HC Deb 23 March 1978 vol 946 cc1788-803

1.44 p.m.

Mr. Toby Jessel (Twickenham)

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise a subject which is of concern to a considerable number of my constituents and which I have headed: The use by British Rail of premises near residential areas for the stripping of asbestos from rolling stock. It is a matter of some anxiety to a number of my constituents in Strawberry Hill and the northern fringe of Teddington. In that area there is a large shed owned by British Rail which is now being used for stripping asbestos from carriages.

There is some fear in the district that pollution of the surrounding atmosphere might occur which might be harmful to health. I am told that this place is one of 26 in the country where this process by British Rail of stripping asbestos goes on. These areas include Hebden Bridge—and I understand that the hon. Member for Sowerby (Mr. Madden) would like to intervene later in the debate, Mr. Speaker. I am willing that he should do so. These asbestos stripping operations are also carried out at York, Doncaster, Glasgow, Crewe and Ilford. I do not know the remainder of the locations.

In Strawberry Hill and Teddington, concern has been expressed at four levels. First, I should mention the Richmond-upon-Thames Borough Council. A number of councillors have been in touch with me to express anxiety. This week the general purposes committee of the council called for an urgent report and evaluation of the risk.

Secondly, a distinguished local doctor is raising the matter with the British Medical Association.

Thirdly, the parents of school children in the district are concerned. Within a few hundred yards of this shed there are three schools, the Stanley Road school with 647 children taking both the infants and the junior sections, the St. James Roman Catholic primary school with 293 children, and the Strathmore special school which has 71 children. There are, therefore, over 1,000 young children within a few hundred yards of this site.

Fourthly, Strawberry Hill residents' Association has taken a great interest in this matter and through its chairman, Mr. Willcocks, has, in my view, acted in a most responsible manner throughout. The association approached me last summer and as a result I went to see the Under-Secretary of State, who is to reply to today's debate. He told me that he was satisfied that there was no danger and he followed this up with a letter which he ended by saying, on behalf of the Department of Transport: In our opinion, British Railways have acted very responsibly in this matter and have taken and will continue to take all the precautions necesary to safeguard the health, both of their own employees and of the public. Because of the serious nature of any illness which could come about if there were any risk, the association was still not satisfied and wanted to make sure about the situation. It sought a report from Dr. Black, a local resident. I hope that no one will say that Dr. Black is an alarmist. He was formerly Her Majesty's chief inspector of explosives at the Home Office. He had oversight of and responsibility for examination of most dangerous substances and he is highly experienced, not in medicine, but in measuring a wide variety of dangerous substances.

Dr. Black reported to the association in September 1977. His report contained a number of worrying points which, for the time being, the association kept confidential while it sought meetings with British Rail to voice its anxieties. Having received no satisfaction from British Rail, at the end of January the association wrote to me. Unfortunately, there was about a two-week delay because at that time I was in hospital having a major shoulder operation following a sporting accident. On 6th March I went to see the Under-Secretary, taking with me Mr. Willcocks, the association's chairman. Colonel McNaughton, chief inspector of British Railways, was also present. This was prior to the annual general meeting of the association on 8th March. At the meeting, 180 people were present and a great deal of anxiety was expressed, although Mr. Willcocks conveyed to the meeting what the Minister and Colonel McNaughton had said.

The meeting passed two resolutions. The first was: The Health and Safety Executive should institute immediately a total review of the standards and procedures required with blue asbestos in order to ensure that the health of workers and the surrounding community is fully safeguarded. The second was: Having regard to the uncertainties over the whole of the field and the fact that the Advisory Committee on Asbestos currently considering these matters is not likely to report in the near future, the work at the depot should be closed down until it can be shown unequivocally that it is safe to resume. At this stage, I wish to declare that some years ago I had, but no longer have, an interest in the mining of blue asbestos. I understand that, by custom of the House, the moral obligation to declare an interest applies to present interests and not to past ones, and that therefore I am under no obligation to make this declaration, but I felt that I should tell both the House and my constituents of that past interest.

My interest was a small one. I owned about half of one per cent. of a company which indirectly owned about one-fifth of an asbestos mine in Africa. All the products of the mine were exported to countries other than the United Kingdom, mainly to the Continent and Japan. None of it came to the United Kingdom or to British Rail.

In considering the position of British Rail, I wish to express my gratitude to Mr. Ian Campbell, a member of the British Railways board, who, accompanied by the chief medical officer, Dr. J. Gellatly, came to see me at the House of Commons yesterday to explain British Rail's position on the matter beyond what Colonel McNaughton had said at the meeting of 6th March.

I come to the conclusion that British Rail should not be blamed in any way for having put asbestos into its carriages and locomotives, as it did from about the Second World War up to about 1967 or 1968. British Rail could not then have known the dangers of the substance. No one knew at the time. It should also be said that British Rail has an extremely high reputation in safety matters generally. Its accident record is extremely low. British Rail provides one of the safest ways to travel in the world. I am sure that it would be the wish of the board and of the employees and managerial staff throughout British Rail to do their best to ensure that everything they do is conducive to health and safety.

I also accept that British Rail is absolutely right to remove asbestos from 6,000 of its carriages, comprising about 40 per cent. of its total stock, and from 800 locomotives for the sake of the health not only of its work force but of passengers.

Clearly, one cannot simply throw away 6,000 railway carriages and 800 locomotives. The replacement costs would be colossal. I understand that a new carriage for an inter-city train now costs about £85,000 and for a suburban train about £50,000, whereas the cost of removing the asbestos is £30 million to £40 million in a planned rolling programme over four years, the cost of doing it in the case of each carriage being on average about £3,000 to £4,000.

Even if British Rail were to throw away 6,000 carriages, the asbestos could not just be left in them but would have to be removed somewhere, some time. Furthermore, British Rail is taking delivery of some 350 new carriages a year, and if 6,000 carriages were suddenly re moved fom service it would have to take between one-quarter and one-third of its trains off, so the transport system would break down. Thus, British Rail must be right to remove the asbestos from carriages and locomotives in a rolling programme. My quarrel with British Rail is that it is doing it in a residential area in my constituency and in 25 other places in the country, including a number of urban areas where people live and go to school, instead of doing it somewhere out in the country.

Of course, there are many dangerous things in every-day use—electricity, gas, cars, aircraft, petrol, drugs, from aspirin upwards, cigarettes, all sorts of chemicals used in the production of plastics, explosives, sulphuric acid, and so on. All these things are dangerous, and it is not necessarily wrong to produce dangerous things. But their use and transportation have to be controlled, or should be controlled.

It might interest the House to know that, in the last war, gas masks, which were issued to everyone, contained asbestos, and although the Germans never attacked us with gas, so the masks were not needed, everyone had to try them out and practise wearing them, except for babies, who had a different type of mask. So everyone in this country over the age of 38 or 39 who was living here during the last war has definitely inhaled asbestos; and, of course, it is used for all sorts of other things—in cars, in pipes, in lagging, and so on, although for some of these purposes white asbestos, which is not so dangerous, is used rather than blue.

Blue asbestos is in one sense different from the other things I have mentioned. It is a relatively new kind of substance named as potentially dangerous. I believe that there is an area of doubt about blue asbestos in that probably the doctors do not yet know all that there is to be known about it. But they seem to agree that the symptoms can take a long time—very many years—to appear.

Therefore, I want to put to the Minister five points arising from Dr. Black's report. He received notice of some of them at his meeting with me and from what I asked British Rail to pass on to him, but some of them he will not have had notice of.

The first point relates to the regulations. I have here a copy of the regulations of the Health and Safety Executive, called "Asbestos: Health Precautions in Industry". The regulations relate only to what goes on in industry. In the sheds at Strawberry Hill the workers wear special clothing and breathing equipment. The unions have, rightly, been consulted. They have naturally been concerned to ensure that the workers engaged in the operation are completely safe, which presumably they are to the satisfaction of the Minister, British Rail and the unions. But the regulations do not apply to the surrounding environment.

I think that there is a gap here. We have no regulations relating to the quantity and size of the particles of blue asbestos that can be put into the surrounding atmosphere. This is not the fault of British Rail, which is not only complying, as far as we know, with the regulations but has a safety margin beyond what is required under the regulations. I should like the Minister's comments on this point, and I ask him whether he agrees with me that we should have some regulations relating to the surrounding environment.

Secondly, there appears to be no available data on the testing of the filters used. The holes of the filters are said to be 0.8 a micron—that is, 0.8 of one-millionth of a metre. I am told that the medically significant size of the fibres which doctors are concerned about is.25 of a micron. It would therefore appear that although the holes are tiny they are big enough for particles which may be medically significant to get through.

Is the Minister's information from the doctors that below a certain size there is no danger on the grounds that the particles would not stick in the lung but would be blown out? Is there any risk that extremely small particles, which may be almost impossible to detect, may be dangerous? Can we be certain that no harm can come from extremely minute particles of asbestos below the regulation size?

I should like to refer to the report of the Health and Safety Executive. It has issued an interim report; its final report has not yet come out. The executive has been at it for about two years. Will the Minister take some action to speed up the work which the executive is doing? How soon can we expect to get its report? Will he put the heat on the Health and Safety Executive? I cannot reasonably expect my constituents to believe other than what they have read in Dr. Black's report that there may be some risk while the Health and Safety Executive takes two years to pronounce on the matter.

There seems to be an element of uncertainty in this regard. The diseases which it is now known blue asbestos might cause are, mesothelioma, a form of cancer in the lining of the lung, and asbestosis which is related to silicosis. The second is less grave than the first, but it can be a very serious bronchial disease.

It is not enough for the Minister to say that it is highly probable that there is no risk. Unless he can say that he is absolutely certain—or at least certain beyond all reasonable doubt—that there is no risk to people in the surrounding area, and can prove it by measurements, I believe that this process should be stopped forthwith and moved out of Strawberry Hill and other built-up areas into the country where it can do no damage.

2.3 p.m.

Mr. Max Madden (Sowerby)

I am indebted to the hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel) for allowing me to intervene in this Adjournment debate, which relates to an important national issue. At the outset I should make clear that my interest in this matter stems from the fact that about 70 of my constituents have died from asbestosis and that 200 to 300 are currently suffering from the disease. They were not involved in stripping asbestos from railway stock. They were employed at Acre Mill at Hebden Bridge which manufactured many things, including gas masks, to which the hon. Gentleman referred.

I understand that British Rail's programme to remove asbestos from locomotives, guard vans and rolling stock was instituted in 1974 and is said to cost about £30 million, both in installing special asbestos sheds in which the stripping is done and in replacing it with glass fibre and aluminimum. I am told that this work is going on in a number of workshops. My own list includes Doncaster, York, Glasgow, Wolverton, Eastleigh, Derby, Crewe and Swindon.

I associate myself with the remarks made by the hon. Gentleman about the dangers of asbestos. But I would dissent somewhat from what he said about the knowledge of the dangers of asbestos. The first report highlighting the health risks of asbestos was published in 1906. That was followed by another report about the health risks experienced by workers during the war. Asbestos regulations were published in 1931 and 1969. Therefore, I and many others would argue that the risks associated with asbestos have been known for a very long time. We do not agree that the dangers have become apparent only in recent years.

While the dangers associated with asbestos have been known for a very long time, there is growing medical concern about the possible health risks associated with fibre glass, particularly risks associated with the size of fibre, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned. I agree with him completely that, according to medical opinion, the most dangerous asbestos fibres are the smallest fibres. It also follows that there is concern about glass fibre because these particles are extremely small and are thought possibly to give rise to some of the same dangers that we have seen from asbestos.

In his reply, will my hon. Friend state the cost associated with the British Rail programme? As I understand it, the rolling stock is stripped into skeleton form and extensive work is then done on the carriages. I would appreciate full financial information as to the costs involved. The work itself is extremely dangerous and arduous. We must clearly be concerned about the protection given to workers who are involved in this stripping work. I am also concerned about the position of British Rail staff who were involved in the workshops when the asbestos was originally placed in the rolling stock, locomotives and guard vans.

I would appreciate information from the Minister—if not in his reply, perhaps later in a letter—as to the total number of British Rail staff, past and present, who have contracted asbestosis; the number who have been awarded compensation by British Rail by way of damages and awards and the number who have been awarded industrial disability benefit.

I have been assured that the actual conditions within the special asbestos sheds meet all the regulations. I understand that the air in those sheds is changed three times before the doors are opened. But I should like to know whether the Minister is satisfied that appropriate monitoring is done on dust samples at the time when the doors are opened. I should also like to know what monitoring is done in the general workshops compared with the special asbestos sheds, because I am advised that workers can be brought into contact with rolling stock and locomotives containing asbestos which are then subsequently transferred to the special asbestos sheds. I would appreciate any information which my hon. Friend can give as to the method of dust count which is carried out and also whether dust monitoring is performed on the ventilators. What about the effectiveness of dust monitoring in the asbestos sheds themselves?

In addition, I and a number of other people are extremely concerned about the waste aspects of asbestos. I should like to know what controls exist with regard to the dumping of asbestos waste. Clearly, there is considerable asbestos waste coming from the sheds which have been built to undertake this special programme.

I should like to know what action is being taken to ensure that old asbestos dumps are completely safe. I have received disturbing reports about the extremely unsafe conditions in some old dumps close to railway workshops. It is very important that the appropriate action is taken to ensure that these are completely safe and do not endanger workers or nearby residents.

We are also faced, not for the first time, with departmental difficulties. The responsibilities for asbestos are divided between the Departments of Transport. Employment and the Environment and the DHSS.

As far as the environmental dangers are concerned, the time is long overdue for a special Government unit to be established to co-ordinate action and ensure that these dangers are reduced sharply. At present there is a vacuum and one can encounter enormous difficulties with Departments which are responsible for certain aspects of the problem but which do not have a global view. I have been interested in this matter for four years, and I have suffered my fair share of Whitehall ping-pong.

I understand that within the last few days two new advisory committees have been appointed to advise the Health and Safety Commission. One of these committees is concerned with the construction industry and the other with British Rail. I am pleased that these committees have been established, but I am concerned that there is no representation on either of independent consumer interests. The committees are made up entirely of industrial interests—management and trade unions—and it is essential for an independent consumer interest to be represented. This is equally important in the construction committee as in the British Rail committee because there are important aspects of thermal insulation and demolition to consider.

I hope that the Minister will give some of the information that I have requested. However, I do not expect him to carry all these answers around in his head, so that I would be very grateful if he would write to me with the full information that I seek.

2.12 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. John Horam)

I can well appreciate that the hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel) should be concerned that residents of areas adjacent to railway maintenance depots where stripping off asbestos takes place should not be exposed to levels of asbestos dust liable to give rise to injury to health. However, I hope that when I have explained the precautions that are being taken he will be able to accept that adequate safeguards have already been provided to protect the inhabitants of Strawberry Hill in his constituency and of other similarly placed residential areas.

I also appreciate the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Sowerby (Mr. Madden) who, as the House knows, has a long-standing interest in the problems of asbestos following the terrible tragedies that have taken place over the years in his constituency. I am sure that he will accept that these tragedies arose from a period when control of asbestos was almost non-existent. The situation is very different today.

Mr. Madden

I would not agree with that. I came to the conclusion long ago that these tragedies were due to the flagrant disregard of the controls.

Mr. Horam

But the regulations we have now are far more stringent than those that existed in the 1950s when the factory in my hon. Friend's constituency was operating. I accept that there could be disregard of the regulations that exist now. I simply point out that the regulations do exist. Whether they are regarded as adequate is another matter.

My hon. Friend asked a large number of questions and I undertake to write to him at length. He raised the question of the co-ordination of replies in so far as they extend over more than one Department. I understand this point, and the fact that this problem affects both people at work and the environment as a whole means that there is a problem of departmental responsibility. I hope he will forgive me now if I concentrate most of my remarks on the situation in Strawberry Hill.

First of all, I would like to explain why the Strawberry Hill depot and others like them were set up. Prior to 1969, before the dangerous qualities of blue asbestos in particular were fully appreciated, it was in widespread use for thermal and acoustic insulation and it found particular application in the construction of railway rolling stock. In passenger compartments the sprayed asbestos coating is concealed and protected by the interior trim, but in many drivers' cabs and guards' compartments it was merely painted over. This type of finish is prone to damage by scuffing and general abrasion with the result that the asbestos may become exposed and there is a risk of asbestos fibres becoming airborne.

Although extensive monitoring of rolling stock in use showed that levels of asbestos dust were well below the maximum recommended limits the British Railways Board concluded that the most prudent course of action would be to remove it. Thus there would be no question of any risk to its own operating staff or to the general public. It therefore put in hand a comprehensive programme to eliminate blue asbestos insulation from 800 locomotives and 7,000 passenger-carrying vehicles—a major task.

It is apparent that completion of this work will take a number of years, and the programme involves three separate stages. As an immediate precaution, any exposed insulation is sealed in situ, using a tough emulsion paint. This work is carried out by specially trained staff at regional maintenance depots. At a number of depots, of which Strawberry Hill is one example, the task of stripping asbestos insulation from driving cabs and guards' compartments is being undertaken. At these depots and at the main workshops where asbestos insulation is removed from locomotives and other vehicles during general repairs the work is carried out in specially set up "asbestos houses" of which the segregated portion of the depot at Strawberry Hill is a typical example.

The handling of asbestos, including blue asbestos, is controlled by the Asbestos Regulations 1969. These regulations require the provision of exhaust ventilation arrangements for a building where blue asbestos is being handled to prevent the entry of asbestos dust into the air of any work place. They also require that protective equipment should be provided for persons working where asbestos dust is present.

The regulations are particularly strict over the use of approved respiratory protective equipment and of protective clothing, over its cleaning after being worn, and the training of staff in its correct use. Other sections of the regulations lay down the procedures to be adopted for storage of the blue asbestos and its movement from a factory or similar work place.

Guidance notes from the Health and Safety Executive, issued in December 1976, supplement the asbestos regulations. They recommend that exposure to all forms of asbestos dust should be reduced to the minimum that is reasonably practicable, and in any case, occupational exposure to blue asbestos dust should never exceed 0.2 fibres per millilitre when measured over a 10 minute period. A fibre is defined as a particle of length greater than 5 micrometres, a diameter of less than 3 micrometres and having a length-to-breadth ratio of at least 3 to 1.

The precautions called for by the regulations have been achieved at Strawberry Hill and in all other workshops and maintenance depots on British Railways handling blue asbestos. In areas where personal protective equipment is not worn a ceiling figure of 0.05 fibres per millilitre is used as a basis for control. This is four times more stringent than the figure called for in the regulations and 40 times more stringent than for other forms of asbestos.

Mr. Jessel

Will the Minister say why, if the recommended level is 0.25 of a micron, the filters used have holes in them of 0.8 of a micron, which could let pieces measuring 0.25 go through?

Mr. Horam

I hope to deal with that point later.

Regular monitoring of the levels of asbestos dust within the "asbestos house" in all the ancillary buildings used by the staff for decontamination, changing, resting and feeding and the atmosphere at the exit from the main exhaust ventilation system is carried out. The regulations and guidance notes lay down no specific limits regarding the amount or sizes of fibres exhausted into the atmosphere in the neighbourhood of the works—the hon. Gentleman is right on that point—but Section 3 of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 places a duty on employers to protect members of the public from risks to their health or safety from work activities so far as reasonably practicable. The point is covered not in the regulations but in the Act.

The responsibility for the content of the asbestos regulations rests with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment, as advised by the Health and Safety Commission, but the enforcement of the asbestos regulations at Strawberry Hill and other railway maintenance depots is carried out by the railway inspectorate of the Department of Transport under an agency agreement between the Health and Safety Commission and the Department. This empowers the railway inspectorate to enforce the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act on the railways, including maintenance depots. The railway inspectorate has worked closely with the scientific services department of British Railways since the decision was taken to handle blue asbestos at Strawberry Hill. In addition to checking the regular monitoring of the levels of asbestos dust by the scientific services and inspecting the premises, it has arranged an independent check of these levels, which have been carried out under the supervision of the occupational hygiene section of the factory inspectorate.

The sampling of the air within the asbestos shed at Strawberry Hill and the rooms used by the staff involved in this work has been carried out at weekly intervals. Except in the immediate vicinity of the stripping work the dust concentrations have been well below the levels specified in the hygiene standard. Moreover, all personnel in the asbestos shed wear approved personal protective equipment. Dust respirators used for asbestos must be approved by Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Factories. In order to gain this approval they need to meet a specification based on British Standard 440.

This involves testing the filters against a very fine aerosol of sodium chloride particles which certainly includes a significant proportion of particles below 0.5 micrometres about which the report raised doubts. It is believed to be a very searching test of filter penetration performance.

Effective monitoring of the level of asbestos dust outside the "asbestos house" is difficult because the concentration of dust is extremely low and very large volume samples are required to obtain meaningful results. The air from the exhaust filters at Strawberry Hill has been monitored regularly by British Rail since work first started. On only one occasion, on 23rd February this year, when an air sample of 550 litres was taken, was a measurable concentration of fibres recorded, and this was less than 0.001 fibres per millilitre using the optical method. This is at least 200 times lower than that specified for the occupational hygiene standard and just about at the limit of detection of this method. Different methods which are still in the course of development are needed to measure still lower concentrations. These figures do confirm, however, that the control on emissions to the open air is satisfactory.

The Strawberry Hill residents' association's case, based on the report prepared by Dr. Black, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, rests on two propositions. This relates to the third and second question asked by the hon. Gentleman.

The first proposition is that the most recent experimental evidence indicates that blue asbestos fibres of less than half a micrometre in diameter and exceeding 10 micrometers in length are most likely to cause mesothelioma, a fatal cancer of the chest lining. The second proposition is that the exhaust filtration system at the Strawberry Hill depot fails to remove these fibres and that therefore there is a consequent hazard to local residents. This is the central point with which the hon. Gentleman is concerned.

I cannot challenge the first proposition, except to say the evidence in respect of it is not yet complete. I am referring to the medical evidence on blue asbestos and mesothelioma. In other words, I do not challenge the proposition.

With regard to the second proposition, however, which is crucial to the residents' association's case, Dr. Black's report is less than adequate. He did not succeed in obtaining any information on the efficiency of the exhaust filters and assumed that they were ineffective against small particles. But before the air is discharged to the atmosphere at Strawberry Hill, it is passed through a primary and a secondary absolute filter. Those filters, in the same way as the respirator filters, are submitted to a sodium chloride penetration test, and the particle size ranges from 0.01 to 2 micrometers in diameter.

Moreover, fibres smaller than can be detected optically can be examined by an electron microscope. This procedure has been carried out by British Rail on a number of environmental samples and in no case were any of these very fine fibres detected. This is the central point about which the hon. Gentleman is concerned and which we discussed when we met. I repeat that none of these fine fibres has been detected by electron microscopy used at Strawberry Hill. This is a complex scientific operation, but the Health and Safety Executive's investigations confirm that these filters are operating, even against the fine fibres that concern the hon. Gentleman.

We must be concerned about the possibility of risk and we need to know all we can about the health risks of asbestos. This is one reason why the advisory committee on asbestos, under the personal chairmanship of Mr. Bill Simpson, the chairman of the Health and Safety Commission, was set up. The House will be aware from the matter raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Sowerby on 6th March that the committee's first and second reports dealing with insulation work and the measurement and monitoring of asbestos in air will shortly be published. I undertake to ensure that those reports are made available as soon as possible.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that the reports will be carefuly studied, and if any further action needs to be taken in the light of its recommendations, this will be done. In the meantime, however, I consider that the expression of opinion in Dr. Black's report—namely, of grave concern about the health risks to workers and residents in Strawberry Hill—is not justified by the facts. This does not mean that I am complacent, and I give an assurance that the railway inspectorate will continue to exercise the necessary vigilance to ensure that all appropriate measures are taken to control the health risks from asbestos at this and other similar depots throughout the country.

As the hon. Gentleman rightly said, Strawberry Hill is not the only depot at which this kind of work is taking place. It occurs at other depots. I wish to give the same assurances to those in other areas where this work is taking place as I do to those who live in Strawberry Hill. I repeat the central point that the grave concern which Dr. Black expressed about the health risk to workers and residents is not justified by the facts. Therefore, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be reassured by these detailed points, particularly about the efforts to track the fine particles of blue asbestos about which he is concerned. We believe that every effort is being made on those lines.