HC Deb 18 December 1979 vol 976 cc587-98

Motion made, and Question proposedThat this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Brooke.]

7.1 a.m.

Mr. John Home Robertson (Berwick and East Lothian)

I am extremely grateful to the Minister for coming to the House at this extraordinary time of day to reply to the debate on what I believe to be an important subject. I hope, for his sake, that he has had slightly more sleep than I have had during the course of the night.

As far as I know, both he and I have had practical experience of farming. We both know that it is not the peaceful, healthy idyllic existence that it is reputed to be in certain quarters. On the contrary, farm work can be underpaid, unhealthy, and dangerous. Agriculture is the third most dangerous industry in the United Kingdom, after construction and mining.

Accidents in agriculture occur in a number of ways, including from machinery and livestock, especially bulls. Many workers suffer from the long-term effects of the working conditions under which they operate, such as noisy machinery, dust which causes farmers' lung, and brucellosis, which can be contracted from contact with animals.

I concentrate my remarks on a relatively new hazard, namely, agricultural chemicals. Probably the best known and notorious agricultural chemical is Paraquat. Handled properly, it is a perfectly safe and non-persistent herbicide. Every year there is an incident. Someone is left with an odd pint of the chemical, puts it into a lemonade bottle, and someone else takes a mouthful of it and is thereby condemned to death—in my opinion, as a result of criminal negligence. That is an example of an abuse of a material that would otherwise be perfectly safe.

Other chemical products can cause acute or chronic afflictions to those handling them, or to members of the public, if they are not used in the proper manner. I do not wish to exaggerate the problem. A whiff of spray drift will not hurt anyone. However, frequent or heavy doses of some chemicals can cause skin complaints, eye irritation, digestive complaints and even nervous disorders. These are risks that must be faced because we are talking of poisons. All agro-chemicals, whether they are organo chlorines, organo mercuries or whatever, are, by definition, biologically active materials, otherwise they would not be of any use as agricultural chemicals.

According to the Health and Safety Executive, in 1976 there were 10 cases only of poisoning reported on farms. In 1977 there were 27, and last year there were 32. That is the tip of the iceberg. There are many more cases that are neither reported nor detected because the effects of small doses are extremely difficult to diagnose. They could be cumulative in effect and may appear only years later. The problem is far bigger than is indicated by the published statistics, largely because the agrochemical industry is a major growth industry in this country.

In 1944 there were only 65 approved chemicals for farmers and growers, and at that time relatively few farmers were using them. Now there are approaching 1,000 products available on the market. It is true to say that virtually every arable acre in Britain, at some stage during the year, is treated with some sort of chemical.

I do not wish to give the impression of being paranoiac about agro-chemicals. As a farmer I know that they serve extremely useful purposes, that relatively few of them are persistent, and that most are selective in their effects. They are economically vital to the industry. They contribute to our efficiency and to the increased production of agriculture. They have eliminated crop diseases which in the past had disastrous effects, and they have overcome certain parasitic diseases of animals which at one time caused serious suffering to livestock. But, inevitably, with the rapid increase in the use of chemicals by those who have not necessarily had specialised training, and in an industry where proper in-service training is almost impossible, problems are bound to arise, and these fall into four main areas.

The first question is whether the correct chemical is being used. I have made a mistake in that respect. I sprayed the wrong chemical on a field and it cost me a certain amount of money, as the Minister can imagine. The second question is whether the chemical is being applied correctly. It is worth bearing in mind the confusion that is caused by the limbo we are in between the metric and imperial systems. Chemicals are sold in metric packs and are applied through sprayers calibrated in imperial measurements.

The third question is whether the machinery is properly maintained, whether it is safe and accurate. I do not know how many times I have seen a driver climb off his tractor when he has a choked nozzle on a spray boom, take the nozzle off and blow through it to clear the obstruction. That is very foolish. Goodness knows what chemicals people are getting into their mouths in that way. There is also the problem of spray drift. With high pressure spraying it would be interesting to know what proportion of the chemical lands on the crop. A great deal probably blows away.

The fourth question is whether a tractor man knows all that he should about the material that he is using, whether it is possible for him to handle it safely, whether he has protective clothing available to him or washing facilities, and, if so, whether he is using them.

The Royal Commission on environmental pollution, which has produced useful and practical recommendations, emphasises the need for better practices on farms and in forests, and also the need to improve the official machinery which is supposed to control and monitor the development, marketing and use of agricultural chemicals.

I should like to press the Minister on one or two specific recommendations. The first refers to a helpful booklet entitled "Approved Products for Farmers and Growers", which contains more than 290 pages and costs £2.25. It is published annually by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. It is a useful agricultural chemicals bible for people engaged in farming and forestry. It is written in layman's terms and explains what products should be used for what purposes and w hat precautions should be taken.

But the problem which the Royal Commission and I have discovered, highlighted in a reply from the Minister on 27 November, is that only 12,000 copies of the book have been sold. If we assume that 10,000 of them have been sold to farmers, we should bear in mind that there are 258,000 agricultural holdings in the United Kingdom. That means that only one farmer in 25 has a copy. If only that number of farmers have copies, what chance has the tractor driver of getting the necessary information on whether a chemical is approved and what precautions he should be taking when handling it? It is not good enough to rely on chemical salesmen to disseminate this sort of information, and I hope that the Minister will say something constructive when he replies to the debate.

The Royal Commission also called for better co-ordination of research and development in the agricultural chemicals business. I realise that interference in industry is out of fashion these days, but the Parliamentary Secretary and, come to that, the Minister do not have reputations as hard liners in this area, and I hope that they will see fit to make exceptions.

The existing pesticides safety precautions scheme is entirely voluntary. As such, it does not provide a satisfactory framework within which to monitor developments in such a large and controversial industry. Under the scheme, new products are submitted for approval to the advisory committee on pesticides. I am not particularly happy about that committee either. I understand that it consists of 10 academics and 15 civil servants—a mixture of boffins and bureaucrats. No doubt they are all clever, but I doubt whether any of them has had the practical problem of, for example, having to mix a supposedly soluble chemical in precise quantities into cold water while balancing on a ladder leaning against a sprayer in the corner of a muddy field. Have they ever had to eat a sandwich meal in a tractor cab with their hands covered in DDT and miles from the nearest tap, let alone proper washing facilities? Have they had to try to dispose safely of a large quantity of contaminated empty five-gallon spray drums?

Those specialists can probably work out the mathematical improbability of accidents occurring, but the problem with boffins is that they have a bad habit of discounting Murphy's excellent law that what can happen sooner or later will happen. I hope that the Minister will consider appointing a few Murphys to the committee and will bring some practical expertise into its deliberations by including representatives of the NFU, farm workers and foresters.

The Royal Commission also recommends that the committee on pesticides should liaise with the United States environmental protection agency about the risks posed by the herbicide 2,4,5-T, which has rightly had a great deal of publicity recently. I do not want to start scare mongering. In practical terms. 2,4,5-T is excellent. I have used it to clear brambles, ivy and the regrowth of tree stumps.

A report by the advisory committee on pesticides to my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Strang) in March claimed that 2,4,5-T was safe. I accept that. But the problem is not just 2,4,5,-T. The problem is an impurity which is, apparently, invariably present in 2,4,5-T, namely, TCDD, which is better known as dioxin. That is an extremely dangerous chemical. The advisory committee says that it is one of the most toxic chemicals known. In fairly small doses it can be lethal and in smaller doses it can cause cancer, abortions or miscarriages.

The trouble appears to be that there is no satisfactory way of analysing how much dioxin is present in any given sample of 2,4,5-T. That is borne out by American authorities and by our advisory committee, which said in its report in March: The Advisory Committee is not however satisfied that a reliable analytical method yet exists for the determination of such very low levels of TCDD in formulated products, given that these contain a number of other substances which interfere to a considerable extent with some analyses. The Advisory Committee therefore recommends to Government departments that experimental work be carried out to provide a method for the determination of TCDD in formulations and thus to allow it to set a workable standard. That is not good enough. There are too many "ifs" and "buts". It is clear that we cannot analyse every batch of 2,4,5,-T, and even if we could there is no foolproof way of determining how much dioxin is present. Meanwhile, large quantities of the material are being sprayed, sometimes from the air, into forestry plantations, and it can drift in the wind. There is considerable and reasonable doubt about the safety of the material.

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

Did the hon. Gentleman say that he thought that 2,4,5-T was sprayed from the air?

Mr. Home Robertson

I understand that the formulated product can be sprayed from the air and is sprayed by the Forestry Commission on to conifer plantations. I am concerned that the Ministry is apparently refusing to take any action until it gets conclusive evidence that excessive quantities of dioxin are present in 2,4,5-T. In other words, it probably will not do anything until someone suffers diagnosable dioxin poisoning.

As the Minister knows, the National Union of Agricultural and Allied Workers has already advised its members not to handle 2, 4, 5-T. The Governments of the United States of America, Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands and Italy have all decided that the circumstantial evidence against it is strong enough to justify banning the material until such time as it can be proved safe. That attitude has been taken because of the dioxin factor.

There is no need for me to go into all the scare stories—for example, the defoliation programme and the contamination with dioxin in Vietnam, and the dioxin leak at Seveso in Italy. The stories are not strictly relevant to 2,4,5-T as used in Britain. However, recent evidence of miscarriages suffered by women in Oregon is relevant. I sincerely hope that the Minister will consider suspending the use of 2,4, 5-T in the United Kingdom, especially as safer alternatives are available to the industry.

I conclude my remarks by referring to the penultimate recommendation of the Royal Commission's report, which advocates that the initiative for action to deal with pollution caused by agricultural practices should rest with the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. I hope that the Minister will take the opportunity to reply to some of the matters that the Royal Commission and I have raised. I hope that he will refer in particular to 2, 4, 5-T.

7.18 am
The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Jerry Wiggin)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Berwick and East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) for initiating the debate. I am glad that he chose to adopt a broad approach by considering the important topic of pesticides as a whole instead of confining himself to 2, 4, 5-T. He may be interested to learn that it accounts for 0.005 per cent. of active ingredient used in crop protection in the United Kingdom. It seems that parts of the media devote 10 per cent. of their attention to it. The hon. Gentleman was wise to discount much of the concern expressed in public that is based on stories from Vietnam and Seveso.

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's comments about Paraquat. It is tragic that some of the accidents involving that important pesticide result from sheer carelessness. However, in some instances there is deliberate use of it for suicide. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman recognises that.

The hon. Gentleman said that it is important not to be paranoiac about agricultural chemicals. I entirely endorse that view. His attention to matters such as labelling, reading instructions and using the correct quantities is something that I endorse. Care must be taken when using any weapon against the enemies of agriculture. We are dealing with powerful items.

It may be of interest to the hon. Gentleman if I deal with 2,4,5-T. I discovered that "Agent Orange" in Vietnam contains 450 times as much dioxin as any product that is permitted to be used in Britain. Therefore, any comparison between the two is to a large extent irrelevant.

We require the dioxin impurity not to exceed the 0.1 milligrams per kilogram safety limit set by the World Health Organisation. As this very small quantity drops, so the difficulties of analysis become greater, as the hon. Gentleman suggested, but at that figure it is, I understand, fairly accurately measured.

May I seek to put the matter in perspective by pointing out that at the highest rate that 2,4,5-T is used in this country, mostly in forestry, the amount of dioxin distributed is the equivalent of one grain of sugar spread over a football pitch, and if one put together all the dioxin in all the 2,4,5-T formulations used every year in this country it would not fill a salt spoon.

The hon. Gentleman and I as he said, share personal and constituency interests in agriculture, which give us common cause in promoting efficient food production and in ensuring that farmers continue to have access to the safe pesticides needed to protect their crops.

There are reputable calculations that without the use of pesticides the yield of cereals in this country would fall by 45 per cent. in three years. We must not forget, either, that pesticides earn valuable export revenue, bringing in some £130 million in 1978.

The hon. Member and I have a common interest also in ensuring that the use of these products does not put users, bystanders, the environment, domestic animals or wild life at avoidable risk. This is precisely what the pesticides safety precautions scheme was set up to achieve nearly a quarter of a century ago. Under the scheme, which is a formally negotiated agreement between the Government and the trade associations representing the pesticides industry, manufacturers submit all the data necessary for the Government to judge whether a pesticide product should be allowed on the market and, if so, what warnings and restrictions to ensure safety in use should appear on its label.

The success of this scheme owes much to its skilled supervision by the advisory committee on pesticides, which has given good counsel on pesticides safety to successive Administrations—the present Government are no exception—ever since 1954. As the hon. Gentleman said, the committee consists of 10 independent medical and other specialists who are among the most eminent in their profession. They have no emotional or commercial axes to grind, and they are working alongside experts from 14 Government Departments on a body which commands immense international respect.

I should need very substantial evidence that there was a case for altering that committee in any way. It seems to me—I confess to being relatively new to this task—that the committee has performed an excellent job. It is above reproach in every respect. It is constantly on the alert for any new information about any product.

In that connection, I think that the hon. Gentleman was a little unfair on the booklet "Approved Products for Farmers and Growers". It is a fairly technical book, as he knows, and I do not think that even if I were to arrange to give everyone in agriculture a copy it would in fact make any difference. The importance of safety lies in labelling, in making things clear to the chap who is actually using the chemical, and I believe that, as a practical farmer, the hon. Gentleman understands that to tell farmers all the technical implications of every chemical they use would be an impossible and overburdening task.

For whatever reasons, over the years there have been long organised campaigns against 2,4,5-T herbicides both in this country and abroad. No doubt this was why the previous Government asked the advisory committee to prepare a reference document on the subject so that there would be an authoritative medical and scientific appreciation to set beside any assessments or opinions from other sources". That document was published last March, and it explains why the advisory committee believes those brushkillers to be safe provided that they are used in the recommended way. Like their predecessors, the present Government have accepted that advice.

Mr. Home Robertson

In his capacity as Minister, has the hon. Gentleman had the opportunity to see the evidence which led the various overseas Governments to whom I referred to ban the use of 2,4,5-T? I think here of the United States in particular. What do they know that we do not know?

Mr. Wiggin

Perhaps I could just deal with four commonly quoted cases against the chemical and the point raised.

First, the United States authorities have suspended certain uses of 2,4,5-T following the release of a report which purported to show that the use of the chemical was linked with miscarriage rates in Oregon. The advisory committee has reviewed the report and, as I told the House on 26 July, the committee, like similar expert bodies in Australia and New Zealand, found the report wanting in material respects. So I was not surprised to see that America's own advisory committee has since reported in reassuring terms, which I quote: After extensive review of the data we find no evidence of an immediate or substantial hazard to human health or to the environment associated with the use of 245-T or Sorbex on rice, rangeland, orchards, sugar cane and the non-crop uses specified in the decision documents. That is a quotation from the United States Environmental Protection Agency document. The agency there is having second thoughts. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that.

In the second case, press reports have alleged that 2,4,5-T spraying by the Forestry Commission in North Wales caused a woman to have a miscarriage. This incident has been investigated by medical staff of the Welsh Office health department, which found no evidence to link 2,4,5-T with the miscarriage. I might add that a miscarriage, distressing as it may be to the individual concerned, is a common event and has many causes. One in five pregnancies ends in this way. In the same area press reports have also referred to the dumping of unwanted pesticide drums in an old mine shaft. This had been investigated by the local environmental health officer and the Welsh water authority. They were both satisfied that there was no danger of contamination from this dump.

Thirdly, we have examined some sensational material, on which an organisation sponsored by the Church of Scientology elected to hold a press conference, about reported lamb losses in Somerset caused by an alleged spraying incident. As my noble Friend stated in another place, we received no evidence whatever to connect these reported losses with herbicide spraying. In fact, there is a welter of published scientific data which call those allegations into question. The motives behind the interest of the Church of Scientology is not a matter on which I should like to speculate this morning.

At the time of its review in March, the advisory committee on pesticides recorded in paragraph 7 that a recent review by the Royal Swedish Academy of Scientists has concluded that carcinogen city studies so far completed have not provided evidence of any carcinogenic effect of 2,4,5-T". That is the latest authoritative statement on the subject from Sweden. Since this, there have been some studies in Sweden, none of which has yet been evaluated by the Swedish authorities, concerning people who were exposed to various dioxins in various chemicals, including 2,4,5-T. A published account of some of the work reveals that the research workers themselves, who sought to establish a link between the use of various chemicals and the incidence of a rare form of cancer, have not been able to attribute this to the use of any specific chemical. I understand that the relevant data and the official evaluation by the Swedish authorites will not be available until about February or March, but when we have these data they will be immediately examined by the advisory committee on pesticides.

The 2,4,5-T brushkillers have been in use in this country for 35 years; and our advisory committee has yet to receive any data or allegations which, on investigations, argue a case for withdrawing them. On this and all other questions concerning safe use of pesticides, the Government and the advisory committee prefer to rely on scientific data rather than Scientologists' dogma, and upon medical evidence rather than upon emotional headlines.

Thirdly, and not least because of its, potential for sensational publicity, we are mindful that the campaign against 2,4,5-T will doubtless continue here and abroad, but The Lancet—that most authoritative document—said last month: It is a waste of effort, resources and credibility to cry 'wolf' about 2,4,5-T when there is no wolf. In any event, the advisory committee will immediately inquire into any further evidence that is received about this or any other pesticide, including allegations where these are supported by hard evidence.

The Government are deeply concerned that the public should be reassured. We are dealing here not with children's toys but with powerful chemicals, which can be good friends if properly used.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Royal Commission on environmental pollution. Among other things, the Royal Commission was quoted as saying that the United Kingdom had an impressive safety record in this sector. It addressed itself to other matters such as the safety of individual products and the safeguards attending their use. It pointed out that attention to these matters had perhaps diverted some of the observations on overall use. We shall consider this matter immediately. The Royal Commission refers to the need to keep in touch with the United States Environmental Protection Agency on the question of 2,4,5-T. This is, of course, routine to the advisory committee, and on a much wider basis. It is of interest that the chairman will soon be having discussions with the Australian authorities.

The pesticides safety precautions scheme is one of the United Kingdom's real success stories, and we intend to keep it so.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Seven o'clock am