HC Deb 11 April 1975 vol 889 cc1602-47

11.17 a.m.

Mrs. Joyce Butler (Wood Green)

I beg to move, That this House calls for urgent action to be taken to reduce by all possible means preventable lead contamination of the environment, including a significant reduction in the lead content of petrol; to ensure effective monitoring of the environs of all factories engaged in processes with a possible health or safety hazard from lead, vinyl chloride, asbestos and petro-chemicals generally; and to ensure that information so produced is made publicly available in view of the danger of secrecy and the public right to the fullest possible information. I have chosen this very wide subject for debate today because we are living in a period in which news items week after week force upon us the growing realisation of the hazards in our environment which we could resolve, or certainly reduce, if we had the energy and the will to do so.

The new analytical techniques which are being developed make us increasingly better able to evaluate some hazards which have hitherto seemed of little importance. This is making us increasingly concerned about such dangers. When these hazards emerge in residential rather than in the traditional industrial areas and in the environs of factories as well as inside them, the general public become increasingly involved and alarmed.

Two recent incidents well known to hon. Members serve to illustrate that point. A few weeks ago, the death of a lorry driver was caused by poisonous fumes arising from the mixing of his load of chemical waste with another chemical at the Pitsea dump, which is world famous. Although Pitsea is generally recognised as a safe dump, the incident has caused concern and alarm in the surrounding heavily built-up area. I have spoken to people in the area, and they tell me that, despite the regular monitoring of the site, there is in their minds a constant fear of the possibility of an even more serious incident, from the build-up of toxic materials, from a dangerous combination of gases or from the leaching of noxious substances. Those fears may be unfounded, but they are genuinely felt, and the recent incident has triggered off even more concern.

The ever-increasing tonnage of toxic wastes and arrangements for their disposal are matters of great public concern, demanding tougher controls and more public information about the risks to health and other dangers. I appreciate that regulations under the Control of Pollution Act are on the way, but in view of that incident and the fully justified public alarm, including alarm in the Essex local authority, which now, I understand, has put an embargo on some forms of waste being dumped at Pitsea, these matters should here and now receive emergency attention from the Government, and the provision of properly controlled alternative arrangements, if we are to prevent unlicensed and indiscriminate dumping of waste elsewhere. Can my hon. Friend the Minister of State tell us whether anything is being done about that which will reassure our people in Essex and, indeed, throughout South-East England?

The second alarming incident was the explosion only a few days ago at the Laporte chemical factory in Ilford, adjoining a school and also in a residential area. In this incident, too, a man was killed. It seems unbelievable that people living in this area had no knowledge of the chemicals being produced or of the danger involved, despite the experience in another part of the country at Flixborough. Moreover, incredible as it seems, that factory is sited adjoining a school, with no special safety precautions taken. I do not wish to say anything more about that, because I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Shaw), if he catches the eye of the Chair, will be able to say more about the local concern over the incident.

I appreciate all that the present Minister and his predecessors have done by way of legislation, but it remains a fact that, despite all our legislation, the manufacture of highly dangerous substances is still far too casual, especially in the attention which is paid to the possible consequences for people living in the neighbourhoods concerned. The tightening up of regulations for the health and safety of workers—the concern of another Department—is very welcome, but the danger does not stop at the factory gate, and recent studies have produced alarming results.

Asbestos is a case in point. The risk of asbestos workers contracting asbestosis is now well known, and we have regulations to strengthen the protection of such workers. But this disease is known also in one or two cases of people living outside an asbestos works and not employed there. Although I am not competent to judge the medical aspects, I have seen particulars of a study recently done which indicates that there is considerable evidence of asbestos bodies, as they are called, being found in people living in the vicinity of an asbestos works in East London and suffering from stomach cancer and breast cancer. As I say, I am not able to evaluate the medical significance of that information, but it seems to suggest that there may be a connection of some kind between the presence of the asbestos bodies and these diseases. That is what I mean when I say that new medical techniques and studies are producing more worrying evidence of that kind.

The other substance which is causing great concern is the gas which is used in the making of polyvinyl chloride—a bit of a mouthful—which is popularly known as PVC. The gas, the vinyl chloride monomer, is known to be extremely dangerous. However, it is both sad and disturbing to know that for at least a year American and European chemicals companies withheld some scientific findings linking liver cancer in workers with VCM, the dangerous gas. It is known also that VCM may increase the risk of brain and lung cancer.

Since 1970 deaths from cancer among workers in a vinyl chloride monomer plant in Kentucky have been double the United States national average. Again, this does not prove anything, but it is cause for concern.

We have regulations to give more protection to workers arising out of the new findings which have been produced, but I have the feeling—I think that it is borne out by much of the evidence—that we are only at the beginning of discovering the harm which this gas can do. We know virtually nothing about the effect on the general population outside such factories.

I remind my hon. Friend that on 29th July last year I asked him whether he will examine the risk to the general population living in the vicinity of factories making PVC, in the light of recent evidence of death from liver cancer of a resident in the vicinity of such a factory in the United States. My hon. Friend replied that he was assured by his medical advisers that there is no evidence to support the suggestion that the particular case of liver cancer … was caused by vinyl chloride. In the few cases in which a link between vinyl chloride and liver cancer has been established, it has been, where a worker has been exposed to high concentrations over a long period of time. Then my hon. Friend added: Nevertheless, in the examination of the whole problem further information on the concentrations in the air around factories is being collected and will be evaluated."—[Official Report, 29th July 1974; Vol. 878, c. 34.] That was on 29th July last year. Is my hon. Friend in a position to tell the House about the further information which is being collected? I realise that it may be too early for its evaluation, since these things take time, but if he can say something about it that will be helpful.

Another cause for concern is the widespread use of PVC in food packaging. We have heard very little about this, save some reassuring comments from the Ministry of Agriculture and others, but I have a big worry about the use of PVC in food packaging. We are aware, of course, that the matter is being studied in the EEC.

When I raised this matter with the Ministry of Agriculture, I was told that the Department did not think that the presence of the vinyl chloride monomer in food packaging was of any significance because it was there in such minute quantities. In fact, the experts produced figures which one cannot take in, as the amount is so small in relation to the total production of food packaging.

Nevertheless, there is worry about it, and here also the Ministry of Agriculture says that the matter is being kept under review. I do not expect my hon. Friend to be able to say anything about that this morning unless his Department has anticipated my inquiry and given him some information, but it is a matter which we must closely watch, since so many things which we take for granted as safe we are now discovering to be far less safe than was thought.

Another substance about which I am greatly concerned—indeed, this is of paramount importance—is lead. There is growing concern about the effect of lead on health, and especially about the fallout of airborne lead into the general urban environment, where it is now a major contaminant of urban dust. Very high lead dust levels tend to occur adjacent to busy roads and in certain specific industrial locations. Both industry and cars are therefore to blame, and it is horrifying to think of small children growing up in a polluted environment where it is known that this polluting dust is everywhere about them. They are particularly vulnerable to lead absorption.

Of course, lead water pipes and tanks are a further cause of contamination in soft water areas, and a recent study—and this is why I mention the subject in relation to lead pollution generally—reported in The Lancet of mentally retarded children and non-retarded matched controls found that the water lead content was significantly higher in the retarded group. The study concludes that although it is not possible to prove that lead exposure causes mental retardation, the results of the study strongly suggest that this is so.

The Socialist Medical Association pointed out towards the end of last year, We cannot afford to wait until a few children have definite brain damage before action is taken. Not only are children more sensitive to lead than adults, they are also at greater risk because of their tendency to suck and chew things—lead-painted toys, soil and dirty fingers. This is important because so often when we discuss hazards of this kind, we cannot produce cast-iron evidence of damage. As in the case of vinyl chloride and asbestosis, we so often wait until there are deaths before we take action and introduce the necessary controls. I am very much afraid that this is the tendency with lead poisoning, although I appreciate all that has been done to reduce the level of lead in paint, to replace lead water pipes and tanks, and to reduce lead levels in food and so on. But we so often tend to wait until we have a definite proof before we appreciate the real danger.

The Socialist Medical Association estimates that 10 per cent. of children in Britain may have seriously high blood-lead levels. It has pointed out that 25 microgrammes of lead per 100 millilitres of blood was considered possibly dangerous, but that it found levels of 30 microgrammes in some cases. In the United States it is estimated that over 25 per cent. of children in urban areas, as well as a small but significant number of adults, are over-exposed to lead. Again in the United States, it was found that there were increased subtle neurological impairments among children more highly exposed to lead, and that, again, is extremely worrying.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency, while recognising that lead exposure is caused by a combination of sources, including food, water, air, lead, paint and dust, concludes, Leaded gasoline"— which,of course, to us is petrol— is a source of air and dust lead which can be readily and significantly reduced in comparison to these other sources. This is the point I want to stress today and why I am asking my hon. Friend the Minister to do something effective about reducing the lead content of petrol. Studies in Newark, New Jersey, observed that the frequency of lead poisoning and undue lead exposure doubled among children living close to major roadways compared with children living further away.

When one considers the situation in the Greater London Area, in which my constituency is situated, with all the main roads and the traffic, one wonders how seriously we are taking this matter. It is an extremely dangerous one and it is vital that we take action as soon as possible. Delay in reducing the lead level in petrol, the exhaust fumes from which are responsible for over 90 per cent. of urban lead, seems to me almost criminal. Even if it is not criminal, there is one expert solicitor who in an article this month in theNew Law Journal has certain comments to make. His name is David Pedley, and he speaks about the legal implications of lead in petrol. He concludes, As most petrol is used and can be shown to be used, in circumstances detrimental to public health, and no control can be effected on where (whenever or wherever sold) it is to be used, it is clear that distributing, selling and using leaded petrol is a conspiracy to effect a public nuisance and therefore an indictable common law misdemeanour.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

Is my hon. Friend aware that there is no statutory obligation at present on oil companies to have a determined amount of lead in petrol, although there is a voluntary agreement? Is she aware that Brussels Regulation 3113/73 proposes more stringent regulations than we have at the moment, but that if this is not passed the difficulties of enforcing more stringent regulations by ourselves would involve great economic difficulties? Is she aware that this would apply to similar regulations on similar matters and that this is one of those matters concerning the Common Market where this House will no longer enjoy complete freedom?

Mrs. Butler

I was about to come to the point of economic difficulties. In view of the clear case which can be made for reducing lead levels in petrol, I am concerned to see that the Government do more to make the public aware of the dangers and to appeal to the public on this point. It is always said that if we reduce lead levels in petrol the petrol will not be so effective and it will be more expensive. However, I was very impressed during the oil crisis last year at how ready everybody to whom I spoke seemed to be to make some kind of sacrifice on petrol. I believe that if the public were appealed to and told that lead in petrol is causing subtle neurological damage to the brains of some of our children they would accept the additional cost and they would press for the kind of action I am seeking.

I ask my hon. Friend the Minister whether he will please look at this again to see whether he can do something to stir up his Department and to introduce regulations on the matter. The decision to be taken is political. This is not just a matter for scientists or of evidence. We have to decide whether we can go on taking this risk with our children's health, and we must decide what to do about it. I do not believe that the public, which at the moment is showing so much concern about orphan children from Vietnam, would remain unmoved if the facts about the damage to children from lead in petrol were put over to them. There is great concern for children generally.

I ask my hon. Friend to take this action even if he cannot accept the terms of my motion. I hope that when there are Government petrol stations they will set a good example by giving motorists the opportunity to buy' lead-free petrol. It would be a very great boost for the cause I am advocating if it were done, and it would be very sad if it were not.

I should like to deal further with my main reason for raising this subject today. I do not just want to draw attention to the dangers. I want to impress on my hon. Friend the need for much greater attention to be paid to the fears and worries of the public, who do not always know what the trouble is but are very concerned that something may be going wrong. That is why I am asking for more effective monitoring arrangements.

The British Society for Social Responsibility in Science, with which I have dis- cussed this matter, has produced a full monitoring programme. I should like to put to my hon. Friend some of the points which it makes. It proposes, To introduce continuous monitoring of pollutants in vicinity of certain industries, where emissons may be harmful. It says that three categories of installations should be covered. First there are Those where some monitoring is already undertaken, and some of the results known. It quotes the examples of metals such as lead and cadmium. It stresses that, The monitoring should be made regular, and all the results automatically available to the public. It quotes as an example of what it has in mind that The results of the fluoride monitoring around the Invergordon aluminium smelter, are only available to farmers at the discretion of the British Aluminium Liaison Committee—despite the local farmer having been responsible for establishing the monitor in the first place. It points out that, Where there is established monitoring, the results should be made available, as if they had been obtained by the powers of the new Act. The second category is those installations where little monitoring is done of pollutants with known risks, e.g. asbestos factories and coking ovens…. These monitoring surveys should be complemented by epidemiological surveys (group health surveys)", such as the one to which I have referred, concerning the asbestos hazard in East London.

The third category is Those processes where the risks and the pollutant levels are not known. This category is the most serious, because it is new. We are inexperienced in the use of these processes, and we know little about the possible hazards. It includes vinyl chloride and other petrochemicals. The society stresses a list of chemicals which should be monitored continuously in this way. I shall not weary the House by mentioning any more of them, but the society emphasises—and I agree with what it says—that, The responsibility for monitoring and publishing the results should be made without qualifications such as 'reasonable', 'best practicable', etc., otherwise the undertaking will be useless—not only from a scientific point of view, but also if it is to gain public confidence. I mention in the motion the question of more effective monitoring. Can my hon. Friend say what monitoring is being undertaken, especially in the new petrochemical industries, and whether any results have come through?

The Association of Metropolitan Authorities has made some valuable suggestions in its recently published evidence to the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution. I believe that what it said in its evidence could be helpful in informing the public of the dangers.

As my hon. Friend knows, there is some criticism of the Alkali Inspectorate, but I do not wish to engage in such criticism this morning. The point which is frequently made, and which the AMA supports, that the inspectorate is scattered and is a national grouping, often remote from the local community, is important. If I or any other hon. Member had a pollution problem, such as a factory causing trouble, how many of us would know—I certainly would not—who the local alkali inspector was? But I know my local authority's address and telephone number.

The AMA makes the point that the new large local authorities have the power to appoint more environmental protection officers, who can work in liaison with the alkali inspectors. They are locally known, they know the local problems, and they could be valuable as a link with the public.

This is important because, as in the Laporte Industries incident at Ilford and the Pitsea scare, when people become alarmed they want to get in touch with someone who they think can help. If the local authorities had more powers and more officers it would be extremely helpful.

The AMA also makes the point that more needs to be done about planning decisions and the siting of such installations. I hope that my hon. Friend, if he has not already seen these comments, will study them with some care.

I have sought to open up a complex, difficult subject which is causing a great deal of concern to my hon. Friend and his Department, and to many members of the public. It is a subject about which a great deal has been done already. However, in the context of dangerous chemicals and hazards of one kind or another, the more one knows and the more one does, the more one discovers what there is to know and to do. Because we are living in a scientific age there will be no let up. We must keep moving forward all the time.

I appeal to my hon. Friend to accept my motion. If he does not, I hope that he will take note of some of the things I have said. I ask him to give us some reassurance cm some of these points and to make it clear that his Department and those concerned in the implementation of the Control of Pollution Act will be very much concerned with the newer substances, which can be extremely hazardous and which will probably need technical changes in monitoring if we are to evaluate them properly. I hope that I have not wearied my hon. Friend with this discourse. I shall be most grateful for any reassurance he can give.

11.48 a.m.

Mr. Arnold Shaw (Ilford, South)

I am more than glad to follow my hon. Friend, the Member for Wood Green (Mrs. Butler). The House will be grateful to her for moving the motion, which is of such considerable importance and interest to us all. The House is aware of the interest which my hon. Friend has taken for a long time in all matters concerning the health and welfare of the community.

As my hon. Friend said, the motion is wide. It ranges from the effects on the environment of the lead content of petrol to health and safety in connection with certain manufacturing processes. I am glad to be able to take this opportunity to speak, in view of the incident to which my hon. Friend referred, the explosion at the Laporte chemical works in my constituency.

Before going on to that, I should like in passing to mention a recent experience of mine connected with the pollution of the atmosphere by petrol fumes, such as one finds on many busy roads. There was recently a hold-up on the main road where I live that was caused by flooding. As a result, there was no traffic for a matter of two or three days. The result was amazing. The road had almost the atmosphere of the open country. Noise was virtually non-existent and there were no longer any fumes. I am not for a moment suggesting that we can do much about that, or that we should engineer flooding in order to ensure that traffic does not use certain roads, but the incident illustrated the effect of pollution engendered by traffic and the emission of petrol fumes.

I want to deal rather more with the aspect of the motion that is connected with the effect on the environment and on health and safety of factories engaged in chemical processes. When I first came to the House, in April 1966, in my maiden speech I referred to the Laporte chemical works in Ilford, South, particularly its effect on a school virtually cheek by jowl with that factory. I was discussing in broad terms the subject of education in my borough.

The subject had received a good deal of attention in the local Press at the time because of the effect of the works—the fumes, smell, noise and so on—on the school. The local newspaper discussed the subject under the heading "The school of shame". What was happening was that even at the height of the summer, in the heat of the day, the windows of the school had to be closed in order to keep out the smells, noise and so on, emanating from the factory.

Things have not changed very much in the course of the years. That was in 1966, but I am still getting representations from many constituents who live in the area and who are affected by the emissions, noise, smells and smoke and all the other unpleasant things that are generally attendant upon chemical works.

It would be unfair to suggest that nothing has been done by the firm, for it has tried its best to ameliorate the situation, but it has not succeeded. As recently as 15th February, I received a letter from a constituent living near the factory. I quote it to show that things have not changed very much since I last spoke on the subject. He said: During the last couple of years the smells from the factory have turned from an unpleasant but not very regular type into something which can be smelt indoors as well as out of doors, even if doors and windows are shut. I might add I am sure that the smells are being emitted at very regular intervals, much more than when we first moved into the area. … Would you fancy having to pack away your deck chair and go indoors on a sunny Sunday because of a foul smelling brown cloud? Apart from the inconvenience suffered by the school and the residents, there must be something in all this about which we do not know too much but at which my hon. Friend hinted. There must be lurking many dangers to the health of those who live in the vicinity and who may be completely unaware of these dangers. More should be done, and I hope that more will be done, to alleviate the situation in that part of my constituency.

I come now to the incident on Saturday 5th April. Let me begin by going back to June 1974 following the Flixborough disaster. It was clearly known that at Laporte's the very same chemical process, namely, the oxidation of cyclohexane, was carried out and that naturally gave rise to tremendous apprehension among local residents, particularly as the school was so close to the factory, a school attended by some 600 youngsters.

As a result of the agitation, there was a public meeting, which I attended, as did representatives of the firm and the various services, the police, the fire service and so on. All in all, the one result of that meeting, at which there was an assurance that there was no real danger from this process, was the institution of a "hot line" between the factory and the school. I do not know how much good that would do, except that in the event of the possibility of danger the school would be alerted much more quickly.

On 13th June, I asked my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment whether he would consider discussions with the firm with a view to possible resiting. I suppose that I might have anticipated the answer. He said that in the first place this was a matter for the local authority, which was the planning and the education authority. I should have thought that my right hon Friend would have delved a little more deeply.

However, there followed a good deal of correspondence between the Redbridge Borough Council, myself and the Secretary of State for Employment. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Small Heath (Mr. Howell) may be absolved from giving detailed answers on this subject because the bail is firmly in the court of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment.

I should like the Minister to give some assurances which might assuage the fears of the residents. For some time we have been awaiting the report of the inquiry into the Flixborough disaster. The Minister also referred to the safeguards which were envisaged and which were being incorporated in the then current Health and Safety at Work etc. Bill. Subsequently there was also the possibility that this plant should be considered by the new committee of experts on major hazards. Even then, the Minister stated that there was no guarantee that Laporte would be one of the chemical complexes to be considered by that committee.

Then at about midday on Saturday 5th April there was an explosion at the Laporte factory. It is true that it was not a cyclohexane explosion. It was an explosion in a plant which dealt with the processing of hydrogen. As a result one man died and some people were injured. The Factory Inspectorate, under the Health and Safety Commission, acted with commendable promptitude and every effort is being made to find the cause of the explosion.

The following Monday I put a Private Notice Question to Mr. Speaker which I hoped would bring a statement from the Minister. Rather to my surprise I was told that this Question was unacceptable to Mr. Speaker. I had to accept that. Meanwhile I had contacted the Chairman of the Health and Safety Commission and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment. I was assured that after the inspector had reported on the incident an inquiry would be held. I sincerely hope that, whatever happens, an inquiry will be held as soon as possible.

The House may feel that I am dealing with a narrow aspect of the motion. I am sure that hon. Members will appreciate that I must take the earliest opportunity to bring this matter to the notice of the House. Therefore, I am doubly grateful to my hon. Friend for tabling this motion.

This recent explosion has more than redoubled the anxieties of parents and residents in the area of the factory. Even now the factory is being picketed and children are being kept away from school. There is a definite demand by people in the area that assurances should be given. High hopes have been raised by the powers contained in the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act. I demand that speedy action be taken, although nothing will satisfy the residents other than a resiting of the factory. I know the difficulties involved in this. At the very least any process which is considered to be dangerous should be stopped.

I have mentioned my own constituency and this factory, but obviously the matter has much wider implications. There are many factories like the Laporte factory throughout the country. I agree that there should be public participation and knowledge of what is taking place in these factories because only that will give a certain amount of reassurance to the people who are extremely anxious.

12.5 p.m.

Mr. Tim Sainsbury (Hove)

I am sure that all hon. Members are grateful to the hon. Member for Wood Green (Mrs. Butler) for tabling this motion. This is an area where we can safely say that back-bench initiative has proved effective and important over the years.

It was the late Sir Gerald Nabarro who introduced the Clean Air Act of 1956. It was said by some gathered on the top floor of the Department of the Environment on the day that he died, which was a gloomy day, that the fact that they could see from there to Crystal Palace and Muswell Hill was probably the greatest memorial he could have had.

Sadly, those standing outside the Department of the Environment and contemplating the Marsham Street building might wish on most occasions for a thick fog to descend instantaneously and remove their view of that particular bit of environmental pollution. However, that might be held to be outside the terms of this motion.

This is an important subject for several reasons. There is the effect on the health of people working in factories and people living in the environs of certain factories, and on people who are subject to traffic fumes. It is an important subject because it is frequently a matter of public concern, both generally and, as the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Shaw) has pointed out, locally.

We could probably agree that it is also important because there is, in practical terms, almost no limit to the expenditure that could be incurred in improving safety and almost no limit to the regulations that could be introduced. The hon. Member for Ilford, South said that any process that was in any way dangerous should be stopped. On reflection, he might agree that this is a rather drastic statement, because practically anything can be held to be "in any way dangerous". At the turn of the century it was true that because a man with a red flag—there are no political connotations in this—walked in front of every vehicle, traffic accidents were few. That is not realistic.

There is the difficulty of balancing expenditure, especially at the margin, and regulations against the effect that they will actually achieve. In doing that we have to strike a balance between emotion—which is understandably strongly aroused in many of these cases—and reason. It was once pointed out that there are, in practice, no poisonous substances, but only poisonous concentrations of substances. This is a rather extreme statement, although it is true. Only a very small concentration of some substances is needed to make them poisonous, while others are poisonous in larger concentrations. Household salt is a familiar example. Another, which is of concern to a number of hon. Members and which is in fairly general use, is fluoride. When we become involved in the argument about fluoridation, we see the additional complications and the contradictory arguments of experts.

People with good qualifications argue that certain evidence proves something and other people with equally good qualifications argue that it proves nothing of the sort, or that it proves something else. Equally, they might say that the test was subject to certain degrees of accuracy and that the test carried out was within the bounds of error.

Mr. Andrew Bowden (Brighton, Kemptown)

In the light of what my hon. Friend has just said, there is a great deal of conflicting evidence from experts about the use of fluorides in both food and water. Would it not be wise to minimise their use in food and to ban completely their use in water until we know the exact medical position?

Mr. Sainsbury

Where there is contradictory evidence we must be extremely careful about the regulations permitting the use of any substance. Fluorides are a clear example. There are regulations laying down the concentration of fluorides permitted in foods but there is the more difficult question whether it is proper for such substances to be introduced into the public water supply. That raises a separate issue, which is perhaps one that I should not go into in detail at this stage.

A matter of considerable importance is the question of reducing pollution and improving the environment. I hope that this will not become a party matter. The nation can feel reasonably proud when it considers the progress that has peen made. As a House, we can be reasonably proud of the number of Acts that have been passed and the length of the debates that have taken place. It seems that we have the framework of control and that we are making, and must hope to continue to make, steady progress in improving the application of the regulations and controls that already exist.

The hon. Members for Wood Green (Mrs. Butler) and Ilford, South (Mr. Shaw) both raised a second important aspect, namely, the problem of informing and reassuring the public at large and employees of plants where processes are taking place that might be held to be potentially dangerous. Here again, progress has been made. The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 is an important aspect of that progress. Against that background there is the problem of the clash between reason and emotion. We must ensure that information is available in a meaningful form to people living in the surroundings and working in the plants.

What has been said about lead is a good example. I am sure that the hon. Member for Wood Green is familiar with an interesting debate that took place on 2nd April last year in another place. During the course of the debate it was suggested that to control the lead content in petrol was basically tackling the problem from the wrong end. One could say that it is literally tackling the problem from the wrong end. It was suggested that the most effective way of tackling the problem was to control the lead content of the gases that are emitted by cars after the process of internal combustion has taken place rather than trying to control the lead content of the petrol that goes into the engine.

There are good reasons for that proposition. I quote from an article in the Petroleum Review of last month, which reads: A recent report issued by the British Technical Council of the Motor and Petroleum industries embodies the following comment in the principal conclusions: 'gasolene economy in use is most effectively improved by increase in octane quality. The most economic means of effecting this lies in the use of lead anti-knock compounds.' The situation which exists, as I understand it—I hasten to add that I am not a scientist or an expert on the petroleum industry—means that substantial costs would be incurred if we moved to the total elimination of lead in petrol or moved from the present limit, which I believe is 0.55 grammes per litre. It has been suggested that such a move could cost £425 million in terms of the extra oil that would need to be imported. There would also be refinery expenditure in excess of £300 million. Further, there would be the problem of adapting car and commercial vehicle engines to take lead-free fuel. That would mean that for quite a long period there would have to be on the roads both vehicles with engines accepting lead-free fuel and vehicles with engines requiring fuel with a lead content. Further, there is the problem of the compatibility of our vehicles with other vehicles on the export market.

Many problems and many implications are involved in tackling the problem of lead pollution by trying to reduce too drastically the permitted content in petrol. It seems that we should pursue energetically the theory and the idea of reducing and eliminating the lead content in the gases that are emitted.

We must also recognise that there are serious arguments whether the lead content in the atmosphere arising from petrol fumes is as serious a matter as is sometimes made out. I shall quote from a finding of the United States Court of Appeals. The hon. Lady has mentioned certain evidence from the United States and I think that my quotation is relevant. The majority view of the United States Court of Appeals was that evidence did not support the Administrator's findings that auto emissions contributed significantly to blood lead levels in adults and children and that the issuance of the regulations was arbitrary and capricious. The regulations were those seeking to reduce the permitted lead content, and they were therefore set aside.

Of course, the Minister does not have to contend with a Court of Appeals or a court that has the power to set aside regulations as being "arbitrary and capricious", but that finding was clearly arrived at after a great deal of research. Here again it seems that we are considering an area in which experts are arguing on both sides. It is an area about which we need to be concerned and where progress can be made, but it seems that the progress that can be made should be made from the other end of the problem—namely, the exhaust gases from the car. At that end progress can be made more cheaply in terms of our balance of payments and of energy conservation.

I now turn from the question of petrol to that of water. I feel that I cannot miss the opportunity of saying something in praise of the water reorganisation. The Minister may find this surprising coming from me. It seems that as a result of the reorganisation we now have a much better structure to control and monitor effluent. I hope that the Minister will agree that sufficient powers already exist to do that and that it is being done. Progress is being made steadily but we need to keep under review the penalties that are applied to those who discharge effluent outside the permitted limits and those who discharge effluent without permission.

In an inflationary period we may find that penalties become relatively derisory unless they are kept under continual review. I hope that the Minister will agree that the legislation and the regulations that already exist provide a good framework of control. However, there are areas where we should look for improvement. We must avoid complacency. Equally, I suggest that we must avoid emotional over-reaction.

If we are to continue the progress that we have seen, perhaps I may make a few suggestions of ways in which it might be done.

One area of activity concerns the control of effluent. There is a strong case to be made for a drive in a certain area to improve the quality of the water in a river in order to show what can be done relatively easily and cheaply if strict control is introduced of all discharges into that waterway.

Reference has been made to the Alkali Inspectorate. I believe that we should consider enlarging and strengthening it. The hon. Lady said that inspectors were not under the control of local authorities, but we have here a complicated and specialist area. In the Alkali Inspectorate, we have an organisation which is generally admired and respected—not only in this country. Alkali inspectors have a great fund of specialist knowledge, and there is a great deal to be said for building up the inspectorate steadily, so that its own monitoring and inspection can be improved in order to ensure that the areas for which inspectors are responsible, such as scheduled discharges and scheduled factories, are controlled properly.

We should also consider the more ready accessibility of the register of licences. What is more, the results of the monitoring which goes on should be more readily available to the public and to employees. In view of the continuing interest in this area, I suggest that the Department should consider issuing a potted guide to the existing legislation and regulations, even if in present economic circumstances it has to make a charge for it. That in itself could be reassuring to the public, because people would be able to see in layman's language the measures and controls which exist and the responsibilities laid upon various organisations.

We have made progress, and I believe that we can continue to make progress both in improving the environment and in informing and reassuring the public.

12.23 p.m.

Mr. Andrew Bowden (Brighton, Kemptown)

I want first to offer my congratulations to the hon. Member for Wood Green (Mrs. Butler) for having raised this subject. I appreciate that she has worded her motion fairly broadly. I hope that it will be broad enough for me to make the comments which I wish to make, because I intend to concentrate on the use of fluorides, especially those which are the byproducts of manufacturing processes.

Perhaps I might make a brief comment on the hon. Lady's speech. She mentioned the difficulty of lead pipes in old houses. This is a real problem, and I suspect that it is one which affects a lot of people living in old properties. In my own constituency there are many properties of this type, which were built 150 or more years ago. In many cases, they still have the original pipes—inevitably lead pipes. There is evidence to show that there is real danger of poison being obtained from the water passing through those pipes, and it could be that children are especially vulnerable. That is a matter which the Minister should examine very closely.

As I said just now, I want to concentrate my remarks on the fluorides produced by manufacturing processes. Sodium chloride is used and results in industrial wastes during the manufacture of aluminium. At this point, I should perhaps declare an interest to the House in case there are any hon. Members present who are not aware of it. I am the chairman of the all-party Anti-Fluoridation Group, which has 85 members. Although the group is concerned principally with water and the possible use of the public water supply for a form of compulsory mass medication, many of us are also concerned about the use of fluorides in foods and other substances.

Some research has been done in various areas about the use of and effect of fluorides. The Medical Research Council had a special project in Scotland. It was decided that it was impossible to detect how much fluoride was being emitted from British Aluminium smelters in the Invergordon area. What is interesting, however, is that since the Medical Research Council report, farming round the Fort William area has avoided those areas where high fluoride contamination might be expected. I suggest that this shows that there is more and more evidence that unless fluorides are used very carefully we are dealing with substances which are highly toxic and could do grave damage in many areas.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Mr. Sainsbury) for having referred to the conflicting views among medical opinion about fluorides and their use, and I wish to place on record the names of some of the most prominent members of the medical profession and scientists who, over many years of research, have expressed views showing their concern about the use of fluorides. I do this because those people who advocate their use, especially in water, tend to say that there is no danger since there is a strong group of doctors and scientists who say that there is no danger. However, there is an equally strong group of opinion on the other side.

I mention a few of their names. There is Dr. Hugh Sinclair, of Magdalen College, Oxford, who is a leading nutritionist. There is Dr. Roger Berry, of Churchill Hospital, Oxford. There is Dr. Reginald Holman of the Department of Bacteriology at the Welsh National School of Medicine. There is Dr. Thomas Day, of Guy's Hospital, London, who is a thyroid researcher. There is Dr. Margaret Crawford, of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. There is Professor Nordin, director of the MRC Mineral Metabolism Unit, Leeds. There is Sir Joseph Hutchinson, of Cambridge. All those people are highly reputable and very senior scientists in their own specialties. All have expressed grave doubts about the use of fluorides, especially in water.

I mention one other name, and I quote from a letter which I received recently from the Professor of Physical Chemistry at the Universiy of Salford, Mr. W. J. Orville-Thomas. He writes: I hope it will be helpful to you to realise that there are very many reputable scientists like myself who oppose this compulsory measure"— he is talking about the fluoridation of water supplies— on moral, as well as scientific grounds. So far as I am concerned, the long-term medical effects could be disastrous and it seems ridiculous that any government would be prepared to adopt mass medication on this scale without carrying out the necessary medical research. I turn from that area, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because I sense that I am in danger of incurring your displeasure, and that is the last thing that I want to do.

The World Health Organisation report of 1970 concentrated largely on the role of fluorides in human health. Again. I am talking about fluorides which have been produced as a result of a manufacturing process. We know that these fluorides are highly toxic. Indeed, the case could be made out that, rather than putting these substances into food or water, it is desirable to take them out of food and water wherever possible.

I know that I must not touch upon the moral issues involved. Therefore, I turn to an organisation known as the Borrow Dental Milk Foundation. The foundation has for some time proclaimed the view that it would be much better to use fluorides in milk where they may be directly beneficial to public health, particularly to the health of children, than to use them in any other substances, especially water. I know that I am on procedurally dangerous ground, so I shall conclude on this note.

There is overwhelming evidence to show that the use in food or water of fluorides artificially produced through manufacturing processes can be dangerous. I submit that the Minister of State, Department of the Environment, who is with us this morning, should consider this angle and might well like to consult his colleagues in the Department of Health and Social Security on mounting a major investigation to establish once for all the true medical and chemical position.

12.32 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department of the Environment (Mr. Denis Howell)

I start by expressing appreciation to my hon. Friend the Member for Wood Green (Mrs. Butler) for the comprehensive and competent way in which she moved the motion, which the Government have no hesitation in accepting, with a reservation, which I am sure my hon. Friend will appreciate, on the urgent question of lead in petrol, with which I shall deal later.

I am sure that the House will want to reflect the growing concern and interest which the country is taking in environmental matters. The Government take the view, which my hon. Friend put forward, that public concern about the environment should be encouraged and welcomed because it can do nothing but good. There is a little risk, as the hon. Member for Hove (Mr. Sainsbury) said, when one has to rationalise emotional arguments against arguments of reason. Nevertheless, in a free society we must approach that rationalisation in a mature manner. Certainly, the Government's approach in the past 12 months has been on that basis. We want to ascertain as much factual information about the risks to the environment as we can, we want that information discussed as much as possible, we want there to be as much monitoring of the problem as possible, and we want to provide the public with the results of the monitoring so that we may have sensible debates in the House and thereby conclude sensible legislation.

Our legislation on pollution is probably ahead of that in any other country. In talking to European colleagues I have found that they show tremendous interest in the Control of Pollution Act, which we put on the statute book last year. That legislation is far-reaching, and deals with many aspects of pollution. Because it went through the House rather rapidly towards the summer it escaped the notice of many of the pundits in the Press and media, much to my regret.

When the House disagrees on any matter, headlines appear in the Press, but no such headlines appear on subjects about which we all agree. The Bill—containing 109 clauses and four schedules—which received all-party agreement, was hardly thought worthy of mention. Yet the far-reaching powers contained in the Control of Pollution Act will have a much more profound effect upon peoples' lives than will many of the matters about which the House differs. Perhaps the House will excuse me for getting that off my chest, as I had responsibility for the Bill and steered it through the House in record time, having regard to its complexities. Debates such as this focus attention on the subject, and I hope that our friends in the media, including the Press, will be alerted to the importance of the issues involved.

We should do well to remember that, as the hon. Member for Hove said, we are an industrial society, and it is unreasonable to expect to run an industrial society without incurring risks or dangers. It is not possible to remove the dangers or risks, although my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Shaw) asked that this should be done. We can make certain that those dangers and risks are kept to the absolute minimum compatible with public safety and that there are safeguards and public awareness, and that is the Government's approach. Wherever industrial processes cause danger and risk the Government's view is that the only possible policy is that of maintaining continuous concern about safety. It is better that unjustifiable risks should be discussed in the House and disposed of by reasonable argument than that they should not be raised, as happened in the past.

The hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Mr. Bowden) referred to the Alkali Inspectorate. As an old local government man, I am jealous of the rights of local authorities, but it is impracticable for even the new local authorities—reduced to 400 or so—each to contain the collective wisdom and experience which the Alkali Inspectorate has gained over the years. Its activities are very specialised, particularly in the control of smoke emissions and the pollution of the atmosphere in that way.

I join in the tribute which has been paid to our late colleague, Sir Gerald Nabarro, who did so much in the early 1950s to concentrate attention on this danger. The work of the Alkali Inspectorate concerned with industrial processes is first class. In those days I took the view which my hon. Friend the Member for Wood Green takes now. I wondered whether the job should be given to the local authorities, but my experience now is that in practice the present system works very well.

The hon. Member for Hove teased me about the building in which I work—the Department of the Environment. I agree with him that it is probably one of the most unattractive buildings in London. The one advantage of working in it is that one cannot, from inside, see what the building looks like. From my office on the eighteenth floor there is a superb view of London and one can see all the clean buildings—what a joy it is to behold. I do not invite the public to come to my office to see the view, but when my environment colleagues come to see me the first thing they want to do is to look out over London. When they look out and see the clear London atmosphere and the cleaned buildings, they comment on our great success and say what a joy it is to see London.

I have to explain to them that, the reason for our success is that in our legislation we have adopted the principle that the best practicable processes and means must be used. Some people think that it is possible to lay down in legislation hard and fast pollution standards. But it is not possible in an industrialised society. However, we can demand of our industrialists—this practice has been adopted by successive Governments—that they use the best practicable means of dealing with a given situation and that if there are better means through the Alkali Inspectorate they must adopt them.

I am glad of the opportunity to be able to refer to the campaign of Sir Gerald Nabarro and the question of atmospheric pollution because it dramatically illustrates how the British approach to the subject, given an industrial society such as ours, has succeeded. If we adopt the same practical approach to other matters, such as the matter of noise, which interests me, I hope that we shall have similar dramatic success.

Mr. Bowden

It is a source of great pride to London and to the country generally that when the right hon. Gentleman's opposite numbers from other parts of the world come to see him they are able to look out of his office window at a London which is so much cleaner than it used to be. It is a matter of great satisfaction to know that when a building in London is cleaned it will be a long time before it becomes dirty again, whereas 25 years ago a building could have been cleaned and within months start to look grey, and a few months after that again look black.

Does the Minister agree that one of the black spots which are left—I am not sure whether he can see it from his office window, but it is possible to see it from elsewhere in his Department—is the Palace of Westminster, which should be cleaned as quickly as possible? It is one of the first buildings which visitors look at, and parts of it are disgraceful.

Mr. Howell

I can look out on to the Palace of Westminstear, and I do so frequently, especially when I am in a contemplative mood. I may, for instance, focus my attention on Big Ben. However, I am not an expert on the subject of cleaning. There are difficulties concerning the nature of the stone with which the Palace of Westminstear was constructed, but much work has been done in cleaning it. Quite recently some experimental work was done on a portion near the House of Lords to see how best the stone could be cleaned. I take the hon. Gentleman's point and I shall ensure that my colleague in the Department who has responsibility for this building is made aware of it.

Mrs. Butler

I should not like to do the Association of Municipal Authorities an injustice, and in my enthusiasm for its paper I may have given a misleading impression. I understand that what it said was that it had qualified inspectors in smoke control and air pollution matters, and that greater use could be made of them. It had no intention of superseding the Alkali Inspectorate, but wished to work with it, with the inspectorate working on a national basis and the local authorities working locally, which seemed to me a very good point.

Mr. Howell

It is a good point, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for clearing up the matter. That is our approach. At meetings which I have had to discuss specific problems when I have had members of the inspectorate with me, together with representatives of the local authorities, I have emphasised that although all the technical expertise is with the inspectorate there should be the maximum co-operation with the public health inspectorate and local authorities and that the central expertise could be made widely available. That policy is acceptable to the Alkali Inspectorate.

I come specifically to the question dealt with in the motion. The Government accept the need for all the processes to be effectively monitored. The first priority for the Central Unit on Environmental Pollution, set up in 1970, was to co-ordinate Government measures for pollution control, and the first measure taken was a comprehensive survey of monitoring effort. I am glad to say that the report of the survey revealed that this country is probably more intensively monitored than any other industrialised country, which possibly gives us some degree of satisfaction.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wood Green may be aware of the regular national survey on smoke and sulphur dioxide carried out by local authorities and co-ordinated for the Government by the Warren Springs Laboratory. A number of substances pose local rather than national problems. For instance, fluoride can give rise to very undesirable emissions round ceramic and brick works.

I do not wish to comment on what the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown said about the question of fluoride in water, except that I have never agreed with his policy, so I am not one of the 86 Members. However, he will know that this is a matter not for my Department but for the Secretary of State for Social Services. I had not come prepared to talk on that subject, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that very careful attention is being given to the question of the presence of fluoride in foodstuffs and its addition to water and other substances. No doubt if he wishes to pursue the detailed questions which he raised he will do so with the responsible Minister. However, I do not object to his taking the opportunity afforded by this debate to raise such matters.

One of the purposes of monitoring is to enable us to spot in advance the problems which might arise nationally or locally. It is important, therefore, that our monitoring system should be designed to deal with new factories and the production of new substances. We have, in fact, recently reviewed and widened the scope of the air monitoring programme with a view to ensuring that it covers the kind of substances which may be released by modern processes. For example, my Department, in co-operation with local authorities, is sponsoring a study of the levels of various pollutants, including heavy metals such as lead and cadmium, at a series of sites throughout the country in both industrialised and non-industrialised situations. The results of the study will be published. This is in addition to the many local surveys which firms and local authorities are carrying out on their own account.

Noxious substances also reach the environment through water courses, and the monitoring of the quality of our rivers has long been a practice of authorities responsible for the condition of water for the public. The national river survey has illustrated the findings of this monitoring. Recently water authorities have been reorganised. As a result there is probably greater concentration of attention than ever before by the water authorities on the disposal and cleaning of water and on what the hon. Member for Hove called the problem of effluent.

I am not surprised that the hon. Member mentioned the matter. It is true that as a result of the reorganisation of water authorities, by which we in the Labour Party were not very attracted, one of the benefits—the public are complaining about it—has been the determination of the new authorities to take effective action to deal with our sewage and waste disposal in a satisfactory way. I am afraid that there is a long history. A working party chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, South (Mrs. Jeger) showed the history of neglect in this matter, regrettably, by some local authorities which needed to be put right.

We cannot tackle those problems on the cheap. It is very expensive to put in new sewage systems and to see that water is treated properly to meet society's needs. We now have to use water several times over in the course of progress. For example, from where the Thames rises in Oxfordshire to its mouth the water might be used six or seven times over, being cleaned and treated each time. The growth of demand for water by the domestic user and by industry is enormous.

If we are to use our precious assets to the full and recycle water in this way, cleaning it to safeguard public health is an expensive business. So we cannot escape the fact that, if we want clean air and cleaner and more wholesome water, those things must be paid for. The public are entitled to accept that the water authorities carry out their duties as efficiently and economically as possible—and the Government intend to ensure that that happens.

Mr. Sainsbury

I hope that the Minister will agree, when he refers to the public complaining that the complaints arise from the cost of the improvement. They come from individual members of the public or from companies who have to carry out sometimes expensive works to improve the effluent. I take it that he agrees that the reorganised water authorities are much better placed to bring about this improvement. Would he care to comment on the suggestion of a particularly intensive programme in one area to show what can he achieved by control to improve the quality of the water course to a remarkable degree?

Mr. Howell

I am afraid that the size of the capital programme necessary to meet this backlog of neglect is enormous. Ministers have to consider other parts of their programme, like the need for housing and schools, and decide how much the country can afford at any one time. We have not done badly at all in terms of the size of the capital programme which we have provided for the water authorities.

There is something to be said, where it is possible, for concentrating on one aspect of a problem and doing it well so as to show what can be done. The Government take the view that there is a lot of sense in this, especially as applied to one of the tidal estuaries. We are attracted by the idea of doing this in the Tyne. If we concentrated resources on cleaning up the Tyne and bringing back new life to it—not only cleaning the water but opening up access for people to enjoy the pleasures of waterside walking, and so on—it would show the tremendous possibilities which exist elsewhere. We are looking at this at present. but I repeat that the question here, as in other areas of government, is that of the availability of money.

Still dealing with monitoring, we are also in the throes of improving our knowledge of the solid waste that has been placed on tips around the country and what can be expected in future. An extensive survey is currently being carried out on the condition and content of all tips. Here again, the provisions in the Control of Pollution Act will require authorities to continue to keep the kinds of records of the disposal of potentially toxic wastes which are already required under the Deposit of Poisonous Waste Act.

I hope that this detailed information on monitoring will satisfy my hon. Friend the Member for Wood Green, who properly raised it in her motion, that we attach the greatest importance to continuous monitoring. If we feel it necessary to take steps for additional monitoring, we shall not hesitate to do so.

The publication of this information when collected as a result of monitoring is another important matter. Discussion on sources of information on emissions and discharges of waste to the environment lead me naturally to the right of the public to access to the information. We fully accept the public's right of access here. There is a little difficulty of course on the subject of the confidentiality of information about waste release which has exercised the minds of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, on which we have commented more than once.

We have accepted the Royal Commission's view that the whole aura of secrecy which cloaked information in the past is not only unnecessary but in many cases is counter-productive. We much prefer a more open policy, subject only to the kind of trade secrets on which we are told that we must maintain confidentiality in the interests of British industry. The Department takes the view that it is highly unlikely, except in the most exceptional circumstances, that our trade competitors could discover from an analysis of our waste products many of the industrial secrets that we are anxious to maintain. So we share the Royal Commission's view on this subject.

I have spoken about the Control of Pollution Act, to which we attach the greatest importance. I do not think that the House will want me to go into detail about the considerable powers under the Act, which are brought into operation by statutory instrument. We are consulting local authorities to discover the programme for bringing it in, which we are anxious to do as early as possible.

I am hopeful that a timetable will start, bringing the Act fully into operation in many respects later in the year. One or two aspects will have to be deferred, but only because, in their present financial situation, local authorities believe that those parts of the Act which require additional staff or expenditure must be delayed for a year or so until they can meet those commitments. We are in discussions with the local authority associations and co-operating fully with them over the implementation of the whole Act.

I turn now to the question of lead in the environment, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Wood Green devoted much of her speech. I hope that she and other hon. Members have found time to read the report on lead, a copy of which has been placed in the Library. That serves to put this matter into perspective and answers many questions raised today. We share my hon. Friend's concern.

For the benefit of those who have not read the report, I should like to sum up its principal conclusions. The first is that there is no evidence that present levels of lead in the environment are hazardous to health.

The report recommended, and the Government fully accept, that, because lead is a known toxic substance, it would none the less be prudent not to allow these levels to rise, if possible, and, indeed, to take positive steps to reduce them, especially in areas or circumstances where people are most exposed to risks. Many steps have already been taken or initiated, and I will deal with some of them.

A great deal of the debate has centred on the amount of lead in petrol. By far the greater part of man's intake of lead is through food and drink. Because of this knowledge, my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food undertook a comprehensive survey to discover the lead content in food, the results of which were published in 1972. It is reassuring to discover that the dietary intake of lead of the average person in the United Kingdom does not appear to have increased over the last 25 years, despite the vast increase in that period in the use of lead in petrol, to which I will turn shortly.

The report identified problems in some areas where soft water may have a tendency to dissolve the lead content of pipes—that is another matter that has come up—and, therefore, drinking water would consequently exceed the standard recommended by the World Health Organisation. Even in areas—I do not like the jargon—of plumbo-solvent water, we have found that only a small proportion of tap samples exceed the World Health Organisation standard, and then not by very much.

It is worth noticing that this standard is set at a level far below that at which clinical symptons of lead poisoning would normally be expected to occur. That is a very important point. None the less, the attention of the authorities concerned has been drawn to possible remedies, which include chemical treatment and the replacement of lead pipings and fittings. This kind of replacement is tak- ing place all the time with our urban renewal programmes which tend to be concentrated in areas where there is older housing.

In the short term, I should like to take this opportunity of re-emphasising the advice that we have given to people who still have lead pipes in their homes. The most important thing is to run to waste the water which has been standing in lead pipes overnight. This advice has already been given. My advice to people is that, if they have lead pipes, for heaven's sake turn on the tap first thing in the morning and allow some of the water to run to waste before using it. What concerns me is that often the people who need that advice never receive it. I should appreciate any help that I can get from appropriate authorities to make that advice known to the people concerned. The main thing is to replace lead pipes as soon as possible. That is an aspect of our urban renewal programme to which we attach great importance.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wood Green touched briefly on the dangers of the lead content in paint. Some years ago the high lead content in paint was a serious matter. It led to most of the common causes of lead poisoning. Children especially, as my hon. Friend said, have a tendency to chew things, most of which have been painted. With modern processes and new properties in paint, that is not now the problem that it used to be.

There are 1,000 lead works in this country. The problems of many of them, particularly in Avonmouth, the Isle of Dogs and Rotherhithe, have been taken up in the past and action has been taken to reduce the risk of lead escaping to the environment outside those factories. Codes of conduct covering industrial hygiene have been issued from time to time, but the important thing is the continuous monitoring of the environment immediately surrounding these works. That programme is going on, including the measurement of the levels of lead in the blood of children living in the vicinities.

I turn now to the question of lead in petrol to which my hon. Friend referred. This is a matter with which we have constantly been dealing since I have been in office, and I understand that my predecessors were also dealing with it.

I went to Gravelly Hill—Spaghetti Junction, as it is called—and established a working party to find out what was happening there. I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Silverman), in whose constituency the hideous Spaghetti Junction is situated, is present because he accompanied me on that occasion. We have had remarkable co-operation from the Aston University authorities, and particularly the Birmingham District Council, in the monitoring programme that we have conducted at Gravelly Hill. We have also been conducting monitoring programmes on the effect of lead emissions from motor vehicles in other parts of the country in other situations.

Whilst there has been an increase in the levels of lead in the blood of people in the area of Spaghetti Junction, for example, which need to and will be kept under constant watch, the message from the working party is reassuring. It is that the levels of lead in the blood which we have been able to check from the different programmes should not give us any cause for alarm.

I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) is not now present. No doubt still thinking of the earlier events of this week in the House, he rather suggested that the fact that we are in the Common Market would prevent this House debating questions of that kind. My hon. Friend explained that he could not stay as he had a constituency engagement, which I well understand. Since my hon. Friend made that suggestion, I should point out that, because of the processes of this House, there is likely to be more, not less, control over this matter. My hon. Friend was not right in what he said.

For example, the question of the lead content in petrol has received the attention of the Scrutiny Committee on European legislation, and we have given an undertaking, on its recommendation, that there will be a specific debate on this matter when the proposed EEC directive limiting the lead content in petrol comes before the House later in the Session. I think that is a matter about which we can be reasonably pleased.

I should explain to the House that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy has recommended that, before we have any further reductions in the lead content in petrol, a major review should be undertaken. The reason is that we undertook to reduce the level of lead in petrol in November last year. The present level of lead in petrol is 0.55g per litre, which became effective on 1st November. According to EEC regulations, we should have a further reduction to 0.40g per litre, which is the figure that the EEC directive is likely to suggest.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wood Green spoke strongly on this matter. Indeed, to a large measure I share the strong feelings that she expressed. The difficulty is entirely one of the balance of payments. There is no problem about telling people to limit the amount of lead in their petrol, or that they should not have lead in their petrol. Lead is not necessary in petrol, but it increases the efficiency of the vehicle. it gives the vehicle a boost, or whatever young people who drive their motor cycles around the country call the phenomenon. Lead reduces the knocking quality of petrol.

If lead is removed from petrol, more oil is needed to produce the same degree of efficiency. For balance of payments reasons the Government were not able to proceed with the next stage of the programme of reduction from 0.55 to 0.40 grammes per litre. Such a reduction would cost us £20 million per annum, provided that at current market prices all the other byproducts from crude oil could be sold. I am told that it is far from likely that, if more oil were imported to be processed, we should be able to sell off all the byproducts. If that were the case, the cost to the country of the further reduction would be about £60 million. Therefore, between £20 million and £60 million is the best estimate I can give of the cost of the further reduction of the lead content in petrol.

It is not a question of charging for it. I tend to agree with the view expressed by my hon. Friend that the motorist would agree to pay an additional price to help clean up the environment in this way. It is a question whether the country can afford at this moment to take on a further imposition of this kind on the balance of payments.

For this reason, the Government were anxious to look further into the question of filtering the lead out of exhausts by attaching a lead filter trap to motor cars. The Transport and Road Research Laboratory is undertaking an extensive programme of research into the development of the special type of filters involved. There is good news and bad news here. The good news is that the work has proved encouraging in showing that such traps are capable of removing a large proportion of the lead from exhaust gases. The bad news is that it would cost about £100 million a year to require all cars to be fitted with such filters.

Here again, when the programme is concluded we must make a judgment as to whether it would be better to put up with the increased cost on the balance of payments by removing the lead from the petrol before using it in motor cars or whether the problem should be dealt with after petrol has been burned by trying to trap it, which would cost £100 million a year and would probably take 10 years to achieve.

I am not making a statement of Government view here. I am just giving the House the facts. Personally I am rather inclined to share my hon. Friend's view that, although we would like to see the filter programme succeed, it may be that in this case prevention is better than cure. Nevertheless, that would depend upon the financial considerations.

Mr. Sainsbury

Does the Minister agree that this is an area where it is necessary to act internationally because of the need to adapt vehicle engines to take fuel with the specified lead content? Because of the very considerable international trade in motor vehicles, is not this a good example of an area where international cooperation is called for and where our working with the European Economic Community is likely to make that much more possible?

Mr. Howell

That is a reasonable point to make. My experience of our partners in Europe is that they will require that any cars we manufacture for export to them are capable of conforming with their regulations. This will therefore be an important determining factor at the end of the day. It is still an open question whether we proceed by having engines capable of using the type of petrol which is on the market at the time or by the filter method.

The review will include consideration of the latest medical evidence relating to the effects arising from lead in petrol, since the question which must be decided is how far public health is at risk. The one point which will be covered in this context is the extent to which levels of lead below those traditionally associated with clinical lead poisoning may be adversely affecting the public.

My hon. Friend may be aware that this is a matter of considerable scientific controversy. Although certain groups in the population—in particular, children—are known to be particularly susceptible to lead, the absorption of lead and reaction to it tend to vary widely between individuals. Therefore, there is no single figure which can be given as a safe level for the public, although less than 40 microgrammes per 100 millimetres of blood is usually taken as the top level.

At the same time, although subclinical concentrations are certainly known to have a biochemical effect, whether such effects are damaging in the long term is still unknown. Meanwhile, we must treat with great care claims that enhanced blood lead levels below those normally associated with clinical poisoning are either associated with or a cause of mental or behavioural abnormality. Some claims have been made which would obviously concern us all but which are subject to rather different views from other experts in the field. Therefore, in the present state of our knowledge I hope that the medical people concerned will not cause undue public concern on this matter.

The Department of Health and Social Security is assessing the problems of the behavioural effects of lead and will carry out work with control and exposed groups of people as better techniques detecting subtle effects become available. Meanwhile, the Department has set up a laboratory monitoring system in the United Kingdom to measure blood lead in children, to assess blood in urinary enzyme levels and to relate such studies to clinical work.

I turn now to the question of polyvinyl-chloride, which has occasioned considerable interest, particularly the question of vinyl chloride monomer. This is obviously a potentially hazardous substance. The dangers of high exposure of factory workers to VCM and the link with angiosarcoma, which is a rare form of liver cancer, are well known, but fatal cases identified to date total about 30, including two in this country. These cases involve workers exposed to very high concentrations of VCM over extended periods.

There are only six works in the United Kingdom where VCM is manufactured, and these are works where the major potential hazards lie. All are subject to very intense control internally by the Factory Inspectorate and externally by the Alkali and Clean Air Inspectorate. I assure the House that in those six cases the matter is kept under constant review and we believe that the controls we have at present are adequate for our purpose. As I have said, the greatest danger comes not from the outside environment but at the work place within the industry.

Measurements of VCM concentrations are being taken outside the production plants, and the Alkali Inspectorate has been working closely with the Factory Inspectorate and the Department of Health and Social Security, together with—I should add—the Chemical Industries Association. I am happy to tell the House that the Chemical Industries Association has always displayed a very responsible attitude to this question and to the various hazards involved.

Measurements so far have been found to be near the limit of detectability, which is about one part per million. The indications are, therefore, that VCM is not a danger to public health in this country. Moreover, I should make clear that in the vast number of factories throughout the country where PVC is fabricated into final products, the only VCM emissions are minute traces which have been entrained in the PVC. However, a great dealof work is still to be done to make sure that the public are not exposed to risk, and that work is under way.

I turn now to the asbestos problem. As with VCM, exposure to asbestos is principally a hazard in the working environment, and for this purpose the Factory Inspectorate prescribes stringent precautions. Measurement of the fibre content of the atmosphere in towns in which asbestos factories are situated does not suggest that the level is significantly different from that in other towns, or that a general health hazard exists. Very small quantities of asbestos fibres can normally be found in most industrial towns, but there are several orders of magnitude below the threshold considered significant for health purposes.

As I have said, in this case also the principal problem arises from exposure in the work place, and the Department of Employment has now issued protective regulations. General environmental levels of asbestos fibres are not considered sufficiently high to create a general health hazard, as I have said, but do-it-yourself enthusiasts and odd-job handymen may be at some risk from working with asbestos-containing materials, which are widely used because of their cheapness and fireproof qualities. Therefore, the Department of Prices and Consumer Protection is actively considering measures, including regulations, to improve protection in this area.

Mr. Max Madden (Sowerby)

My hon. Friend probably knows of the situation in my constituency where an asbestos plant was closed in 1970, since which there has been considerable cause for local anxiety. More than 30 former employees at that plant have died from asbestosis, and about 200 are now suffering the effects of the disease. The latest development is the diagnosis of asbestosis in two of my constituents who never worked in that plant, who had no connection with the plant and who had no contact with it throughout their working lives.

I suggest, therefore, that complacency in this matter is not justified, and I urge my hon. Friend to recognise that we may well see an increase in the number of people contracting asbestosis who do not work and have not worked with the substance in the working environment.

Mr. Howell

I am much obliged to my hon. Friend for his intervention. I assure him that there is no complacency whatever, and I hope that I did not leave him with that impression. Indeed, I went out of my way to make clear that that is far from true. My last observation before he intervened was to point out that the Department of Prices and Consumer Protection is actively considering measures, including regulations, to improve protection. Naturally, I am concerned to hear what my hon. Friends says about circumstances in his constituency, the bulk of the cases affected having been thought hitherto to be the result of exposure to the industrial process.

If this hazard has transmitted itself outside, I certainly agree that this should be invesigated. If my hon. Friend is not already in communication with my Department on the matter, I shall be grateful if he will now get in touch. I am very ready to see him to follow up the matters which he has raised.

I come now to the petrochemicals industry and, in particular, the incidents at the Laporte works and at Flixborough. Here also one has every possible sympathy with my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South and his constituents, as well as with all others who are worried about the potential hazards from petrochemical works. If my hon. Friends are concerned about emissions into the air, they can be assured that this part of the control lies with the Alkali and Clean Air Inspectorate. However, I understood that their principal concern was about the location and planning of such works, especially at Ilford. I have a good deal of sympathy with what they say, but I must point out that according to my information the Laporte factory was there before the houses and the school were erected, and not the other way round.

Mr. Arnold Shaw

The factory was there before the houses, but I cannot say that it was there before the school. The school is pretty ancient. However, the important point is that over the course of years the nature of the plant has changed considerably, and a good deal of planning approval must have been given to bring the plant to the state it is in now.

Mr. Howell

That is precisely the point I was coming to. If there is a major change in the processes within a factory, our planning law requires the approval of the planning authority. Naturally, that requires the maximum information being made available to the local authority, its officials and the public at large, but it is a planning matter, and these processes could not be carried out in the factory unless planning permission had at some stage been given.

As we know, before planning permission is given the proper notices have to be displayed, and people may object to the application, if they wish. I do not think that there is any short cut round those planning procedures. However, that is not to say that I have no sympathy with those concerned in their present difficulties or that I do not wish to help my hon. Friend is dealing with the special problem which has arisen in his constituency.

On more than one occasion the Government have impressed on local authorities the importance of taking into account the safety of the proposed industrial development when considering planning applications. The danger to surrounding communities is an important consideration. Expert advice on these matters from the Factory Inspectorate is available to local authorities, since one would not expect every local authority to have the necessary expertise within its own staff.

The whole question of the safety of potential major hazards is at present being investigated as a matter of urgency by the committee of experts on major industrial hazards, to which my hon. Friend referred, and that committee will be reporting to the Health and Safety Commission.

As was clear in the circumstances at Pitsea, when these regrettable incidents occur one of the immediate consequences is that a large number of inquiries are set in train at once by various Government agencies and the inspectorates, by the local authorities and, of course, by the coroner himself. The coroner's court conducts an extensive inquest into such matters.

The fatal incident at Pitsea, for example, was subject to investigation by the Essex County Council, the police and the Health and Safety Executive, as well as by the coroner himself, and I am confident that all the necessary information will be available at the resumed inquest to establish precisely what happened and what should be done to prevent a repetition. We shall certainly consider it very carefully and take any steps which it appears are required in order to satisfy the public.

No evidence at present suggests that this specific incident reflects a continuous danger to the population generally. It is much more likely to be proved that the management of the tip is a matter for the health and safety executive, but judgments on that must await the outcome of the inquiry, and particularly the outcome of the inquest.

As for proposed restrictions by the local authority, we are closely in touch with the Essex County Council about the investigations which I have already mentioned and any other measures which Essex may think necessary to restrict the amount of waste being deposited at Pitsea. Such restrictions may, of course, cause problems to industry. We understand that. I re-emphasise the importance of implementing the Control of Pollution Act, which would give much more control and much more information about the long-term effects of these problems.

I shall conclude on these two cases, particularly the Laporte case, by saying that if my hon. Friend thinks there is anything more we can do to help him, his local authority or his constituents, we shall be most anxious to do it. I should be very pleased to meet any of the responsible members of the authority and to discuss with him and them anything further that the Government might be thought capable of doing. I share my hon. Friend's concern, and it is very important to allay public fears, particularly the fears of constituents who live close to factories. This can best be done by making sure that they have access to all the information available to us.

I hope that I have achieved the feat—in a rather lengthy speech on a technical matter—of answering all the points raised in this wide-ranging debate. Perhaps I may now deal with my hon. Friend's motion. I hope that she will appreciate from what I have said that I have the greatest possible sympathy with it. The only part of it which causes difficulty for the Government is that aspect which asks for urgent action. including a significant reduction in the lead content of petrol. If my hon. Friend is happy to accept that that means, in practice, that the inquiry which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy has put into hand should proceed in order to tell us much more about the best and most economic way of achieving that end in the light of balance of payments and for other financial considerations, I shall be happy to ask the House to accept the motion.

We shall give urgent and continuing priority to the important matters which are raised by the motion. It has provided us with a debate which we can all look back on with some degree of satisfaction, not that we have solved the problems but that we have gone a long way to achieving what my hon. Friend wants, which is to expose to public gaze these problems in order that they may be discussed sensibly and intelligently, and so that we may ensure that continuing action is taken to meet them.

1.34 p.m.

Mrs. Joyce Butler

With the permission of the House, may I say that I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Shaw) for the description he has given of the situation in his constituency. It puts in a nutshell many of the problems we have been discussing this morning. I share the concern of the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Mr. Bowden) about the folly of adding fluoride to the water supply when we know so little about its long-term effects.

The hon. Member for Hove (Mr. Sainsbury) made certain interesting points, with many of which I agreed. But he said that we could spend unlimited sums on trying to meet all the problems which have been raised this morning, and that is true. We could spend more and more and still not do all that needs to be done. But I am not satisfied that we get as big a financial contribution as we might from the industries concerned—and this is a point we might look at when we are asking for more and more monitoring—or whether we are getting the necessary financial assistance from those industries to monitor the environment outside the factories.

The hon. Gentleman said that we are making steady progress, and that was evident from what my hon. Friend the Minister said and from our knowledge of what has been done. This is a situation, however, in which we have to run faster in order to try to keep up with the many changes which take place. I agree that we cannot be complacent. We must review our procedures continually, as the Minister indicated the Department is doing, to ensure that we keep abreast of all that needs to be done. The particular point which the hon. Member for Hove made about the choice between reducing the lead level of petrol and trying to facilitate the removal of lead from exhaust fumes by technical devices has been considered by the Environmental Protection Agency in the United States. It reports, The lead-free gasoline regulations were proposed primarily to ensure the availability of lead-free fuel for use in automobiles designed to meet Federal emission standards with lead-sensitive emission control devices". It was precisely because it had these lead-sensitive emission control devices that it wanted lead-free petrol. It continues, The Agency recognised that these regulations would also result in a reduction in lead emissions from the new automobile segment of the vehicle population, which would be equipped with those devices. However, based on public health consideration, it was considered necessary to propose a reduction in the lead content of leaded gasoline as well. So it is not, as the hon. Member suggested, a question of either-or. The EPA took the view in detailed studies—and more has probably been done in the United States in this respect than here—that lead-free petrol was necessary in order to use the exhaust devices effectively, and that is an important point.

My hon. Friend the Minister made many important comments on this debate and I accept that he and the Department are doing a great deal in this respect. I wonder whether on monitoring I might perhaps send him further details of the sort of scheme which has been put to me. I am more than a little concerned when he says that we cannot live in an industrial country without risks. That is so, but I am concerned that the people who have to accept the dangers and risks are so often the workers in the factories and the people who live in close proximity to those factories. Often the people who cause the dangers and the risks by setting up the plant, people who will do well out of the proceeds, hide themselves away in more salubrious areas and do not take the strain like the local people.

And there is another important fact: the men and women who live in the neighbourhood of a factory but who go off every day to their offices and places of work, like the older children who go off to school, do not stay in that atmosphere all the time. It is the small children and the stay-at-home mothers who are in it for 24 hours a day and are therefore more at risk.

I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) had to leave without telling us what he was going to say about the EEC. What he probably had in mind was of concern to some of us and relates to the EEC directive which we shall be debating shortly. Some of us are worried that the introduction of an EEC directive may mean that if we wanted to go further and faster than the directive we would have considerable difficulties in doing so. The problem has arisen in other connections. I am glad to see my hon. Friend, the Minister, vehemently shaking his head, indicating that it will not be so in this case. However, it obviously would be an important matter if we did not have his reassurances.

I believe that the effect on the balance of payments of removing lead from petrol—and I may be wrong, because I am not a mathematician—would be minimised if we reduced our imports of petrol still further. This was the point I had in mind when I said that in the oil crisis last year there was considerable public support for petrol rationing. If we were not using so much petrol surely the cost to the balance of payments would be reduced. In a debate of this kind I am obviously not advocating that, but there was a great deal of public feeling that this should be done. If we reduced the lead content of petrol, if the price increased, and if there were a charge on the balance of payments, people would have to use less in the end, and perhaps from the point of view of general pollution that would not be such a bad thing.

I am grateful to all hon. Members who have taken part in the debate. In view of what my hon. Friend has said about the possibility of reducing the level of lead in petrol as a result of the study, and the forthcoming debate on the directive which he has mentioned, I shall not press the motion. I accept my hon. Friend's assurances that its general spirit is accepted both by himself and by the Government.

Mr.Deputy Speaker (Mr. OscarMution)

Does the hon Lady Wish to withdraw her motion?

Mrs. Butler

I did not think that it was necessary for me to withdraw it if I was not pressing it a vote.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The motion must either be withdrawn or put.

Mrs. Butler

I understood my hon. Friend to say that he accepted the motion subject to what he said, and therefore I do not withdraw it.

Mr. Denis Howell

If my hon. Friend wishes to withdraw the motion, I shall not object, but I would not ask the House to turn it down. I have no objection to the motion being put, provided it is understood that the urgent action for which she is asking on leaded petrol is subject to the various provisos I mentioned in my speech, such as the review that is going on and the consideration of the alternative balancing factors. From what my hon. Friend has said, I am sure she accepts that we are doing our best to deal with the point practically and as soon as we can. Subject to that, I see no reason why the motion should not be put to the House and accepted.

Mrs. Butler

With that assurance, I ask that the motion be put.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That this House calls for urgent action to be taken to reduce by all possible means preventable lead contamination of the environment, including a significant reduction in the lead content of petrol; to ensure effective monitoring of the environs of all factories engaged in processes with a possible health or safety hazard from lead, vinyl chloride, asbestos and petro-chemicals generally; and to ensure that information so produced is made publicly available in view of the danger of secrecy and the public right to the fullest possible information.

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