HC Deb 23 June 1982 vol 26 cc305-7 3.55 pm
Mr. Alfred Dubs (Battersea, South)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide for the compulsory sale of lead-free petrol by filling stations; and to ensure that all new petrol-using vehicles sold in the United Kingdom shall be designed to run on lead-free fuel. Lead is a poison, and I welcome the opportunity to seek the leave of the House to introduce a Bill which will take us significantly further towards getting rid of all lead that enters human bodies. The Bill will set dates by which the proposals will be introduced. As new motor cars replaced old ones, those that run on petrol with lead in it would gradually be phased out until no vehicles in the country would use petrol with lead in it.

There are no vested interests arguing to take lead out of petrol. Our view is based simply on the need to safeguard the health and well-being of children mainly, but also of adults. Vested interests seek to oppose the measure. Those who argue that lead should be taken out of petrol are not influenced by financial or other considerations.

There is massive support in my constituency for the measure. I have had numerous letters and have recently been invited to a couple of meetings, all to urge that lead should be taken out of petrol. I welcome the recent establishment of the Campaign for Lead-free Air, which is doing useful work and with which I have had helpful discussions in preparation for today.

The opponents of the proposal use four arguments: they dispute the medical and scientific evidence, they argue that the measure would be too costly, they argue that the motor industry could not cope and they talk about difficulties with the EEC. I shall refute all four arguments. The Government seek refuge in the Lawther report, but it is rapidly on the way to being utterly discredited. First, it underestimated the contribution made by lead in petrol to the burden in the body. Secondly, it underestimated the proportion of lead in petrol that ultimately found its way into food. Thirdly, it set far too high a safety threshold. Fourthly, it underestimated the health risk of lead.

Nevertheless, as a result of the report, the Government took one step on which they were widely commended. They agreed to reduce the level of lead in petrol by 1985. Ministers have since said that that is all that they need do. Unfortunately for the Government's case, there has recently been increased evidence of the harm caused by lead to children's intelligence and behaviour.

It is not my purpose to go through all the scientific evidence, but I mention a little of it to support what I have said and to show that the Lawther committee's conclusions are no longer sound. Last month the British Medical Association stated: Taking into account all the available evidence it would appear that the elimination of lead from petrol would reduce considerably the concentration of lead in the atmosphere. This in turn would produce a reduction in the burden of lead absorbed by individuals. For those individuals already exposed to higher than average concentrations of atmospheric lead, the body burden might be reduced by as much as one third … On the basis of the evidence which it has received the BMA considers that lead is capable of causing harm at levels of exposure previously considered safe". The BMA also said: Associations have been demonstrated between impairment of mental functioning and lead levels below the range previously considered harmful. At first there was some doubt about the validity of these studies but it is now generally accepted that the association is real and it should not therefore be disregarded. The second authority is Professor Michael Rutter, a leading member of the Lawther committee. Last month he said: The removal of lead from petrol would seem to be one of those worthwhile and safe public health actions. The evidence suggests that the removal of lead from petrol would have a quite substantial effect on reducing lead pollution and the costs are quite modest by any reasonable standard. Thirdly, Dr. William Yule carried out some research with London schoolchildren, and his conclusions broadly replicated the North American studies of Needleman and others in that they indicated a dose-response relationship between increased lead levels and an increased likelihood that teachers would record deviant behaviour. They also demonstrated that hyperactivity was found to be significantly related to children's blood lead levels.

A few days ago The Times reported the May proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in the United States, which revealed further evidence with the publication of a biochemical study which claims to show that even 'normal' blood lead levels can inhibit the production of haemoglobin, the essential oxygen-carrying molecule of the blood. The evidence is overwhelming that any level of lead in petrol that goes into the human body is dangerous and should be eliminated.

Mr. Keith Best (Anglesey)

Absolute nonsense.

Mr. Dubs

The hon. Gentleman says "Absolute nonsense", but I have quoted scientific and medical authority. If he is in some doubt, what about the comment in the New Scientist, which said on 4 March that the scientific evidence of the damage that lead can do to the brains of children convinces everyone except the deliberately obtuse. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will take note of what the New Scientist said.

Lead in petrol is not the only source of lead. It can be found in paint, in certain industries and in water pipes, particularly water pipes in Scotland. With the possible exception of water pipes in Scotland, about which my hon. Friend the Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Foulkes) knows more than I do, deliberate action is now being taken to reduce lead in paint, to eliminate it as far as possible and to deal with lead emissions from industry.

The evidence is that, in contrast to what the Government maintain, lead from petrol contributes between 30 per cent. and, in urban areas, up to 60 per cent. of the lead that works its way into children's bodies.

Other countries have already taken a lead. The United States, Australia, Japan and the Soviet Union have all taken steps to eliminate lead from petrol. That is being done by phasing out the lead. For example, in the first four years of the policy, the United States, through that deliberate action, used 55 per cent. less lead in its petrol than previously. There was a reduction of 37 per cent. in the blood lead level of people measured throughout the United States, and not just in urban areas. That is clear evidence, on top of the other that I have quoted, that there is a positive relationship between a reduction in the amount of lead in petrol and the subsequent lowering by a large and significant amount of lead in the human body.

Some people have said that the Bill is desirable on health grounds but that we simply cannot afford it. The trouble is that as there is no clear legislation on the subject the vested interests that oppose this move will inevitably exaggerate the cost as part of their argument and as a means of putting pressure on the Government. That was clearly demonstrated in Australia, where the oil industry said that it would cost a vast amount of money to go in this direction. However, after the Australian Government took positive action, the oil industry's estimates came down significantly. The latest estimate is that the cost of taking this step is one-fifth of the Australian oil industry's original estimate.

This must be the only area of human endeavour where financial estimates go down under the pressure of Government legislation. The most realistic view is that if we were to take this step, the extra cost to the motorist would be between 2p and 4p a gallon. Although such an increase is not desirable, it is fully justified by what is at stake and is pretty small compared with the 9p increase announced in the last 10 days.

There is also the argument about the motor industry—

Mr. Speaker

Order. Will the hon. Gentleman be kind enough to come to a conclusion, because his 10 minutes are up?

Mr. Dubs

Yes, Mr. Speaker. I shall rapidly draw my remarks to a conclusion.

There are those who argue that the motor industry cannot cope. We already export cars to the United States that are designed not to run on petrol containing lead, and in any case Japan has already taken this step. Those who believe that we cannot take the step because of the EEC should look at article 36 of the Treaty of Rome, which talks about the protection of the health and life of humans as overriding EEC regulations.

If we regard the health and welfare of our children as paramount, there is no alternative to taking the measures that I ask the House to give me leave to introduce.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Alfred Dubs, Mr. Ted Graham, Mr. Laurie Pavitt, Mr. Phillip Whitehead, Mr. Robin Squire, Mr. Clive Soley, Mr. J. W. Rooker, Mr. Allan Roberts and Mr. George Foulkes.

  1. LEAD-FREE PETROL 66 words