HC Deb 20 July 1971 vol 821 cc1395-407

10.14 p.m.

Mrs. Joyce Butler (Wood Green)

I beg to move, That this House takes note of the Farm and Garden Chemicals Regulations 1971 (S.I., 1971, No. 729). Although I wish to make some comments about these Regulations, the last thing I want to do is to delay their coming into operation. It is already four years since the operative Act reached the Statute Book, and during that time a large quantity of pesticides has been increasingly in use on farms and in gardens. It is interesting to recall, and it is a measure of our slow progress, that there was some doubt about the original Act going through because it was expected in 1967 that it would be superseded very soon afterwards by a much larger Act implementing the comprehensive legislation of the Cook Committee Report.

This has not yet happened and, because advance has been so slow and because so much time has already been lost, the first question I ask the Parliamentary Secretary is whether we need to wait two years, until May, 1973, before the Regulations come into operation. Surely the pesticide manufacturers have been discussing the substance of the Regulations with the Ministry for so long that they must already have label-changing well under way. If the operative date were made May, 1972, would the not have ample time to produce new labels?

The meat of these Regulations lies in the Schedule which contains the list of pesticides which in future will have to be shown on labels of products containing one or more of these active ingredients. It is a terrifying list of Latin names, and because I asked for this list to be produced in the original Act, and because I have for so long advocated that product labels should show the name of the ingredients and have so often been told by the experts that chemical names are meaningless to consumers, I hesitate to criticise the six pages of chemical names which are before us.

I am always optimistic and I remain convinced—that in time amateur gardeners will become as familiar with those more important names as are the experts. Just as many of us became familiar with aldrin, dieldrin and heptachlor which occasioned so many bird deaths some years ago, I was relieved to find that the list of pesticides recently recommended in Amateur Gardening magazine coincided with the names on this list and contained such familiar names as derris, metaldehyde and pyrethrum.

What worries me about these chemicals is that the list contains, cheek by jowl with several products like Derris, such names as 2, 4, 5-T, which has worried a great many people and in the use of which the Ministry's own Agricultural Chemicals Approval Scheme cautions : Avoid spray drift. If poisonous weeds present keep farm stock away from sprayed area for at least two weeks. Wash out equipment thoroughly. That may not be the most dangerous chemical on the list, but I have no means of knowing, and nor has anyone else who is not an expert. For the ordinary person who may be an amateur gardener or an unskilled farm worker, some classification or simplification of this list to indicate which are the safer ones and which are the more dangerous ones would seem to be indispensible.

I ask the Minister to look at the possibility of doing something of this kind with the list, even at this late stage. It is all the more needed since the second aspect of the Farm and Garden Chemicals Act which made provision for a warning mark or colour to indicate danger to be shown on the labels is not implemented in these Regulations. I appreciate that under the voluntary Pesticides Safety Precautions Scheme any words of warning and instructions for safe use already in operation will remain. But this is no substitute for an "at-a-glance" toxicity marking of dangerous pesticides.

The reason for not implementing the Section of the Act … to require labels to bear a prescribed mark, symbol or colour to indicate the extent of any hazard which the product constitutes to human beings or other forms of life and to bear prescribed words of explanation or warning is that international agreement is being sought. That is fair enough if the agreement can be reached quickly before any more casualties result from careless handling of chemicals whose dangers are not immediately apparent. But, without the implementation of this part of the Act, these Regulations have very little meaning.

I understand that, when the draft regulations were circulated, representations were made to the Ministry on this point by the Consumer Council, among others. I should like the Minister to say what weight was given to these comments on behalf of consumers, and whether it would not be possible, in view of those representations, for this country to give an international lead on this, since we are closely involved in the international discussions which are taking place.

In any case, can the Minister indicate when the Council of Europe countries now working to draw up a single system of classifying and marking pesticides are expected to produce an internationally agreed system of toxicity signs? Can he say how soon British regulations will follow this agreement? The time taken to make any legislative advance in pesticide safety is already so prolonged that it would be a calamity if the desire for international agreement delayed it for very much longer.

I welcome these Regulations, as far as they go, as a small step forward, but I regret that they do not give users of these products the much greater protection which the Act was intended to provide.

10.18 p.m.

Mr. Peter Mills (Torrington)

I welcome this debate, not least because of the opportunity that it provides hon. Members to look at these very important Regulations.

The one question which I wish to ask my hon. Friend is whether the labelling is enough. Does it go far enough? In my opinion, the danger is not only when a product of this type passes from the manufacturer to the retailer. The danger arises after it has been sold. Certain of these chemicals and substances are extremely poisonous, and we all know of the extraordinarily stupid habit of many people of transferring these liquids or powders into other containers. It has been known for some of these liquids to be transferred to bottles labelled, for example, "Lemonade". This is highly dangerous.

I should like to give one example of a substance mentioned in the Regulations—paraquat. Several children have died because they have drunk from bottles marked "Lemonade", whereas the substance in the bottle has been paraquat. The company concerned, I.C.I., has done all that it can to safeguard and deal with this problem. The bottles are plainly marked according to the Regulations. But is this enough? Is the Minister satisfied that enough is being done to point out to people the dangers of transferring liquids or powders into containers which are not properly marked? It may sound stupid on the part of parents who have bought these products for their gardens, or, for that matter, farmers or others who have broken down a large container and put the contents into other smaller containers. But it is happening.

It is terrible to think that children have died because they have drunk paraquat. I understand that the result of drinking paraquat is to solidify the lungs and there is virtually no hope of recovery at all. Children drink paraquat because it is a brown, frothy liquid which looks like Coca Cola. If it is put into lemonade bottles children tend to drink it without first testing or smelling it.

I suggest that the Minister should encourage manufacturers of liquids like paraquat to look carefully not only at the labelling of the bottles or containers but at the colour and that they might even introduce an unpleasant smell into the liquids, particularly paraquat. I understand that there is nothing to prevent it being produced as a white substance, and if it had a terrible smell of onions, for instance, it would certainly mean that a child who was tempted to drink from an unmarked bottle would be put off doing so. This may seem a small matter, but if it could save the lives of even one or two children it would be worth doing. I am sure that the manufacturers would be pleased to co-operate in this matter.

It means that as well as bringing forward these Farm and Garden Chemicals Regulations the Minister would advise manufacturers to look carefully at the colour and type of substances which they produce, particularly the smell, and, if possible, through their various propaganda channels, give warning to parents and to farmers not to take the stupid action of breaking down these liquids from properly marked containers and putting them into other containers marked "Lemonade" or something else.

I cannot think of any worse death for a child than to die from drinking paraquat. I understand that it takes about two or three weeks before it has the final effect of solidifying the lungs and bringing about death. It must be a dreadful experience for parents. It may be foolish for a person to break down these liquids into smaller containers which are not correctly labelled, but I cannot think of anything worse than to suffer in this way. This is a small matter into which the Ministry should look. They should consider advertising to warn of the dangers.

I bring this matter to the attention of the Minister now. I tried to put a Question on it, but found it rather difficult to do so. The fact that we are debating the Regulations affords an opportunity to point out the dangers. I hope that possibly the Press will widely publicise the stupidity of putting poisons and other chemicals which are harmful to small children in bottles which are marked "Lemonade", "Ginger Beer" or something similar. Perhaps the manufacturers could consider the possibility of ensuring that these liquids do not look like Pepsi Cola, Coca Cola or any other things which children like to drink. If tonight, through the efforts of the Department, we can save one child's life, it will have been worthwhile bringing this matter forward.

10.26 p.m.

Mr. Robert Cooke (Bristol, West)

I support what my hon. Friend the Member for Torrington (Mr. Peter Mills) said. He has a wider knowledge of these and other agricultural matters than I ever could have. I have, however, read in the Press of some of the sad accidents which have happened as a result of children drinking liquids which they thought were something else. My hon. Friend is right to stress the dangers of these liquids being put into bottles which look like lemonade bottles or the possibility of danger to even younger children who are scarcely able to distinguish between a lemonade bottle and any other container of liquid.

A point with which my hon. Friend might agree, and to which, I hope, my hon. Friend the Minister will address himself, is the use of empty containers which have contained these toxic substances as playthings for children. I read recently in the Press of some of the deaths caused by the substance paraquat and I at once had a nasty, chilling sensation of what might have happened to my small son, because I know that some of the things he played with in his nursery a couple of years ago were plastic containers which had contained a particularly noxious—and, incidentally, quite useless—form of weedkiller. I have never used it since because it did not do the job, but I bought it in the hope that it would do the job and I later saw the little plastic containers in the nursery. My son had picked them up in the workshop. They were empty and, I suppose, he was allowed to have them. We should, therefore, address ourselves to the problem of empty containers or containers which are apparently empty but which contain traces of these toxic substances.

If we are honest in the whole broad issue, we must admit that there, but for the grace of God, would have gone our own children or, perhaps, even ourselves in this matter of eating or drinking things which are incredibly dangerous. I remember eating some bran when I was a small boy. I found a whole box full and it tasted delicious. Some years afterwards, when I was old enough, I said to the gardener, "What is that stuff you keep in that box"? He said, "That is slug killer, sir." It did not kill me but I suppose that it might have done.

Last week my small son, who is just four, was observed to be carrying a little plastic box with wheat grain in it. I knew that it was the particular form of rat poison which the agents come and put down around the place. I was horrified about this but I discovered that my son would have to eat 1 cwt. of it before it did him harm. My point is that many things that are still freely available are potentially enormously dangerous.

I am glad that my hon. Friend has raised the subject. I join him in pressing the Minister to say possibly a little more, and certainly to give this matter widespread publicity and to deal with the question of the containers. Young children are delighted to play with any form of container, especially if it is colourful, as some of the weedkiller containers are. Children must be protected against these dangers. They cannot read what is printed on the containers. They might, perhaps, be made in a colour which could be associated with danger even at an early age. If a container were of a particular colour, children could be brought up never to play with something of that colour. Certainly, parents would know about it. There are many extraordinarily ignorant parents and I include myself among them.

10.30 p.m.

Mr. David Mudd (Falmouth and Cambourne)

I take up my hon. Friend the Member for Torrington (Mr. Peter Mills) on one important point. He referred to the importance of labelling. This strays across the entire spectrum of medical labelling. My son, aged five, was recently given some medicine. It was a paediatric medicine, and written on the label was a warning which an adult, let alone a child, could not understand. It said : Any child taking this medicine is ill-advised to drive a car of high speed or high intensity machinery following the consumption of this medicine. With respect, the labelling aspect is totally irrelevant, and I suggest to my hon. Friend that the answer is to create a greater awareness of the need to provide child-proof tops to bottles which contain these various medicines and insecticides.

10.31 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Anthony Stodart)

The hon. Lady the Member for Wood Green (Mrs. Joyce Butler) has a very well deserved reputation for the interest which she has consistently shown in this subject. I am grateful to her for raising it tonight, and I hope she will accept from me the fact that my interest, possibly perhaps because I have been producing food for most of my life, is every bit as lively as her own.

One subject at which I was totally out of my depth at school was chemistry. The hon. Lady passed some strictures upon the names which compose the Schedule. I have gone through it, and I confess that I have found very few that are familiar to me. In fact let me be quite frank and say that out of what I have calculated to be roughly 300 substances, I am fully acquainted with only about 22.

Chemistry and the names of its products are complex and, as I shall seek to show, it is not the name of the substance inside a bottle which matters so much as the instructions, the advice, the warning on the label about how to use it. The important point is that many of these names are known and understood by those professional men who may have to take action in conditions of emergency. The hon. Lady has asked me to look at the point, and of course I shall do so, but I should like to make it quite clear that I cannot give any commitment that the list is likely to be amended.

Having said that, and before I turn to the main theme of my remarks, may I touch upon the points made by my hon. Friends. I fully agree with what my hon. Friend the Member for Torrington (Mr. Peter Mills) said. The only thing to which I take exception is his description as "stupidity" of putting left-overs from containers into lemonade bottles. I venture to say that that is a substantial under-statement. It is not stupidity. It is very nearly criminal. I take my hon. Friend's point about paraquat looking like Coca Cola.

The event involving these children sent a shudder down the spine of everybody, and I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Robert Cooke) that it could so easily happen to anyone's child if such a thing is done. There was another, as I thought, shattering episode although it did not, I freely admit, involve a substance covered by these Regulations. Hon. Members will recall the event in which two adults were involved. One poured a whisky and soda for his brother, gave it to him, and when he drank it and dropped dead said, "My goodness, I have given him cyanide". Cyanide had been put into an empty whisky bottle. Cyanide, unlike paraquat, which is the same colour as Coca Cola, is colourless, but I suppose it could conceivably be mistaken for one of those very pale malt whiskies which, when water is added to it, is almost the colour of water.

This is the sort of thing about which it is immensely difficult to legislate. But I take the point made by my hon. Friend about some smell being added to paraquat to alert children. I understand that the manufacturers are trying to find a means of making paraquat less likely to be drunk by accident, but it is not the easiest of problems—especially in terms of legislation.

There are promising methods in respect of the treatment of these tragic cases of poisoning. The Ministry frequently issues advice on safe storage and safe disposal of containers after use, and we keep saying that they should never be used for anything else, but I can assure hon. Members that anything that we can do to try to safeguard against events of this kind occurring we shall do.

To see the Farm and Garden Chemicals Act, and the first set of Regulations made under it, in perspective, one must consider this whole subject against the background of all the other powers and arrangements that the Government have to ensure that pesticides can be used safely by those who apply them and by those who consume what they help to produce.

Central to this is the Pesticides Safety Precautions Scheme. Although this is a voluntary scheme, it covers all pesticides marketed for use, not only on the farms, horticultural enterprises and in the gardens to which the Farm and Garden Chemicals Act, 1967 applies, but also those marketed for use in food storage, forestry, and in home kitchens and larders.

Every pesticide formulation intended by whoever makes, mixes or imports it for any of those purposes is submitted to my Department, and all the data required for assessing its safety and for deciding what safety precautions are needed are meticulously examined by the Advisory Committee on Pesticides and Other Toxic Chemicals. This is an independent committee on which no pesticide manufacturer is represented.

The Advisory Committee takes into account any harmful effects which a pesticide may have upon humans, domestic animals and wild life. It also considers whether the residues left on crops would be a danger to a potential consumer. Final clearance is not given to any pesticide under the Scheme until the Advisory Committee has obtained and scrutinised all the evidence it needs and is completely satisfied that the product can be used safely for its intended purpose, provided that the safety precautions which it recommends are observed.

For their part all those involved—and let me for simplicity call them the pesticides industry—have agreed to accept the decisions based on the advice of the Advisory Committee ; and also to print on their containers not only the safety precautions to be observed, but also the name of the active ingredient, and such standard warning phrases as are considered by the Government to be appropriate.

Examples are : "Dangerous by mouth contamination." "Harmful by breathing vapour or mist." "Harmful to bees." "Store in a safe place, away from children." There are many others which together cover every reasonable contingency.

The industry loyally fulfils its part in the Scheme. As a result, two objectives of the Act have been achieved by voluntary means. Virtually all pesticide products for the farm and the garden already carry on the label what I have just described. Moreover, the more toxic materials already carry the word "Poison" under the Poisons Rules. In addition, if a substance is likely to put its user at any special risk, it is scheduled under the Agriculture (Poisonous Substances) Act, 1952, which requires by law that agricultural workers and those employing them must see that suitable protective clothing is worn when using it.

As a result, our record in this country for using pesticides safely bears comparison with any other in the world. Nevertheless the Farm and Garden Chemicals Act does provide Ministers with useful powers.

Mr. Robert Cooke

Before my hon. Friend leaves the point about prevention of accidents—he has not referred to some of the points that we have made—would he say something about safeguards against empty or apparently empty containers being used by children? Would he consider printing a symbol—like a snake—on these containers, which the children associate with danger before they can read? Would he also consider including in the substance a powerful emetic like pyridine, which is included in methylated spirits? This might prevent the ingestion of some of these substances.

Mr. Stodart

I will certainly undertake to consider these suggestions. I said that I would consider a particular smell being applied to what looks like a Coca-Cola bottle. I am sorry if I omitted the point put by my hon. Friend, but I will consider it because it is valuable.

The Farm and Garden Chemicals Act gives the Government power to require appropriate labelling, which would be useful if a voluntary arrangement were broken by a manufacturer or disregarded by a retailer.

It closes a small loop-hole, whereby a pack of a pesticide which is itself properly labelled under the Scheme can be broken down and sold in smaller lots without a label. It enables the Government to require a label to carry a suitable mark, symbol or colour to indicate the extent of any danger which there is about the product for human beings or other forms of life.

This last—meeting my learned Friend's point—could be a useful supplementary device once the symbols become widely recognised by those who use pesticides.

The Act also provides a safeguard against a minor difficulty experienced on some occasions in the past : namely, that the words of warning and the name of the active constituent were not always prominently enough displayed on a product label.

Happily, since the Farm and Garden Chemicals Act was passed in 1967—the same year as the Advisory Committee on Pesticides and Other Toxic Chemicals commented upon this difficulty in their Report—the situation as regards labelling has improved a great deal.

I can well understand people, like the hon. Lady, asking, "Why the delay—1967 to 1971—in producing this first set of regulations?" The Regulations laid before Parliament on 10th May this year deal only with the naming of the active ingredient, and it may well seem surprising that this has taken four years.

I will give the explanation. The Act demands that there be consultations with interested organisations. There are very many of these—pesticides manufacturers, formulators and retailers, consumer organisations, the farmers unions, the agricultural workers union, and local authority associations.

A great many points of detail had to be settled, some of which caused appreciable difficulty at the time. There were problems, too, about which substances should be included. For example—and this may sound a trifle ludicrous—there was a lot of discussion before it was decided to leave out pepper, which is sometimes used to repel pests.

This was not a typical reason for delay, but it illustrates the kind of difficulty that had to be resolved before a decision could be made as to which substances should be included in the Schedule to the Regulations, and which left out. In some cases there were also difficulties in deciding on which name to use for a particular chemical, and there were problems in avoiding overlap with the labelling requirements of the Pharmacy and Poisons Act, 1933. In short, the scheduling of the active ingredients in a suitable manner was a far more complex task than it might have seemed to be.

The hon. Lady asked why the Regulations do not come into force until May, 1973. It is essential to realise that the Regulations under the Farm and Garden Chemicals Act apply to everyone who sells pesticides for use in farms and gardens. This includes every retailer, no matter in how small a way of business he may be.

One must, therefore, leave enough time between the making of the Regulation and its coming into force for existins packs of the hundreds of different formulations concerned to clear from the distributive pipeline. The alternative is to require any unsold and inadequately labelled packs, wherever they might be found, to be relabelled. This would be difficult both to perform and to enforce.

While, of course, it is desirable that the Regulations should come into force as soon as possible, the fact that all manufacturers' packs carry the name of the ingredients—and most of them today with sufficient prominence under the Pesticides Safety Precautions Scheme—a two-year transition period is quite reasonable in all the circumstances.

Then there is the requirement for labels to bear a prescribed mark indicating danger. I fully recognise that the name of many active ingredients could be totally devoid of meaning to a large number of those who buy pesticides, but packs already bear the precautions to be observed for safety and this advice on how to avoid dangers is the most important thing.

I accept, however, that some easily recognised symbol indicating degree of risk would be a very valuable addition indeed. However, the Council of Europe is working on a uniform scheme which can be recommended for use in all member countries. It is obvious that, as we import some pesticides from overseas, and also export others manufactured here, the system of symbols should be uniform.

It is not an easy task to decide on a straightforward method classifying many hundreds of different pesticides into a few categories of danger or relative safety. Very good progress is, however, being made in the Council of Europe, in whose discussions we have played a very full part. The sub-committee dealing with this problem has drawn up specifications for classifying pesticide formulations into four classes according to how poisonous they are and has proposed international symbols for the two most poisonous groups.

These recommendations have been adopted by the Public Health Committee (Partial Agreement) and submitted by it to the Committee of Ministers. We hope that the Committee of Ministers will be considering the recommendations this autumn. If agreement is reached, the next step for us will be to allocate all pesticide products marketed here for use in farms and gardens into the four categories.

This will be a considerable job. I cannot, therefore, promise that the powers to require labels to bear a prescribed mark will be exercised in the very near future, but I assure the hon. Lady that the Government will proceed with this work as rapidly as possibly. I thank her for raising this matter, which has been for the benefit of the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That this House takes note of the Farm and Garden Chemicals Regulations 1971 (S.I. 1971, No. 729).