Motion made, and Question proposed,
That this House takes note of the proposals for EEC Directives for limiting the lead content of petrol and for biological and air quality standards for lead as contained in documents R/3113/73 and R/1150/75, and the outcome of the Government review of lead in petrol.—[Mr. Dunn.]
§ Mr. Speaker
I have selected the amendment in the name of the hon. Lady the Member for Wood Green (Mrs. Butler).
§ 10.13 p.m.
§ Mrs. Joyce Butler (Wood Green)
I beg to move, at the end of the Question, to add:' accepts the principle of reducing the maximum lead content of petrol to 0.40 grams per litre as proposed by the EEC; and, whilst recognising that this will have an adverse effect on the United Kingdom balance of payments, nevertheless calls on Her Majesty's Government to take appropriate steps to achieve this aim by staged reductions '.As I spoke in the debate on 4th March, of which this debate is in a sense a continuation, I do not wish to make a speech at this stage but move the amendment formally.
§ 10.14 p.m.
§ Mr. T. H. H. Skeet (Bedford)
When the matter was last discussed in the House, it was said that lead from the atmosphere was only one of the causes of the intake of lead by human beings. More comes from smelters and more is ingested through food and drink and other sources.
The matter has been considered by a Select Committee in another place, where it was discovered on the best possible evidence that there is no emergency situation. It was decided that the House should look at it and that it would be appropriate if lead were phased out of petrol over a number of years but that no drastic move should be taken now. There have been arguments that it should be reduced to 0.15 grammes per litre. That would have an extremely severe effect in the United Kingdom, and should be avoided. A reduction to 0.40 from the present figure of 0.55 would be more realistic.
166 Fuel consumption increases with every unit reduction of octane number. The way to increase the octane number is obviously to put in petroleum additives such as tetraethyl lead and tetramethyl lead. If they must be eliminated because of the argument that atmospheric pollution should be entirely removed, it might seem desirable to use other additives, but the petroleum companies have found, after investigations in the United States and elsewhere, no other suitable additives. Over 1,000 compounds have been examined, but none comes up to requirements.
For the internal combustion engine, which powers the modern motor car, to work effectively on the petroleum which it takes in, there must be an alternative method. If less lead is to be used, there must be more aromatics in the petrol. But there is a difficulty. If lead is to be removed, a great deal of expensive equipment will have to be put into refineries. To reduce the figure to 0.40, catalytic crackers would probably be enough, but to reduce it to the level in West Germany—0.15—a great deal of equipment would have to be installed, including catalytic crackers, platformers and alkylation equipment. There would be a substantial increase in imports, adding to balance of payments difficulties.
Another problem is that the refinery balance would be severely upset, because the refinery yields would cease to match market requirements. This has been found in West Germany. There would be a change in refinery operations to produce high-octane gasoline and increased quantities of products already on the market in surplus, and that would mean more fuel oil.
It has been estimated that the eight other countries of the Common Market would have to invest a total of $1,000 million in additional equipment needed to produce 0.15 grammes per litre with an octane rating of 98. It would be very costly for the motorist, because he would have to pay an increased price for his petrol—2p or perhaps more. The Government would increase their take, largely because the price of petrol would rise and there is an excise duty on it. There would be further inconvenience to the motorist because of the additional problems which would be introduced.
§ Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the evidence so far from Germany, where the level has been reduced to 0.15, is that there has been no increase in costs to the motorist?
§ Mr. David Penhaligon (Truro)
Can the hon. Gentleman say what problem would arise, other than a slight reduction in efficiency, if all cars worked on petrol of 90 octane instead of 98?
§ Mr. Skeet
Because there must be efficiency in the performance of the internal combustion engine, otherwise one would have to redesign the internal combustion engine so that it would be able to work at a very much lower figure.
I come to the question I was asked specifically. The proposed Directives relate to regular grades only. Four-star petrol in Germany would remain at 0.40 grammes per litre, and the European Parliament has made the recommendation that the figure of 1.15, which is the existing requirement, should be deleted.
Another point which should be borne in mind for Germany is that, if refiners cannot supply according to the right specification, they pay a tax of l.8p per gallon, and, as the hon. Member well knows, the requirement to reach 0.15 grammes per litre in Germany was introduced in January of this year. As there were considerable stocks available, I do not think that anyone in Germany would have felt the impact and the Germans 168 would not have been acquainted with the problem.
Another point which is rather significant is that the cost to the West German oil industry has totalled £200 million, and for one company alone it has been £35 million. It is well known that in the West German market fuel oil is already in surplus. As more oil must be imported and the oil has to be processed, the result of this is that it has more fuel oil than can be utilised on the internal market and its refinery balance is entirely upset.
I refer to the Petroleum Times of 19th March 1976, which said that if the aromatics were increased considerably this wouldresult in a tendency towards longer engine warm-up times, poorer short-trip economy for the motorist, and increased deposit formation. Sensitivity also increases, And the high-severity reforming step involved in increased aromatics will require more naphtha feedstock. Since there is a naphtha deficiency currently in Europe, increasing reformer severity could limit the availability of naphtha and aromatics for the petrochemical industry.To sum up, therefore, there is not merely a matter of increased cost and inconvenience to the motorist.
Many people are claiming naphtha partly for the purpose we are discussing tonight but also, in the chemical industry, for feedstock. The price of naphtha will rise even further, and on the petrochemical front there will be increases in prices. The cost of reducing lead content from 0.64 to 0.40 grammes per litre, which is the figure I have in view, would cost between £16 million and £35 million. The additional crude oil requirement on the basis of the 1975 market could be 2.9 million tonnes to 5.3 million tonnes out of a toal of 80 million tonnes. It is well known that, working on a petrol consumption of 18 million tonnes and a load level of 0.50 grammes per litre, the balance of payments deficit in 1980 would be £10 million, and if it were reduced to 0.40 it would be £44 million. There would be increased costs and inconvenience for the motorist as well as problems for the country through the balance of payments.
We know from previous experience when we discussed the question in the House that this is not an urgent matter. Much more lead is taken in through food and drink and in the vicinity of smelters. 169 This matter could be left to be phased down gradually to 0.40 grammes per litre by 1980, and that is the recommendation I make.
§ 10.25 p.m.
§ Mr. Julius Silverman (Birmingham Erdington)
I support the amendment moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Wood Green (Mrs. Butler). We have had many figures and alleged facts from the hon. Member for Bedford (Mr. Skeet). It is interesting to note that over a period of years the number of countries taking measures such as is suggested tonight has substantially increased. The Russians first introduced a ban upon lead in petroleum in the 1950s. Lest this is thought to be a Communist quirk, let me say that the EEC countries almost without exception, and now America, are proposing to introduce similar legislation.
§ Mr. Silverman
The point is that it is precisely in the urban areas that the danger arises. It is there that the concentration of lead is most serious. With the number of motor vehicles in the Soviet Union in the 1950s, or even today, the danger in the non-urban areas would not be great. Surveys taken in America and Birmingham show a high level of lead in the atmosphere in urban areas, especially in areas where there is a heavy traffic flow. This is true of an area in my constituency called Gravelly Hill interchange which we call Spaghetti Junction.
Tests carried out at Gravelly Hill interchange by the joint working party initiated by my right hon. Friend the Minister of State show that over several years there was a significant increase in the lead content in the blood of people living in that area. Most people would agree that airborne lead is not the greatest source of lead poisoning. Lead paint, lead taken internally and factories operating processes involving lead constitute greater risks. The point is that this is an additional source, cumulative with the others. After examining the figures for Gravelly Hill, there can be little question that there has been an increase in the blood-lead content of statistical significance.
§ Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)
Would not the hon. Gentlman agree that statistics which I am sure have been presented to him as well as to my hon. Friends and myself show that Gravelly Hill compares exactly with other areas in Birmingham?
§ Mr. Silverman
I entirely agree. I do not want to be alarmist about this. I have gone through the matter with my constitutents. What the joint working party has said is that the increase in the Gravelly Hill area is not different from that in any other central urban area which has a high traffic flow. None the less, the lead content is different from that in rural areas and other parts of Birmingham where there is not such a heavy traffic flow. I do not suggest that the Gravelly Hill figures show an exceptional increase. They show an increase which is statistically significant and which is up to the level found in other central urban areas with high traffic flows.
I do not make any special plea for Gravelly Hill. The danger is the same in all urban areas which have a heavy traffic flow. It is true that we are not talking of clinical poisoning where the symptoms are marked and quite easy to distinguish. Such poisoning results in many fatalities. There is, however, sufficient prima facie evidence that there are certain dangers. It seems reasonable to assume, if we are dumping 11,000 tons of lead into the atmosphere every year, that it is likely to put a strain upon people's health and produce certain symptoms. Many specialists agree.
I do not suggest that the evidence is 100 per cent, conclusive. There are difficulties in statistics and sampling. For instance, in Gravelly Hill there were variations. The average blood-lead content among children was 12 to 16 milligrammes per 100 litres. Some of my constituents showed a level of 30 to 35 milligrammes per litre, which approaches the danger point of clinical poisoning. It is no good telling a person with that level that it is merely a quirk. He takes it as being a serious health risk.
Although the evidence is not conclusive, we cannot wait to introduce these measures until the matter is proved after many years of precise examination and statistics. I suggest that the country 171 should follow the approach which has already been taken by Germany and by America after the evidence of the Environment Protection Agency to reduce the lead levels as far as possible in a modest way. There is nothing unrealistic about the proposition that the amount of lead should be reduced to 0.40 grammes in the next two or three years. That does not go as far as Germany and America have gone. That is a realistic proposition which the House should accept while the conclusions are finalised. We should not wait several years until perhaps it is too late to prevent health being affected by these emissions.
§ 10.32 p.m.
§ Mr. Tim Sainsbury (Hove)
The hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Silverman) and my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Mr. Skeet) have demonstrated the difficulties of statistics and the conflict of evidence. My hon. Friend the Member for Bedford referred to the edition of the Petroleum Times of 19th March. I was struck by this statement in that edition:German oil companies have also voiced an opinion that the new national low-lead requirement has forced them to invest a great deal of money—estimated at around US $170 million—in equipment to produce low-lead fuel.That is a pew piece of evidence since our previous debate, as also is the report produced by the Associated Octel Company Limited, the conclusion of which is:It has been demonstrated that the Government's requirement for lead emissions from motor vehicles not to increase above the 1972 level can be achieved with the present lead in gasoline levels by selective fitting of lead filters to cars.I hope that the Minister of State—hopefully a little less hurried this time than he was last time—will be able to reply to the point I made last time about studies of the fitting of exhaust gas filters as a method of overcoming this genuinely worrying problem. In our previous discussion the Minister said:Let me state briefly what that would achieve. First, we should set targets to be achieved—targets that can be amended or changed according to standards adopted in the light of further evidence. Secondly, by this means we would ensure that action is taken as necessary to deal with particular sources of lead pollution—[Official Report, 4th March 1976; Vol. 906, c. 1676.]172 I think that the Minister made that statement more in connection with the suggested monitoring.
Will the Minister confirm that the standards to which he suggested we should move for lead in petrol are standards which the Government would keep under review and monitor, in the light of evidence in this country and overseas as to the risks, economic effects and other possibilities of dealing with the problem of the contribution of lead in petrol to lead in the atmosphere, without running into the sphere of economic disadvantages mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford?
§ 10.35 p.m.
§ Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)
I support the amendment, and I shall confine my remarks to lead in petrol. The hon. Member for Hove (Mr. Sainsbury) indicated that a figure in the Petroleum Times last month added a new dimension to the debate, but in a Sunday Times article on 11th January there appeared a figure not unlike that quoted by the hon. Member. It said that the effect of the outlay on new refineries in West Germany appeared to have been exaggerated and that West German oil companies had spent £200 million on capital investment for this purpose, which compares reasonably with the Department of the Environment's estimate of £250 million, at 1971 prices, for re-equipping British refineries.
The question of lead in petrol is clearly a matter of balancing the economic considerations, which have been put forward cogently by the hon. Member for Bedford (Mr. Skeet), and the health considerations. This is an area in which, as laymen, we have to rely heavily on the expert evidence on the economics of the matter and on the health hazards.
Part of the difficulty arises from the fact that the economic disadvantages appear to be clear—the extra cost of re-equipping, the balance of payments considerations and the rest—while the health disadvantages are not conclusively proved. For this reason, there is a strong temptation for the Government to take the easy way out and, to put it emotively, to play Russian roulette with the nation's health. Where, however, there is reasonable evidence that substantial risks are involved, it would be improper for the Government 173 to shirk their duty and not to take action until the health risks were overwhelmingly and conclusively proved.
There is substantial, if not conclusive, evidence of medical risk, and it is certain that existing concentrations of lead in the bodily tissues of the general populace come nearer to the recognised thresholds of overt clinical poisoning than any other existing pollutant.
It is also certain that children are more vulnerable to the risk of lead poisoning. An article in the Lancet of 28th October 1972 showed a correlation between body-lead levels and the diagnosis of hyperactivity in young children. There were also some disquieting conclusions of research by Goldberg, working for the Glasgow Medical Research Council, on lead levels found in mentally retarded children. His results suggested thateven modest elevations of blood lead may be associated wits bio-chemical abnormalities in the child's brain.There is also some evidence of a causal connection between lead levels and delinquent behaviour. There was a Swiss study of this matter in 1971.
The relevance of these findings is that, although lead in the petrol and air is only a minor proportion of the total ingestion of lead into the body, it is still substantial and the most controllable.
§ Mr. Skeet
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has read the Report of the Select Committee of another place, in which Sir Richard Doll, Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford Univerity, is reported as saying:In my view the situation is not such as to require any emergency action. I would have thought it was hardly worth the attention of European Ministers at this time when there are a lot of rather more important things to deal with.That doctor looked into all the implications which are worying the hon. Member and many others and concluded that while, over the course of time, it might be right to phase out lead from petrol and probably everything else, we should not put the country to enormous capital cost at this time when there was no emergency and no basic, fundamental problem.
§ Mr. Anderson
There are two points about that. Clearly we can choose our experts according to our own predelictions. There is substantial expert opinion 174 on the other side of the argument as there is on fluoride. If the situation is as clearcut as the hon. Gentleman suggests, perhaps he will explain why the United States and the Soviet Union have taken policy measures which have had for them economic disadvantages similar to those likely to be suffered by this country. Plainly they have been sufficiently convinced about the medical risks to take the necessary policy decisions.
§ Mr. David Watkins (Consett)
Is it not a fact that for many years we had the same complacent views put forward regarding asbestos? Yet, within the last week, have we not had a horrifying demonstration of how the reality may be different from the complacent views which have been put forward?
§ Mr. Anderson
I wholly concur with what my hon. Friend says. There is a real danger of complacency over this issue with its substantial risks to the population, particularly to young children.
I concede that the medical evidence is not conclusive, but the risks are obvious. There is evidence, particularly from the German experience, that the economic disadvantages are not as great as has been suggested by the hon. Member for Bedford. That has been accepted not only by the German Government but by the EPA, the Environmental Protection Agency of America.
In this area we take a risk. We need an act of political will in a context of greater public awareness of the risks of pollution and a determination to avoid controllable pollution and risk whenever possible. That is particularly relevant in this country because of our higher traffic densities.
I accept, as is stated in the amendment, that realistically it is proper for us to gear our programme of reduction to our own domestic oil production from the North Sea and thus minimise the adverse balance of payments effects.
The amendment presses for "staged reductions" from the present legal limit. The European Parliament has suggested 0.40 grammes per litre, which is modest compared with what West Germany has already achieved with, I would argue, less adverse consequences than were put forward by the hon. Member for Bedford. Even at 0.40 grammes per litre, on the 175 Department of the Environment's traffic predictions, we could be back to square one within six years. Unless there is a speedier fulfilment of the target, we shall be standing still, in effect, at the end of that period.
I hope that the Government will bear that point in mind, will carefully monitor the medical evidence which may become clearer over the years and will take the necessary corrective measures. In the meantime, I congratulate the Minister on a significant, but partial, victory and give him two cheers.
§ 10.43 p.m.
§ Mr. Alastair Goodlad (Northwich)
I am extremely unhappy with the case deployed by the Government on 4th March for accepting the EEC Directives, which we are now discussing, and the amendment in the name of the hon. Member for Wood Green (Mrs. Butler).
I should say that a substantial number of my constituents are employed at a factory of the Associated Octel Company Limited in Northwich, which manufactures lead-based anti-knock compounds for use in petrol.
I am, however, concerned more generally that the Government should be prepared to set forth on a slippery slope of accepting Directives which may be extremely expensive to this country's balance of payments on the basis of flimsy or non-existent evidence for their desirability or necessity. In this case acceptance of the course of action recommended in the Directives may indeed even inhibit the development of the lead trap, which has been carried out in the area of my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Benyon), which could subsequently reduce, if not eliminate, any lead content in exhaust fumes at a tiny fraction of the cost of the proposals in the Directives.
The case rests on the possible risk to health—predominantly children's health—from the lead content of the air, and reference has been made by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Silverman) to Gravelly Hill interchange. I defer to his expert knowledge of this subject and its effect on his constituents, but it is important that the House should recollect that the first report of the joint working party set up by the Minister of 176 State, Department of the Environment to consider pollution at Gravelly Hill stated:Lead levels in the air around the Gravelly Hill motorway interchange, Birmingham, are in no way exceptional for urban areas and present levels in the blood streams of people living nearly are not abnormal for people living in cities.The full report goes on to say:A small increase, 4 to 5 microgrammes in the mean blood lead levels of people living near the motorway has been detected but present values remain within the normal physiological range for urban dwellers. There is no danger of these people developing clinical lead poisoning.It is only fair to point out that the report went on to say:unfortunately, the results obtained so far are difficult to interpret in detail for a number of reasons",and it gives the reasons but I shall not detain the House with them.
There seems to be some doubt, therefore, whether the interchange has led to an increase in the blood-lead levels of the residents of Gravelly Hill. If there has been a small increase, despite the sampling difficulties, and so on, referred to in the report, could it have been brought about by the content of lead in the air or in the dust at Gravelly Hill?
The EEC draft Directive which we are discussing states on page 16:From the many metabolic studies and epidemiological surveys on the affects of atmospheric lead on block lead levels we may conclude that the blood lead level rises by I to 2 microgrammes per 100 millilitres for every microgramme per cubic metre present in the atmosphere".Work at Harwell suggests that the relationship is nearer 1:1 and that view was supported by Sir Richard Doll in his evidence to the House of Lords Select Committee during its review of the draft Directive.
If we assume that exposure to an average of 1 microgramme of lead per cubic metre of air results in an increase of blood lead of 1.5 microgrammes per 100 millilitres, the suggested increase of 4 to 5 microgrammes in the blood of the Gravelly Hill residents would require an increase in the average air lead of about 3 microgrammes per cubic metre. Has this increase occurred?
Results of lead-in-air monitoring have been reported by the joint working party in both its first report and its interim 177 report. For Salford Circus, which is within the interchange network, the results are as follows. In the first report, covering the period from October 1971 to August 1972, the average lead in air was 145 microgrammes per cubic metre. In the interim report, covering the period from May 1972 to May 1973, the average lead in air was 1.81 microgrammes per cubic metre. Again, in the interim report for the subsequent period May 1973 to December 1974 the average lead in air was down to 1.53 microgrammes.
The interim report continues:At sites further from the motorway airborne lead concentrations are lower and are typically about 0.8 microgrammes per cubic metre on a monthly average basis in the residential area.That is also very similar to the previous situation before the opening of the interchange.
It is thus clear from these official reports that no increase in the general lead-in-air level has occurred, certainly nothing comparable with the 3 microgrammes per cubic metre which would be necessary to give a measurable increase in the lead in blood concentrations.
There is no record of the lead-in-dust concentrations in Gravelly Hill district prior to the opening of the interchange, but since then extensive analyses have been made. These indicate, as my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) pointed out, that the lead content in Gravelly Hill dust is comparable with that of dust in residential areas of Birmingham.
The Minister of State was kind enough, in answer to a Question of mine on Friday 26th March, to state that his view that lead in petrol, taken in isolation, did not constitute a health hazard, was based in part on the work of Professor Barbara Clayton, of the Hospital for Sick Children. I wonder whether the Minister has read the paper "Lead—the relation of Environment and Experimental Work", published in the British Medical Bulletin in September 1975, by Professor Barbara Clayton. If he has, will he say when he replies whether he has found anything in it to justify the proposed actions of the Government?
The Minister said in the earlier debate that the Government would continue researching into the problems of lead, and that 178if there is further evidence of risk to health we shall consider moving to lower limits even more quickly than I have already announced."—[Official Report, 4th March 1976; Vol. 906, c. 1680.]To my mind, the Government have failed to produce any convincing evidence whatsoever, relevant to the United Kingdom, to show that the use of lead in petrol has anything more than a trivial impact on the normal lead content of human beings—in the main stemming from naturally-occurring lead in food—and has no relevance to the incidence of ill health in children or adults.
The inter-departmental report "Lead in the Environment and its Significance to Man" states thatin the great majority of cases, air-borne lead seems unlikely to account for more than a minor proportion of the total lead uptake of the bodyand thatno significant correlation exists between airborne levels and blood lead levels of exposed people".The report goes on further to say that the great increase in the use of the motor car has little to do with lead in the atmosphere, even at such places as Spaghetti Junction. It refers to the concentration of lead in city dusts in urban streets and gives figures to support its conclusions thatvery similar concentrations were observed as long ago as 1928".
§ Mr. John Moore (Croydon, Central)
My hon. Friend referred to the great increase in the use of motor cars. Has it occurred to him that the use of petrol has been reduced by approximately 5 per cent, over the last year, and that last year's figure was down on that of the year before, so that there is a decrease in the use of the motor car, which supports his case even more?
§ Mr. Goodlad
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that useful point.
The report states quite categorically thatthe most common cause of lead poisoning in children is the ingestion of lead-containing paint.The hon. Member for Erdington said quite rightly that the effects of the various sources of lead pollution are cumulative. It seems to me that it is on the most important areas, not the least important areas, that the Government and the EEC 179 should be concentrating. Paragraph 76 of the report to which I have referred says quite specifically thateven though there is no evidence of harm to health from present concentrations of lead in urban air, this is one source amenable to control.That is the key to these actions. If it is amenable to control, why control it regardless of whether there is any purpose in so doing?
I am not in favour of imposing unnecessary and undesirable controls simply because they are possible or easy of implementation. I appeal to the Government to wait until more research has been carried out before they go further down this slippery slope, and I beg them to employ greater flexibility in the timing with which they put these proposals into effect. The fact that the House takes note of Directives does not mean that it approves them.
§ 10.55 p.m.
§ Mr. Frank Hooley (Sheffield, Heeley)
I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Minister of State on his initiative in setting up the joint working party to study the question of Gravelly Hill. Studies have been conducted elsewhere in the kingdom which bear out some of the findings in this report.
Reference has been made to uncertainty expressed in the report and so conflict between some of the findings. There are two findings which are consistent throughout the report. The first is that there is a direct correlation between density of traffic and lead pollution in the atmosphere and dust. I shall not quote too many examples of this consistency in the report. One is on page 4:The site at Salford Circus is very near the carriageways of the intercharge (within about 45 metres) and airborne lead concentrations are characteristed by being higher during the day, when traffic flow is heavy, than at night. On average, concentrations at night are currently about 60 per cent, of the daytime values.Put the other way round, it means that the concentration when the traffic is heavy is 66⅔ per cent, higher than a times when traffic is virtually absent or very low. There are several other examples to that effect.
The second consistency in the report which cannot be escaped from is that there is a direct correlation between lead 180 concentration and traffic density. There are some interesting figures on pages 12 and 13 of the document. On page 12 it is stated thatA small but statistically significant trend towards higher blood lead concentrations was observed in children living in the inner and middle rings, as compared with those living in the outer ring and Sutton Coldfield.I ought to know something about the atmosphere in Sutton Coldfield because I live there.
On page 13 it is stated thatOf the 714 children in the study, only 20 had blood leads equal to or greater than 25 ug/100 ml, the highest being 34 ug/100 ml.which, incidentally, is only a microgramme below the danger level.Of these 20 children, 7 lived in the inner ring, 11 in the middle ring, 1 in the outer ring and 1 in Sutton Coldfield.Thus, there is a quite clear correlation between traffic density and lead concentration in the atmosphere and in the blood.
Great play has been made by the economic and commercial interests, who want to make money out of the situation, of the fact that the lead level in the blood arising from this cause is small. As my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Silverman) said, the key point is that this is superimposed on, and additional to, the naturally occurring lead. The problem with lead, as with other toxic materials, is that the body cannot get rid of them once they are absorbed. This is the problem that arose with strontium 90 following nuclear fallout. The body is not able to rid itself of such toxic substances, and if the toxic content goes above a certain threshold it becomes very serious.
Another disturbing point about the report is that apparently there is very little evidence of the effect on the youngest children. I quote from page 14 of the report:However, there is a dearth of adequate information on the blood lead levels of young children living in our cities and this gap needs to be filled, in particular because of the possible exposure of the very young to lead in dusts. The Working Party therefore recommend that a survey of urban children aged 1–7 years be carried out on the same basis as the survey reported herein. Expertise and analytical facilities fully able to carry out such work now exist in Birmingham and the Working Party therefore recommend an extension of the current programme to cover this need.181 In case it be thought that we are talking about one particular spot, namely Gravelly Hill, in which this phenomenon has been observed, I point out that similar work has also been done in Manchester. Research scientists in the Department of Chemistry at Manchester University have carried out measurements of lead in children, which have shown that it would be possible for a child to consume at least 10 times its tolerable daily lead intake from 20 contaminated sweets or other objects that it may pick up and suck. These scientists at Manchester emphasise that the problem posed is urgent and important, and they point out that while upper limits are laid down by statute for the amount of lead in food and paint, there is no regulation of lead in urban and city dust.
It should be remembered that the working party has been in operation for only a short period, over the past two years or so. The work has not proceeded over a lengthy period, but already the working party has come up with some rather disturbing factors. The tragedy is that this country had every intention of coming down to the 0.40 level on 1st November 1974. Not on economic grounds but on health grounds it was proposed to come down to that level, but unfortunately, with the onset of the oil crisis, we changed our minds and did not take that action. However, I believe there is a very strong reason why we should act in the terms of the amendment to this motion.
I want to make a comment on the financial problem. There is a company called Associated Octel which has been bombarding me with masses of paper during the last two or three days, apparently fearing that I might contribute to this debate. I point out that a professor of organic chemistry, Professor Bryce-Smith, published a letter in The Guardian on 22nd March. He is a man who has devoted an enormous amount of time and energy to the study of the whole question of lead pollution, and I should have thought that his views demanded a certain amount of respect. He said in his letter:Moreover, the US Environmental Protection Agency has estimated the extra refining costs for implementing their proposed low-lead recommendations as a paltry 0.1 per cent, per gallon—about one-twentieth of a penny.182 I assume that the United States Environmental Agency has a reasonable way of making its calculations, and if that one-twentieth of a penny is anything like the real cost I would have thought it was well worth paying that sum to avoid the possibility of serious environmental danger.
Everybody in the House knows that about two decades ago the country was prepared to tolerate quite absurd levels of air pollution poured out into the air by domestic and industrial chimneys. The tragedy of the famous "smog" in 1952 or 1953 eventually persuaded the country that this was intolerable. We had the Clean Air Act, and I can testify from Sheffield what a colossal difference this made in the general environmental quality, apart from reducing the incidence of bronchial and heart disease. Before the introduction of that Act, pollution took a terrible toll in the city.
Here we are dealing with a much more subtle poison. We cannot see the gases. We cannot see the lead that is pumped into the air, although we know it is there. The contaminant is there. We also know that countries whose concern for the environment is not significantly less than ours—sophisticated industrial countries, like West Germany and the United States—have become gravely concerned about this problem and have been moved to take action on it. I do not believe that we are so desperately poor and downtrodden that we cannot carry some modest charge, if such a charge be necessary, in order to reduce what is an undoubted hazard to our environment.
Therefore, I hope the Government will move much more rapidly in the spirit of the amendment and will disregard the rather shabby commercial arguments produced by interested parties.
§ 11.5 p.m.
§ Mr. W. Benyon (Buckingham)
I wish to speak briefly in support of what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Northwich (Mr. Goodlad). I do not wish to enter into the medical arguments. To a certain extent, as the hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) said, one pays one's expert and takes one's choice. I entirely accept that it is highly desirable that the levels of lead in the atmosphere should be reduced, whatever be their source, and plainly the emissions from 183 motor vehicles are a source. All I find extraordinary at this juncture in our economic life, when our balance of payments difficulties are so great, is that the Government have not looked harder at other methods of controlling these emissions—methods that have proved to be very satisfactory.
Even in the 1973 document, it was noted thatLead traps, for example, are sufficiently perfected to guarantee at least a 70 per cent, reduction in emissions of lead particles throughout their working lifeand it went on to say thatA more detailed study has yet to be made by the industry".As my hon. Friend said, the research laboratories of the Associated Octel Company, in my constituency, have made remarkable progress with this piece of equipment, and a report that is in the hands of the Department clearly shows that a marked reduction can be obtained by the use of these traps. I am sure that, over the period required under the proposals, the use of such traps could do more than produce the low levels which are required.
It seems to me, therefore, that there is a strong argument for looking again at this matter in an effort to reduce the lead content of emissions, because the balance of payments cost in that direction would be a mere fraction of the £70 million—no mean figure, indeed—which the Minister's Department estimates as the extra burden on our balance of payments between now and 1980. It behoves the House, therefore, to pay particular attention to this development, which is achieving remarkable success in trials. Moreover, it would be a simple method to bring in gradually. One could start with the heavier vehicles, which produce the greater emissions, and work down the scale to the more popular makes of motor car.
Even at this late hour I ask the Minister to agree to look further into the use of lead traps to see whether they can be used in the future, in conjunction with other measures, to achieve what we all desire, namely, a reduction in the lead content of vehicle emissions.
§ 11.9 p.m.
§ Mr. Arthur Blenkinsop (South Shields)
I am a complete layman in these matters, 184 and I do not have a brief with a great mass of statistics, but there is one economic issue about which I am slightly puzzled. If the Common Market countries are increasingly to adopt the new standard laid down, and if our own motor vehicle manufacturers do not adapt their procedures to make adequate consequential changes in engine design in accordance with the new proposals, shall we not be excluded from important markets? Is this not also an economic interest of some weight, which ought to be considered?
§ 11.10 p.m.
§ Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)
My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Benyon) referred to lead traps. If such traps are introduced, and if they are as effective as my hon. Friend described, will they enable the Government to reduce the lead content that is emitted to the levels that are provided in the documents that we are considering, including the emissions of petrol engines? Will the traps mean that vehicles using petrol will use more petrol? That is an important economic point. I hope that the Minister will answer those questions clearly and directly.
§ 11.11 p.m.
§ Mr. J. W. Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr)
It is two years to the day since my right hon. Friend the Minister of State answered an Adjournment debate which I initiated on this subject. We do not seem to have moved very far in the intervening period.
My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Silverman) and I share responsibility for the M6 motorway in Birmingham. My constituents will be outraged by some of the comments of Conservative Members—that, for example, it is acceptable that city dwellers should have a high degree of poison in the atmosphere. I do not accept that that should be the status quo.
I hope that my right hon. Friend will admit that it would be the ultimate in twentieth century bureaucratic nonsense to install lead traps in motor cars to remove from petrol lead that need not be present in the first place.
§ 11.12 p.m.
§ Mr. Hugh Dykes (Harrow, East)
I am not sure that the views of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. 185 Rooker) are entirely valid, although there will be different views according to individual orientation. A given degree of lead content in petrol is probably essential to enable high compression engines to achieve a certain performance, but to interdict, limit or inhibit the external effects of the lead does not have any bearing on the intrinsic performance of the motor car engine. However, that is rather a different point from the one that the hon. Gentleman makes.
It would be wrong for anyone to underestimate the legitimate medical and environmental anxieties that exist—notably those expressed by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Silverman). It would be the height of impertinence for anyone to say that the hon. Gentleman, with his understandable constituency preoccupation, stemming from what is in many ways a rather bizarre junction, should not have such anxieties. He is entitled to express them, and I pay tribute to him for the restraint with which he put his case.
The hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) referred to the medical evidence, especially that directed to mental disabilities that are to be found in younger age groups. Those views cannot be dismissed lightly. The strongest upshot of the anxieties and medical evidence is that the debate continues. There is no hard-and-fast conclusion one way or the other.
In the circumstances, it must be right for the Government to pursue a policy of cautious limits for the future—the policy that they adopted earlier. They have rightly chosen to adopt pragmatically cautious limits while saying that the review continues and that they will listen to any further medical evidence. Surely that policy will be generally welcomed. It would be rash for anyone to state a dogmatic opinion.
The range of limits within the Community must begin with Ireland, which I believe has no restrictions that are separate from those stemming from the Community, and end with the Federal Republic of Germany, which I believe has the tightest restrictions. I believe that the German authorities have had to relax the new restrictions because of their immediate impracticabilities.
§ Mr. Hooley
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the connection between contaminated water and cholera was suspected and acted on for 40 years before there was scientific proof of the actual connection with the source of infection? Are we now to wait 40 years for cast-iron scientific evidence before we take steps to take this lead out of the atmosphere?
§ Mr. Dykes
The question raises matters of speculation and conjecture. The hon. Gentleman should address that question to the Minister.
On 4th March, in a debate on this subject in the House, the Minister of State said that the Government were undertaking urgent work on the subject of lead in water. Will he explain that matter further, because much importance is attached to that aspect of the matter? Will the Minister say what is his attitude to keeping official targets under review? This, again, is important, because a good deal of evidence and information could come to light. In other words, if the Government stick to only reasonable targets they could regret it at a later stage.
I echo what has been said on lead traps, and I believe that this aspect has been too quickly dismissed by many people. I endorse what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Benyon) on the potential merits of this piece of equipment. A good deal of effort and money will be needed to complete research and development in the first stage. Much more effort is needed.
The European Parliament—here I speak from memory—last autumn accepted, with some reservation, directives on lead in the air and in petrol. Labour Members may be interested to learn that the European Conservative Group in the European Parliament was against the implementation of the directive on lead in petrol, principally because it was thought to be too restrictive, until there had been further discussion between Governments in drawing up the basic components of draft directives.
Will the Minister comment on the German situation in this respect? There are rumours that the German Federal Republic is having second thoughts. Some 187 people feel that the original target of 0.51 grammes per litre is too ambitious, and that the relaxation announced on 1st January will have to be extended. Perhaps the Minister can tell the House what he has heard from his German colleagues on this matter in recent weeks and months.
Furthermore, will the Minister say when the Council of Ministers will consider the draft directive? If the Minister can give a date, I know that it will help my right hon. Friend the Member for Knutsford (Mr. Davies) with his special responsibilities. All that has been said so far is that the Government have the matter under review. It has been said that a full 14-months' period will be needed for consideration. Surely this matter could be dealt with more quickly.
When will the Council of Ministers consider other items such as the lead content in paint? In the House of Lords debate on this subject on 1st April, Lord O'Hagan said that the EEC proposals on paint were almost ready to go to the Council. Can the Minister be more precise on that subject? It appears that there are a conflicting series of draft proposals. There are misgivings about the way in which this occurred. One could say that the House has had sufficient time to debate the subject, although some hon. Members would dissent from that. I am not asking the Minister of State to take personal responsibility for the procedural arrangements—for which the Lord President is responsible—but only by accident have we had reasonable time to debate a complicated subject—and that is late at night. I hope that the Minister will not feel satisfied with the general approach and the procedures in these matters.
In the longer term, even if direct elections are implemented the scrutiny procedures of the House will remain important. I hope that when that happens the Executive will give us more justice, more time and longer debates, which are not exclusively held after 10 o'clock, on subjects that are as important as this and that might be less complicated. The Minister of State might be tempted to say that this is not a matter for him, but I hope that he will be tempted into that territory and explain his views on procedure to the House.
§ 11.22 p.m.
§ The Minister of State, Department of the Environment (Mr. Denis Howell)
I am glad to have the opportunity to reply to the second half of the match. The standard of the second half is equal to, if not better than, the standard of play in the game a few weeks ago.
I wish to draw the attention of the House to a piece of history on the Order Paper. I do not expect that any of us will again see a motion on the lead content of petrol moved by the Prime Minister and supported by Mr. Secretary Callaghan. That has been overtaken by today's events. At one stage I feared that the motion would be ruled out of order and that I would therefore have to come here again. I am glad to say that that has not happened.
I agree with the amendment, proposed formally by my hon. Friend the Member for Wood Green (Mrs. Butler). It seems a sound, sensible and balanced approach, which the Government commend to the House. I hope that it will be accepted.
I shall try to deal with all the points raised. As the debate went on, I became increasingly anxious about the content and the nature of some of the speeches from the Opposition Benches. It is not a matter of buying one's medical advice or of buying different advice in a different market. We are facing a complex problem, which affects the health of the nation, and particularly the health of young people. The Government have taken advice not only from Chief Medical Officers of Health but from the Physical Environment Sub-Committee. In this case we accept that our knowledge is not exact, but if we err at all we should err on the side of caution. That suggests that we should be taking the action that is proposed. The Government would be extremely irresponsible not to accept the advice of the committee and successive Chief Medical Officers of Health, whose duty it is impartially to advise the Government.
The problem about lead is its accumulation in the human system. We consume lead when we eat and drink, and we absorb it through the atmosphere. Some of the amounts taken in are of a comparatively low level. For example, small amounts of lead—about 200 to 250 microgrammes a day for every adult—are unavoidably taken in food, and there 189 is a low level in water, averaging about 15 microgrammes a day. It is difficult to measure the amount absorbed from the air.
I take the point of my hon. Friend the Member for Consett (Mr. Watkins) that even if the amount of lead in blood is increasing slowly it is disturbing that it is increasing at all. That makes the case for taking action now, especially as we all have to admit that the amount of medical knowledge about every aspect of the problem is not exact.
§ Mr. Skeet rose——
§ Mr. Howell
I have many points to deal with. I cannot give way.
It is particularly the effect on children that makes the health case for taking this action now. As I said on 4th March, it is the total intake that is important.
The hon. Member for Northwich (Mr. Goodlad) asked about the evidence. I answer that question, as the hon. Gentleman graciously conceded. The paper on which we rely was prepared by Dr. F. W. Alexander, Dr. H. T. Delves and Professor Barbara Clayton. It says that children are believed to absorb lead at a higher rate than adults and are therefore at greater risk from lead from all sources. Moreover, lead from petrol can get into people, particularly children, other than by breathing in lead in the air.
The fact remains that the only potential source of the intake of lead into the human system that we have it in our power to reduce now is the lead that we put into petrol. That is the case for taking direct action. Professor Barbara Clayton advised us to do so to keep things as they are and not let them become worse—in other words, to make sure that the emissions of lead into the atmosphere are kept at 1971 levels. That is precisely what the Government's proposals are. It would be grossly irresponsible of the House to depart from that medical advice and programme.
I come now to the economic considerations. This matter was raised earlier by a number of right hon. and hon. Members, including the right hon. Member for Knutsford (Mr. Davies) who, very generously, has not sought to speak tonight, thus allowing others to have their turn. Removing lead from petrol means 190 that there is a higher oil requirement. That means either that we import more oil, or, as North Sea oil becomes available, we export less of it. Either way, it has an effect on our balance of payments. The point is that when North Sea oil is flowing, our balance of payments position will be stronger and we shall be able to afford to pay more. For this reason, equating the health argument with economic considerations, the Government have decided to come down to the recommended level of .40 grammes per litre by 1981 in three stages—to .50 grammes as soon as possible, to .45 grammes by 1978, and to .40 by 1981. My only regret is that the balance of payments position does not enable us to meet that target sooner than 1981. On a realistic assessment, the Government have just about got it right.
It is true that the Germans have moved beyond .40 grammes, to .15 grammes per litre. This brings me to the important question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Blenkinsop) about the effect on the British car industry if we do not follow the European example. The answer is self-evident. Unless British manufacturers are encouraged to manufacture engines capable of reaching the standards demanded in Europe and the United States this is bound to have an adverse effect on their future export prospects. That was an important factor in the Government's considerations.
Because the British motor industry cannot immediately move to that situation it is vital that the House gives it proper and adequate notice of the way in which we intend to move. It would be ludicrous if, at a time when continental countries—particularly Germany—and the United States are moving in the direction of lead-free petrol, or petrol containing only small quantities of lead, we failed to follow that example and inflicted injury upon the export prospects of car manufacturers. Here again, the economic interests coincide with the health interests. If we move, as I hope we shall, to this level by 1981 it will cost £70 million on the balance of payments, whereas if we moved to the final level immediately it would cost £170 million.
The subject of the Gravelly Hill report was raised, in particular by my hon. Friends the Members for Birmingham, 191 Erdington (Mr. Silverman) and Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker). The working party which produced the report was established after a visit there by me at the invitation of my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington. There has been first-class co-operation between Aston University, Birmingham University, the City of Birmingham and my Department.
As it is public knowledge, I shall not weary the House with all the details of the findings of the working party, but I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Hooley) that the significance of its report is that it showed that the blood lead levels of children in urban and city environments exceeded those of children elsewhere. We intend to do much more research into these matters and the House will want us to keep this subject under constant review. The general range of lead levels in the blood of children tested in the Gravelly Hill and Birmingham areas was between 12 and 16 milligrammes per 100 millilitres, but there were occasional instances in which it reached nearly 35 milligrammes.
I have been asked many questions about filters and filter traps. I am advised that filter traps would not materially help us in the programmes that I have announced, but that if we move to levels below 0.40 grammes, filter traps may be of great benefit. However, the motor car industry itself has advised that it would require at least three years' notice of the installation of filter traps for its own purposes.
Filter traps are not the answer to this problem. I have already told the House that we are determined to keep the amount of lead emission from motor cars down to 1971 levels. It would take a long time to fit filter traps to existing motor cars, let alone fit them to new models. That being so, I can only say that, following our examination of the situation, we can keep within the 1971 levels only by taking lead out of petrol in progressively increasing quantities, as the directives propose.
§ Mr. Sainsbury
Will the Minister be keeping the question of filter traps under constant review, particularly if it should be found desirable to move to lower figures?
§ Mr. Howell
The hon. Member anticipates me. I was about to tell the House that I intend to keep all these matters under constant review. We intend to continue monitoring the programme of further research, and the availability and efficiency of filters will be another subject that we shall keep under constant review. As our aim is maintaining the 1971 levels, if we find it necessary to return to the House, or if, as a result of medical research, we are led to the view that the hazards are even greater than we now believe them to be, I shall not hesitate, and I hope that my successors will not hesitate, to recommend to the House that we proceed even faster than this programme.
I was asked by the hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes) to say something about lead in water. The present World Health Organisation limit is 0.1 milligrammes per litre, but we now have new proposals from the EEC and the WHO to halve that limit. We have therefore carried out a national survey of the lead content of water as a result of which we have found a small proportion of houses exceeding that figure. The higher proportion exceeds the proposed limits. We are especially concerned with buildings in Scotland, in which there are very old lead pipes. We have advised householders who are believed to be affected not to drink the water that first comes from the tap, especially in the morning, but to run off the tap.
We are continuing the pilot study on the key issue, the report of which will be published soon, and we shall commission a new survey to widen the scope of the original pilot study to provide a firm basis upon which policy decisions can be made. As soon as we have the results of the more detailed, in-depth study we shall publish it for the benefit of the House and the country.
I hope, therefore, that by the replies that I have been able to give tonight on all the matters raised I have convinced the House that the only responsible action we can take is to adopt the programme that the Government put before the House, strengthened by the amendment moved by my hon. Friend. To do anything else in the circumstances of the increasing amount of lead in the 193 atmosphere would be irresponsible. I commend the motion to the House.
§ Amendment agreed to.
§ Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to.
That this House takes note of the proposals for EEC Directives for limiting the lead content of petrol and for biological and air quality standards for lead as contained in documents R/3113/73 and R/1150/75, and the outcome of the Government review of lead in petrol; accepts the principle of reducing the maximum lead content of petrol to 0.40 grams per litre as proposed by the EEC; and, whilst recognising that this will have an adverse effect on the United Kingdom balance of payments, nevertheless calls on Her Majesty's Government to take appropriate steps to achieve this aim by staged reductions.