HC Deb 01 August 1978 vol 955 cc572-92

5.37 a.m.

Mr. J. W. Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr)

I wish to raise some of the issues behind the recent report of the Department of the Environment entitled "Lead Pollution in Birmingham."

In April 1974, just after I became a Member, I was fortunate enough to secure an Adjournment debate one Friday, when I was able to discuss briefly the problems of people living alongside the motorways in Birmingham—particularly the M6—and some of the potential health hazards that they were suffering because of the quantity of lead in petrol in those days. Since then, of course, the amount of lead in petrol has been reduced. It was around April 1974 that my right hon. Friend the Minister of State set up what was known as the Gravelly Hill working party to study the problem, specifically around Spaghetti Junction and the environs of Birmingham.

The chapter of the report which gives cause for most concern and which has received most comment in the press is chapter 5, which relates basically to preschool children under the age of 5. It was found that there was—I put it no higher than this—a high level of lead in the blood of these children, as compared with other sections of the population. In some cases it was found to be twice as high as the level in adult males.

The report is a little sketchy, in that it admits that there was no correlation between this factor and the habit, well known to exist among young children, of chewing lead products, or a correlation between the occupation of the fathers, which can be important if the fathers work in heavy industry, particularly, perhaps, in a lead product factory such as a battery factory. Nor was there any correlation between the age of the house in which the children lived, which was at one time thought to be a particular factor with the incidence of high levels of blood lead.

The report seems to refuse to accept that the high level of blood lead may be from petrol. That gives cause for concern to the public, and it is one of the prime reasons for my taking the time of the House this morning. I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will be able to explain exactly the Department's view on the matter.

The committee that compiled the report was a little complacent in getting samples in respect of the pre-school children. It is astonishing to read in the report the response to the committee's target of 640 samples of children within the age range of 1 to 4 from the four different areas of Birmingham. The committee approached 1,600 parents. There was no response in 931 cases. Letters were returned in 270 cases for what the author of the report sees as the astonishing reasons of "change of address", "address unknown", "house empty" or "house demolished". That part of the report has an exclamation mark against it. There were only 46 outright refusals from parents to let their children participate in the survey. The committee received 353 permissions. That figure is some way short of the target of 640. It was well known that the response was poor. The figures indicate an irresponsible attitude among the parents, given that such a large number failed to respond. That is most unhelpful in dealing with this major problem. There were reasons for the poor response, although they do not wholly mitigate the inaction of the parents.

Of the 353 parents who gave permission, only 243 kept the appointment with their children for the blood samples to be taken. The final number was made up to over 400 by parents volunteering after press publicity about the poor response.

One reason for that poor turnout is given in paragraph 90 of the report, which states that There is no doubt that the fact that the blood samples were taken at Sutton Coldfield —at Good Hope hospital— was a factor in motivating parents to respond as they did". The reference there is to the high reponse rate of Sutton Coldfield parents. It continues: Had we been able to arrange for blood to be taken more centrally, as we had originally intended, it is possible that parents living in the centre of the city would have been more willing to co-operate. The report gives no reason for not using a city centre hospital. Any Birmingham Member could have told the committee that if the samples were to be taken at a Sutton Coldfield hospital they would get a poor response from parents in the inner and middle rings of the city. The nearer to Sutton Coldfield, the higher was the response rate. In Sutton Cold-field three quarters of the sample turned up. The object of the exercise was not to test children in Sutton Coldfield but to test children who might be suffering blood lead pollution due to the incidence of the motorways. They are not at Sutton Coldfield.

There is no explanation for not using an inner city hospital. I understand from members of the working party that at Dudley Road hospital, an inner city hospital, there are better facilities than in any other hospital in the city for taking these blood samples. Indeed, Dudley Road hospital is the main hospital used for industrial cases, under the health and safety legislation, when checking on lead poisoning caused at work. What is more, the children's hospital, which is also an inner city hospital, has facilities for taking these blood samples.

The response rate from parents in the inner city would undoubtedly have been higher if either of these hospitals had been used. I should like my hon. Friend, when he answers the debate, to say why Good Hope Hospital was chosen, and why it was not possible to use the other hospitals, because clearly this had an important impact on the samples that it was possible to take.

We have now been pushed off with another inquiry. We are told that another working party has been set up to look at the problem of pre-school children, because that was the problem highlighted in the report. This sort of inquiry, coupled with the inaction of the past, leads people in Birmingham, and those who take an interest in the problem of lead in petrol, to believe that somebody, somewhere, is in somebody's pocket. We understand that the new inquiry is to take place using children who attend day centres. I am reliably informed by a member of the Gravelly Hill working party that the known evidence from the literature available is that children under school age who attend day centres have, by definition, a lower blood lead level than any random sample that one cares to choose. We shall be looking, therefore, at a group of children who, it would appear, by definition have a lower level of lead in their blood than would usually be the case.

There is also the evidence that the parents who can get their children into day centres—it is a real scramble in inner city areas, where most of the day centres will be—tend to be the parents who know how to use the system and how to articulate their case, or get someone to do it for them. They are not slow in coming forward, in other words. That sort of parent, it may be thought, might take extra precautions to make sure that his children do not go around chewing lead products.

There is also the aspect of nutrition. It is known from the evidence that the better the nutritional inputs of a child, the more this can counteract high levels of lead from other sources. Children in day centres may well be getting higher nutritional inputs than children who are not at day centres, who may be let loose during the day and who may not be adequately supervised or fed. It looks, therefore, as if the new inquiry will deal with a group of children bearing no relation whatsoever to the generality of children of preschool age who may be suffering from high blood lead levels. It looks as though the new inquiry has been fixed, in order to pacify those who are concerned about this, by using a fixed sample.

In the whole of the debate, which has gone on for years—and also since the report was published, only in late May this year—we have had, as usual, a deafening silence from the oil companies. They do not enter the debate. The most that they are prepared to say these days is that they will do or comply with whatever the Government require them to do. That is not a very satisfactory attitude for the companies to adopt, because we are here dealing with some of the most powerful organisations in the world, more powerful than many national Governments.

It has been shown that the gross national product of many oil companies is much greater than that of many national Governments in the world. They are able to move power and capital around the world, and are sometimes involved in toppling Governments. They are extremely powerful organisations. One sometimes questions whether the Department of the Environment at Marsham Street is really up to dealing with these organisations. I submit that it is not.

Even since the lead content of petrol dropped to 45mg per litre in 1976, we have used more lead in total tonnage of petrol than in 1975–2½ per cent. more—because of the increase in traffic. When we reach the EEC target of 40mg in 1981, which is the decision for this country—there are no plans to go lower—on present traffic predictions, within another six years more petrol lead will be pumped into the atmosphere, to be absorbed into the human body, than in 1981. We shall be back to where we started. The target of 40mg is not, therefore, satisfactory.

Our fellow citizens are entitled to expect that this issue is receiving top priority in the Government, but on present evidence they cannot have that expectation. Has a Cabinet committee looked at this or will one do so? Has the Central Policy Review Staff—the "think tank"—done so? Either would be more powerful in the face of the oil companies than is the Department of the Environment.

There is plenty of evidence from people with no financial axe to grind that we may have to wait for a catastrophe, like an open dropping of IQ levels among children, before action is taken. I am not criticising the Minister who is here, or the Secretary of State, but responsibility should be lifted from a Miinster who also has responsibility for sport and recreation, which takes him constantly to all corners of the world. We need a doomwatch Minister, not a stopwatch Minister.

The present policy does not meet the requirements of the public. The argument always comes down to economics and trade. Our competitors—Germany, the United States, Japan and the USSR—all have requirements for less lead in petrol than we do. In some cases, no petrol containing lead is allowed to be sold in the USSR. The argument that vehicles would cost too much does not seem to fit. The United States requires lead-free petrol to be available in some areas.

If the countries that I have mentioned operate such policies, a warning light must be flashing, but it does not seem to be flashing in this country. The complacency of ministerial replies is the same as it has been over the last few years. In a letter from the responsible Minister, referring to a constituent who had raised the matter with me, I was told: On present evidence, the complete elimination of lead from petrol, which Mr. Isabella suggests, is unnecessary. While it is accepted that the cost to the motorist of further reductions in the lead content would be relatively small, the effect on our overall balance of payments would be much more serious. The lead additive in petrol provides the octane number needed by vehicle engines. The alternative way of getting the right octane number is by more severe refinery processing, which would reduce petrol production, which in turn would mean that considerably more crude oil needed to be imported each year just to maintain the same quantity and quality of petrol as before. The Minister then gave some figures which are not relevant, because we have since reduced the lead content of petrol. He went on: In the face of economic factors of this magnitude, it is essential that a very careful assessment of the need for further measures is made before decisions are taken and we are carrying out a thorough and urgent review of all the factors involved in the problem. He was referring to the Gravelly Hill survey.

In an excellent series of articles in the Yorkshire Post, last October and November, the cat was let out of the bag. The paper had done a lot of research into the environmental effects of the economic and technical consequences of the internal combustion engine. One article told how the Americans had coped: The principal destroyers of the higher-costs myth have been two of the most important oil men in the United States, Robert C. Gunness, president of the giant Standard Oil Company, and Dr. Vladimir Haensel, vice-president of the Universal Oil Products Company's Science and Technology Division. Mr. Gunness, before a sub-committee on Public Health and Welfare, publicly declared that driving tests performed with lead-free petrol showed a three per cent. increase in mileage from using it exclusively. He also brought out the results of tests which showed there was actually a significant saving in automobile maintenance costs—less corrosion of the exhaust system, freedom from combustion chamber deposits, longer lived spark plugs and other benefits. It all amounted to, he said, a saving of about four cents a gallon if the motorists turned to lead-free petrol and the maintenance savings at 1970 prices would have been as much as 45 dollars in a year's 15,000 miles motoring. That lets the cat out of the bag.

Another article made clear how British Leyland, which exports many high-performance cars to the United States, was coping with the problem: The production lines of British Leyland at Longbridge roll out thousands of cars with these engines that run on lead-free fuel. They are in fast cars like MGBs, TR7s —in fact the TR7 was not made at Long-bridge, although I suspect that its engine was— Triumph Spitfires and several models of Jaguar. But they are being produced purely for Leyland's export market, mainly the U.S. A spokesman for the company explains: 'It's one of these measures taken on an emotional basis rather on any scientific evidence, although we accept there is an area of doubt about the effects of leaded fuel.' The article refers to an emotional basis, but I would take some convincing that Leyland, even with all its problems, is not taking decisions on a commercial basis. The spokesman admits that there are some doubts about lead in petrol. So the British motor industry can cope.

Enough disquiet has been raised by this report and many others, but the layman must rely on the specialists, just as Ministers must rely on civil servants. There is no substantial conflict among the technical people, although some academics take a tougher line than others.

Dr. Robert Stephens, a chemist at Birmingham University who works in this field, was a member of the Gravelly Hill working party. He signed the report—there was no dissent or minority report—but on the day before it was published he gave an interview to The Birmingham Post, in which he suggested that although the figures and the evidence in the report were correct as they stood, the wrong conclusions had been drawn, bearing in mind fresh evidence which had come to light.

The Birmingham Post of 24th May, reporting on his statement the day before publication, said: He now suggests that while blood lead levels worked out by the working party may be accurate the conclusions drawn are wrong. He said: 'I now estimate that 20 per cent. of this city's'"— Birmingham's— inner area children under 13 experience a disturbance of central nervous system function because of high lead content in their bodies.' This could affect their whole behaviour, making them anti-social and also damaging their intelligence, he said. There is evidence from other researchers, both in Britain and abroad, that high blood lead levels affect the intelligence of those concerned. It attacks the central nervous system. It is one of the most toxic substances. Lead is not present in the body in a natural form. There is a food intake, but to put it in the body because of environmental factors is not something that we can tolerate.

For his sin of issuing a statement, Dr. Stephens was abused by a senior civil servant. He is unnamed, but I know that there were witnesses. There was a report in The Times of 26th July by Trevor Fishlock, headed Top civil servant 'shouted at critic of report' that said: A member of a working party on lead pollution who dissented from a reassuring report by the Department of the Environment on the effects of lead, especially on children, published in May, said yesterday that before the report came out he was shouted at by an enraged senior civil servant. The report went on to quote Dr. Stephens as saying I have never received such abuse in my life.…I was accused of jeopardizing the chances of more money being made available for research in this field. It is important to say that the report is an excellent collection of data…to say there was no cause for concern is blatantly untrue.' I want from my hon. Friend the Minister a categorical assurance that there is no chance of any funding being jeopardised for work in this area in the city of Birmingham, whether by the University of Birmingham or within any working party, because of Dr. Stephens speaking out on behalf of the public. I want that categorical assurance that protocol will not interfere with safety of citizens in Birmingham.

I understand that throughout the working party's deliberations those laymen who were not used to the machinations of the political process, but sat there as specialists carrying out their part of the working party's activities, were amazed by the protocol and the arrangements that operated between the city council authorities, the DHSS and the Department of the Environment representatives. The whole thing seemed to be very much preordained. It seems that many people sat on their pride and their principles and their little empires, making sure that we did not get from the working party as frank a report as clearly we could otherwise have received.

The introduction to the working party report, signed by my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, alludes to the problem of the pre-school children. He says: The results in respect of the older children (those of school age) have been reassuring, —that is contradicated by Dr. Stephens— but there is some indication that there may be a problem of lead intake for some preschool children living in central areas. In the conclusions, we read, in paragraph 127: We have already indicated that this is a matter —the point about the pre-school child-ren— which urgently require further investigation. The foreword to the report says that there is some indication that there may be a problem". By the time we reach the conclusion it is getting much tougher.

The paragraph continues: The precise reasons for this finding are not yet known but the problem is clearly not related to the motorway interchange itself, —the M6 interchange— nor indeed does it seem at all likely that airborne lead in general is directly responsible. Frankly, there is no evidence whatever for those assertions in the report. It is a travesty that that sort of statement appears in the conclusions in the report. It goes on to say: The work is now entering a new phase and it is no longer sensible to treat it as an off-shoot of the particular points of public concern from which we started. I do not accept that for one moment. The way in which the new survey is being rigged, as I said in opening, clearly gives cause for concern.

My hon. Friend may say "We accept that there was a problem with pre-school children, but it was only some of them, only 15 out of 429". There were only 423 from the random samples when 640 were needed. A few more were drummed up, making 429 pre-school children, of whom 15 had high blood lead levels. It may be said that 15 out of 429 does not sound many. However, when we realise that 110 of those 429 were from the Sutton Coldfield area—which, by definition, overloaded the sample—it becomes 15 from 319. There were problems with parents in the inner city not wanting to travel to the green pastures of Sutton Coldfield. The ratio of 15 out of 319 starts to look a little more serious at about 5 per cent. I hope that the Minister will not throw this 429 figure at me.

The population of this country, particularly the citizens of Birmingham, desperately need a little open government on this matter. We are not getting this. We are getting lots of reports from the Department of the Environment on the problems of lead in drinking water, in the environment, and on its significance to man as well as the report dealing with lead pollution in Birmingham. When we see the basis of the reports and realise that they can be attacked on simple points of major public concern, it does not seem that they are worth a candle.

There was a feature in The Times on 25th July which gave cause for concern. I should like the local press in Birmingham to reprint the feature. It started out with a bald statement saying that The Government is not telling us the whole truth about the danger to our children's health caused by lead in petrol. Assurances in the carefully-worded statements of the Department of the Environment and the avoidance of serious questions make the department look complacent and raise doubts about the quality of advice that ministers receive on this matter. The feature continued with a statement that is the most damaging statement that could have been made against the Department, because it shows its gullibility and complacency. The article said: The Government seems to be basing some of its assurance on a study published in The Lancet in 1974. —I was familiar with this as a result of preparing for my Adjournment debate four years ago— This concluded that there was no relationship between blood lead level and any measure of mental malfunctioning, no evidence of a link between disturbed children and higher blood levels. But something was omitted from that report. This was a finding that the mean blood level for hyperactive children was higher than in non-hyperactives. Although the difference was said to be 'nearly, but not quite statistically significant' it should have been enough at least to add some reservations to the confident conclusions. The DoE knows about this omission. This is the point about the new survey. What the Government ought to be doing, instead of having a rigged survey in day centres, is what has been done abroad. They should take two groups of preschool children, one with known high levels of lead in their blood and one with known low levels of lead in their blood. They should make all the tests necessary to eliminate other factors such as the age of the house, occupation of the father and whether someone has a habit of chewing lead products. Then we would be left with two groups of children with no known factors differentiating between them other than the fact that one group has high blood levels of lead and the other low levels. A psychiatric test should then be conducted on the children.

That is what has been done abroad, and that is what has led to some of the most disturbing reports, which give cause for concern about the actions of the Department of the Environment. That is the test that needs to be done in Birmingham among the pre-school children, but I understand that it is not going to be done.

The Department has shown itself to be somewhat gullible in this respect. It is at a cost of a few pence on the price of a gallon of petrol—and we must bear in mind that in the last few years, while the price at the pump has more or less doubled in real terms it has probably gone down. It has not risen with inflation over the last two years, as we saw when the Finance Bill 1977 was going through the House. The Government then wished to put 5p extra on petrol but were prevented from doing so.

If the argument is about putting another 2p or 3p on the price of petrol, I will vote tomorrow to do it, and I do not think that the Liberal Party will have the cheek to argue against it on the evidence that I have brought forward—evidence that is abundantly available to hon. Members.

For the sake of a few pence on a gallon of petrol, we are exposing to serious hazard future generations—not only ourselves—for whom it is our responsibility to ensure a decent, clean, healthy environment in which to grow up. We are exposing them to a known brain poison, a known substance that works against the operation and functioning of the human body.

It is not good enough for a Labour Government to say that we will go to the EEC level of 40 mg. per litre in 1991, that we have no plans for doing anything else about it except to set up another working party to report. A year ago, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State wrote to the hon. Member for Hampstead (Mr. Finsberg). He was replying to a letter from Mr. John Mathews which the hon. Gentleman enclosed in his own letter to my hon. Friend. Mr. Mathews had written about the lead content in petrol. He is a member of the Conservation Society and has done a lot of academic work on the subject. He has written articles for the New Scientist, a highly reputable journal, which is not known for publishing scare stories based on myth. Its articles are based on fact and give cause for public concern.

In his letter, dated 19th September 1977, my hon. Friend made certain points in three sentences. He said, first: It is important to realise that airborne lead is unlikely to account for more than a minor proportion of the total lead absorbed into the body. So what? I understand that it known that about 33 per cent. of the lead in the body comes from airborne lead. I do not think that that is a minor matter. My hon. Friend went on: And it is the long term mean level of lead in air, rather than the short period peaks seen, for example, at road sides…that is important. Of course that is true. No one arguing against the amount of lead in petrol is resting his case on peak levels; the argument is based on the overall level, the sort of level indicated in the report on lead pollution in Birmingham.

My hon. Friend should not therefore make such a claim. Basically, the words he used in his letter are those of the oil companies. He went on: There is no evidence of any hazard to health attributable to lead in exhaust fumes, or to lead in the general environment. How in September 1977 my hon. Friend could include such a sentence in a letter put up to him by civil servants I do not know. He was ignoring all the mounting evidence that was available last year on the behaviour and mental effects of lead in petrol. The facts are known from research throughout the world. I hope that he will not include that sentence in his brief tonight; if he has it, I hope that he will not use it, because I know that he personally has done all he can in the Department. I pay tribute to his efforts. In no way am I criticising him or the Secretary of State, because they are not masters of the situation.

That is why I believe that there should be a Cabinet committee; otherwise the matter should be referred to the "think-tank". I hope that my hon. Friend will give the assurance that I ask for about the money that is to be spent on this area of investigation, and that he will not depend on the vagaries of some civil servant who got a little upset in Birmingham because some person spoke the truth.

6.15 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Kenneth Marks)

I had not realised that my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr Rooker) would go into such detail of the published evidence in a particular report or about things that had been said. He spoke about somebody shouting at a civil servant, and so on. I shall not concern myself with that but shall stick to the issue which has been raised, and many of the details will be examined.

My hon. Friend is right to say that we rely a great deal on advice. The advice that we get is from a wide variety of highly qualified medical people as well as those who are qualified to deal with pollution matters. Indeed, the working party which considered the matter had on it, apart from Dr. Stephens, who is a chemist at Birmingham University, many medical people who put their names to the report and on whose advice we continue to rely, as, indeed, we rely on advice from medical people in our own Department.

I know that one has to sort out the evidence that is given by these people, by our advisers in the central unit on environmental pollution, by the medical officers of various Departments and of local authorities, by the various journalists to whom my hon. Friend referred who submitted evidence and by people who have done some work on this subject in other parts of the world.

I should like to broaden the debate to take in the question of lead pollution in general, because the subject has received a great deal of publicity in recent weeks, mainly in connection with the report to which my hon. Friend referred but also, I think, because of the interest generated by an independent television programme into possible health effects of lead pollution. As often happens with a complex subject such as this, there have, I think, been a number of misunderstandings. I therefore welcome the opportunity to give an account of the Government's view of the problem and the actions that have been taken.

First, the Government are not complacent, and that includes my right hon. Friend and myself. Our concern and interest are by no means recent. My hon. Friend is rare by virtue of the fact that he has been going on about this for a long time, as, indeed, have the Government. About four years ago, probably at the time of my hon. Friend's Adjournment debate, the late Anthony Crosland, the then Secretary of State, was saying that, while we had made good progress in controlling the most obvious forms of pollution, we were increasingly conscious of the need to look closely at pollutants that constituted less easily assessable hazards to health and the environment, and he instanced lead as one of them.

My hon. Friend spoke about these various reports. Indeed, the concern of the central unit of environmental pollution has been mainly in connection with lead in the various reports that have been made. We have had pollution paper no. 2, which I think my hon. Friend quoted, entitled "Lead in the Environment and its Significance to Man". We have had the Birmingham report "Lead in Petrol". We have concerned ourselves with the problem of lead in water in certain areas, and so on.

We published a thorough review of lead in the environment about four years ago. We said that it must always be a cause for concern. That review concluded that, although existing levels did not appear to present a health hazard to the general public, it would be prudent to ensure that those levels did not increase and to aim to reduce them in the areas and circumstances where people were most exposed to risks.

We have since been guided by that policy and have been working to identify more precisely how and where lead pollution arises and how it can best be contained. More recent work, which includes surveys of lead in people's blood, seems to confirm the view that there is no general health hazard, and research which has attracted a lot of publicity recently has suggested that lead levels that we have generally considered to be within acceptable limits may still present a hazard to mental development. Very recent research has shown this. I want to return to this later, but first I wish to set out the general advice of the Government's medical advisers.

Lead in blood can be taken as a measure of man's uptake of lead, and the generally accepted normal upper limit is taken to be 35 microgrammes per 100 millilitres of blood. The limit for the general population is one to which the World Health Organisation subscribes, and it is contained also in a recent EEC measure on the monitoring of blood lead levels. Indeed, I was at the May meeting of the EEC Environment Ministers when their directive was approved. But the Government do not depend only on WHO and EEC views. We have our own medical officer of the Department of Health and Social Security, and he in turn is advised by a committee on which sit foremost independent experts, mainly medical experts.

The average level in the general population is about 20 microgrammes, well beneath this accepted upper limit. We shall have further information on the levels of blood of people living in urban areas soon as a major survey begins next year to measure the blood lead concentrations of sample populations in all cities of over 500,000 people, and also of critical groups who might be exposed to above average lead concentrations because they live near lead works, in areas where traffic is particularly heavy or where there is a high lead content in drinking water. We are carrying out inquiries in a number of areas, and we are doing so extensively.

Where does the lead that is taken up in people's bodies come from? The research that has so far been done on sources of lead in man indicate that most people's lead intake comes mainly from food and drink. In certain circumstances lead in air, either from industrial lead emissions or petrol lead, and lead in drinking water can make a significant contribution. The Government have been taking a number of steps to reduce the quantity of lead reaching man from all sources. Regulations dating from 1961 limit the amount of lead in most foods to two parts per million. The Government have this year published proposals which envisage that this should be halved to one part per million. On lead in air we have the controls operated by the Alkali Inspectorate, which require lead works to operate the best practicable means to prevent emissions, and we have a programme of reductions in the lead content of petrol designed to keep total emissions down to 1971 levels. I know that there are those, including my hon. Friend, who say we should be doing more to reduce petrol lead, and I shall come back to this presently.

Lead in drinking water is, of course, associated with lead pipes in areas where the water supply has a tendency to dissolve lead. We published a survey last year on lead levels in drinking water which suggested that in a small percentage of households levels were above limits recommended by the WHO. The Department immediately started a comprehensive exercise to identify precisely the areas of high lead levels and to take action to bring the levels down to below the WHO limits. In most cases the water can be blended or treated. In the few instances where this is not practicable, some pipe replacement may be necessary.

Old lead paint is still an important source of lead, especially for children, and most cases of high blood levels or lead poisoning can usually be traced to flaking paint. There have been voluntary agreements with industry, and Government regulations on paint for toys have greatly reduced the lead content of paints. But there is still a legacy of danger in some of our older, poor-quality housing, particularly in the inner cities, where the decorative condition leaves much to be desired.

We are also keeping a close watch on levels of lead pollution by systematic monitoring of lead in food, air and water, giving special attention to areas where above-average values might occur. Any unusually high levels are the subject of further investigation. Monitoring is also carried out by local and public authorities. Indeed, another of the central unit of pollution reports has been on the question of monitoring all types of pollution, including lead.

Most of the concern expressed recently has centred on lead in petrol. We cannot be sure quite what proportion of lead reaches people through the air or in dust after it is emitted from car exhausts. For most people, even in cities, it will not be the main source. I think that my hon. Friend recognised this. But we cannot ignore the possibility that it may be a more important source for children and that it may be easier to reduce lead emissions from exhausts than to reduce exposure through food or drink. But doing it this way is something which would affect the whole of the country rather than the particular areas about which we are concerned.

I emphasise our special concern for children. As my hon. Friend knows, I was a teacher before I was a politician. I have vivid memories of someone trying to explain to a group of teachers how to try to see things from a child's angle. One of the Sunday newspapers has published some photographs from this angle. The expression that stays in my memory after many years is "When you are three, the exhaust goes straight into your face."

So the Government have a special concern for children. They are committed to a programme of reductions of lead in petrol. This will take us down to 0.4 grammes per litre from 1st January 1981 in line with the target of the EEC directive on lead in petrol agreed in May. We in the Department recognise that further action will be required, and we are already considering what the next steps should be to maintain or reduce the level below the 1971 level. I should explain that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport is responsible for regulations relating to lead in petrol, but we are very concerned.

The possibilities for the future include not only the reduction or elimination of lead in petrol but the use of special exhausts to trap lead before it is emitted. We shall be considering the advantages and disadvantages of these alternatives. We have to look at this question in the light of the possible health risks from lead and the contribution that petrol lead makes. We have to consider also that the reducing of lead in petrol increases costs and also requires more energy, particularly at levels below 0.40 grammes per litre. It has been estimated that the reduction we are to make next from 0.45 to 0.4 grammes per litre will add about £30 million a year on the balance of payments because of the extra crude oil which will be required.

If we were to move to lead-free petrol or petrol with very small amounts of lead, there would be some cost to the car industry and to the refining industry, but the main point is still the extra energy costs to the country. We have to look at these costs very carefully in assessing the alternatives for further measures on exhaust emissions. If the balance of the equation differs, if we find that we can make cheaper leadless fuel or if the assessment of the degree of health risk changes, of course we may have to alter the pace of the programme. At the moment, however, we do not think that is necessary.

Lately there have been suggestions that the health effects have been underestimated and that children may be damaged by amounts of lead previously thought safe. It is true that children are more at risk than adults. Their habits make them more likely to pick up lead in the form of dust and they absorb more of their total lead intake than adults. The recent survey of Birmingham children showed that a small proportion in the inner city had blood levels of over 35 microgrammes per 100 millilitres. I think that the figure was 3 per cent. My hon. Friend referred to a figure of 15 which I had not seen.

Mr. Rooker

My hon. Friend is making a valid point. The 3 per cent. represents the 15 out of 429. I said it is really 15 children out of 319. That is nearly 5 per cent.

Mr. Marks

I take note of what my hon. Friend says.

Preliminary results of recent research in the United States and Germany suggest that there may be a relationship between blood lead levels below 35 microgrammes per 100 millilitres and a number of behavioural and learning disorders in children. There is a great deal of work going on. Other work in this country and elsewhere has found no such relationship. Much of the work on both sides is subject to criticism and some new work, which was referred to in the article in The Times, is due to be published shortly.

I am advised that a number of people have been suggesting lately that the link is established between quite small amounts of lead and the mental development of children. It is a difficult area of research. The differences in the lead content in children's blood that are in question are very small to measure accurately, and differences in behaviour and mental ability are, as I know, notoriously difficult to measure. The Department, therefore, is commissioning research in this area this year, as my right hon. Friend announced on 12th July. We need to do the research because the area is doubtful. We do not expect ever to remove all the doubt, but we consider that we need more firm evidence before we take the action that has been suggested.

According to our advisers, the state of evidence—our advisers are not the oil companies but the medical people in the Department, the local authorities and universities—does not suggest the need for emergency measures. We have research in hand into the health effects of lead pollution, especially in children, into the levels of lead in the population, both generally and in specific circumstances where exposure may be greater, into the contribution of the various sources of lead and into ways of reducing lead pollution by, for example, treating plum-bosolvent water. That is being done in Glasgow. We have a programme of action to reduce people's exposure through lead in food and in water and to contain that from petrol.

We have been accused of ignoring the evidence said to link lead in petrol with serious health risks. We reject the criticism of complacency. It is right that there should be concern about lead pollution. It is right that people wish to be assured that there is not significant danger to them and their children from the various sources in lead in the environment. It is the Government's business to ensure that their reasonable and legitimate concerns are met by appropriate action. However, it is also the Government's business to ensure that expensive measures are justified by evidence or reasonable hypotheses about the source, levels and effects of lead. It would not be reasonable to embark on a very expensive series of measures unless we had good reason to believe that those measures were necessary. A balance needs to be struck.

If I and my right hon. Friends feel that children's health and development are being placed needlessly at risk, the House may be sure that we shall take the necessary action. We shall do so if the research that we have in hand should change our view of the balance of the evidence. With all due respect to the authorities which claim to have a monopoly of knowledge and concern in this area, we have still to be persuaded that the Government's programme is inadequate.

My hon. Friend raised a number of detailed matters about the work of the Birmingham committee. I have mentioned that it included a number of medical people within the local authority and the Department. The assertion that in some way it could deliberately have come to a wrong conclusion, as Dr. Stephens suggested, is not tenable. My hon. Friend asked for an assurance that there will be no lack of funds for the ensuing investigations that we have already authorised. He made that request in view of something that Dr. Stephens said the day before the report was due to be published. I can give the assurance that there will be no lack of funds for the research on the ground that was suggested.