautions have been highly successful, and cases of disease due to the consumption of contaminated shellfish, which used to be very common, are now rare. The consumption of other fish from waters contaminated by sewage has not been shown to be associated with any significant hazard.

My hon. Friend also referred to the plankton bloom of 1968. Such incidents are commonplace in some parts of the world but are rare in our waters. However, monitoring tests are carried out and medical officers of health are advised of the conditions under which harvesting and sale of shellfish should be suspended. Although this is something of which we must be constantly aware, there is no immediate anxiety for the United Kingdom.

Hazards to man arising from the chemical pollution of sea foods are rare. Attention has been focused on the importance of inorganic mercurial contamination of fish by the occurrence of cases of poisoning among fishermen and their families in Japan who ate large quantities of fish from an industrially-contaminated area and by the subsequent American finding of a high methyl mercury content in canned tuna fish. Canned fish and other foods which are important in the national diet are being examined by Government laboratories of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, which are also undertaking an extensive survey of fish caught by British ships in home and distant waters. So far as fish are concerned, this work extends the work which was already being done in these laboratories.

The new scheme is concentrating on methyl mercury but checks are also being made for the presence of other heavy metals, like cadmium. The Ministry hopes to publish results at half-yearly intervals, but if the monitoring scheme reveals any cause for concern action will be taken at once to protect the consumer.

The Minister of Agriculture announced in April that the survey was being extended to cover cadmium and lead. There have been reports of very unusually high levels of cadmium in limpets in the Bristol Channel, and these have, naturally, caused concern. The fact that these results are so much out of line with those which the Ministry had previously found around our coasts may be due to the different methods of measurement used or it may be that limpets happen to accumulate cadmium much faster than other organisms do.

As soon as these reports were published, the Fisheries Laboratory, as a matter of urgency, analysed shellfish from the South Wales coast, which is the only commercial fishery of any importance in the area. The results gave no cause for concern.

Oil contamination of the sea may result in the tainting of fish. This tainting has been regarded as a safeguard preventing the consumption of contaminated fish. In the small amounts present in such fish, mineral oils are not toxic apart from the fact that they may contain traces of carcinogenic hydrocarbons. I am aware of the fears about this which have developed recently, to which my hon. Friend refers. I am advised that it is most unlikely that there is any cause for concern, but the matter is being investigated and research is in progress.

My hon. Friend referred to the risks to bathers and holiday makers arising from sewage contamination of bathing beaches and inshore waters. The possible risks to health from sewage contamination were investigated by a committee of the public Health Laboratory Service in 1963, and the subject has been examined more recently by Mrs. Lena Jeger's Working Party on Sewage Disposal. Both committees confirmed that the risk of contracting any communicable disease on bathing beaches or through swimming in the sea around British coasts was very small. The probability of any person becoming infected in this way was very much smaller than the chance of contracting the same disease by the more usual means of infection within the community.

While accepting that there was no reason at present to believe that the risk of contracting communicable disease on bathing beaches was more than minimal and would not justify priority for further research, the Jeger Committee pointed out that it could not accept that dirty beaches were an inevitable part of the environment. That is something which I am sure the whole House accepts. Anything avoidable which detracted from personal relaxation and individual enjoyment of the coastline should be eliminated, and it must be a matter of great concern to my right hon Friend that this should be done as soon as possible.

My hon. Friend will have earned the gratitude of the House for raising this subject tonight. It covers a very wide range of matters of great concern to the Department. I have tried to deal with some of the points he has made. My right hon. Friend is continuing to conduct various investigations into these matters and his conclusions on a number of subjects, particularly on the reports of the committees which have recently reported, are awaited. I am sure that the House will understand therefore, that I am precluded from making any immediate comment upon the likely conclusions to which my right hon. Friend will come.

I have already dealt with my hon. Friend's specific question about the monitoring of fish. On the allied question of the checks on sea water, my right hon. Friend said yesterday that he was considering what additional monitoring was necessary, and I cannot at present add to this. As regards my hon. Friend's other questions, I shall draw the attention of the Royal Commission to his remarks, and I can assure him that the possible health hazards are always of importance in the consideration of applications for loan sanctions for sea outfalls and that we support and welcome the contribution which the World Health Organisation makes to the scientific work of G.E.S.A.M.P.

I thank my hon. Friend for giving the House an opportunity to air this subject, and I hope that when my right hon. Friend is able to make his announcements, covering a wide range of subjects raised in this debate—

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

Adjourned at sixteen minutes to Twelve o'clock.