HL Deb 29 February 1928 vol 70 cc302-15

had given Notice to move to resolve, That it is expedient that His Majesty's Government should immediately set up a Committee to advise as to the public danger that may arise from the use of lead tetra-ethyl in motor spirit. The noble and learned Lord said: My Lords, last summer I was speaking to a, very eminent medical man, and he asked me if I knew anything about ethyl spirit. I replied that I knew nothing at all. He said: "You very soon will if the spirit is introduced over here." I asked him why. He replied that it was one of the most dangerous things that men could possibly handle. I said: "In those circumstances you may be quite sure that either the Home Office or the Ministry of Health will either prevent or make strict Regulations for its use." I am sure that the noble Marquess, who, I believe, will reply, will not accuse me of an excessive indulgence in optimism as to what this Government will do. I am sorry to find that my unguarded lapse on that, occasion had no foundation in fact. It appears that this spirit has come over here, being introduced into this country at the instance of one of the most powerful trade organisations in the world, and is being pressed for sale, and that, so far as I know, neither protection nor regulation from either the Home Office or the Ministry of Health has been provided with regard to its use.

It is as well, if your Lordships will bear with me, to consider for a few moments, what scientific men say about this spirit. It was discovered so far back as 1859, but nothing was done with it until about 1879, when Professor Franklin investigated it more closely. It was then classed as the most dangerous poison known. During the War it was considered as a proper poison gas, as it was regarded as a means by which we could disseminate more certain death than with any other poison that we had, but it was rejected, not because of any deficiency in its lethal power, but because its method of dissemination, either through shell or liberation from tanks, rendered it unsuitable. The detonation destroyed some of its chemical molecules and so destroyed some of its effects. I will not pause to say how the contemplation of such a subject as this gives added emphasis to the need that something should be done to prevent a repetition of the horror presented by eminent scientific men poring over their crucibles in factories, seeing whether they can devise some compound of simple elements by which you can speedily and universally destroy human life. It was then rejected, and nothing, so far as I know, was done with it until, recently, its use was discovered in connection with motor ears, and its use is certain.

It has two great values. The first is this, that owing to its permission of greater compression than ordinary petrol vapours, it enables cars to take gradients more easily than the ordinary spirit, and it also avoids the knocking which is due to some detonation, not quite fully explained, which in car running is regarded as most unpleasant. It is these two things which it may be accepted that this spirit most certainly does. What is said on the other side? This spirit contains, as its very essence, lead tetraethyl, and it is this which distinguishes it from the ordinary motor spirit. The character of that ingredient is this, that if it is either put upon your hand, or breathed in, you run a very grave risk indeed of lead poisoning, and the thing that is most important to notice is this, that as it is capable of being dissolved in oil, and is highly volatile, there is no need for any abraised surface on your skin for this poison to take effect. Indeed, a very eminent scientific man said to me only the other day: "I would not have one drop of that on my finger. If I had I would spend the whole of the rest of the day trying to secure cleanliness." That is the character of the spirit which is being brought over here, and, like so many of these things, its action is not, necessarily instantaneous. Its real mischief is a form of lead poisoning more deadly than lead poisoning effected through the use of paint or of lead glazing. It is an illness which comes on without warning.

The idea that pain is a sentinel to warn you of the approach of illness is a theory which I do not think is found to be proved in practice. If pain he a sentinel then the sentry often sleeps at his post, for diseases like cancer, tuberculosis and lead poisoning pass him unchallenged, and enter into the very citadel of life. That is the character of this poisoning, and unless some steps are taken, if it is used, as it will be used if these trade organisations can push their produce and motorists find advantage in its use, the consequent danger which may result is something very grave indeed to contemplate. This spirit had its origin in the United States of America, and hearing of its mischiefs the Government of the United States appears to have appointed a Commission, some two years back, to inquire into this matter. The Commission reported that no positive evidence could be obtained of harmful effects, but they urged strongly that suitable appropriation be requested from Congress for the continuance of the investigations.

So far as I can see, even over there this substance is only allowed to be used subject to rules and regulations issued by an authority which is equivalent to the Ministry of Health over here, and these rules and regulations are really somewhat laughable when regarded from the point of view of the accidental carelessness of our men who have the use of petrol spirit. For instance, you are not carelessly to spill it on the floor of the garage. Your Lordships have probably been in many garages. Have you ever found one where there was not some petrol spirit carelessly spilt upon the floor? Again, you are to wash your hands before food or tobacco or anything else is conveyed to your mouth. Those are some of the suggestion made over there to protect people against the attack of an insidious and deadly disease, but we all know that they are perfectly useless over here, and I do not suppose that we are going to entrust the safety of our people to recommendations made by the authorities in another country. The welfare of our people is our concern and not theirs, and whether they like to use this substance and make regulations over there is a matter of no concern of ours.

We are bound, if warned, to look after the matter for ourselves. Have we been wanted? Sir William Pope, Professor of Chemistry at Cambridge, wrote a letter to The Times of February 22, in which, after quoting from this Report, he says:— Pharmacological evidence has been published which proves conclusively that lead tetra-ethyl is absorbed from its dilute petrol solutions by animals through the skin and by the lungs. A garage hand who continually wets his skin with such a liquid, splashes it on his clothes, eats his food without scrupulous attention to cleanliness, or breathes an atmosphere tainted with the vapour, must thus be liable to contract lead poisoning; careless engine cleaners or repairers will incur a similar liability. That was Sir William Pope's statement, but Professor Baker, who is the President of the Chemical Society, a Fellow of the Royal Society, Professor of Chemistry, and Governor of the Imperial College of Science and Technology, and was created C.B.E. for his services during the War, writes another letter to The Times to this effect:— Sir William Pope has, I think, understated the case against the use of lead tetra-ethyl in motor spirit. This substance does not act on the body as an ordinary lead poison, but it has a specific action which is much more harmful. It is little less poisonous than the corresponding mercury compound which caused the death of two promising young chemists at Oxford many years ago. Lead tetra-ethyl passes rapidly through the skin, is absorbed by the blood, and causes very severe nervous trouble. If sufficient is absorbed death occurs in a few weeks. He then gives certain instances, with which I need not trouble your Lordships, and points out that whenever it is put upon the skin it finds its way into your body even although, as I said before, your skin is unabrased.

He concludes with a statement which I cannot help thinking requires some further comment. He says:— I wrote, as president of the Chemical Society, to the Ministry of Health more than a month ago, calling their attention to the urgency of the matter. So far as I know, nothing has been done. Not only has nothing, so far as we know, been done, but this distinguished gentleman, who was seeking to put his knowledge at the service of the Government, and warning them of a matter which surely ought to have enlisted their attention, received nothing for his pains except a curt, acknowledgment of his letter. I am bound to say I do not think that is the way in which a most eminent and distinguished scientific man should be treated by a Government Department. I think the very least that should have been done was that the Department should have implied what he had got to say, and should have thanked him for the interest which led him to call their attention to a matter which, it may well be, had escaped their notice.

I want to know whether the Government are aware of this—whether they have taken any steps at all about the matter, or whether they are just going to allow this spirit, which, whether there be disputes about its malignity or not, is condemned by two of our most eminent teachers of chemistry to-day as a most deadly poison, to be used unprotected, unregarded, and without any warning from the Ministry of Health of any kind as to what may be the result of its use. Of course, we shall not suffer from it. It is not the least likely that our hands are going to be stained by this stuff, or that we are going to breathe the fumes; but most assuredly the people who have to do with cars, if they use it, will. Imagine what will happen in a big motor omnibus garage, with all the hands and people about there. I say it is a terrifying prospect, when you have people making statements like that, that nothing should be done. If they are doubted, then there surely ought to be a Committee of Inquiry, as I ask. But you cannot say these things are untrue. They are said by men whose judgment and learning we trusted readily enough in times of difficulty, and now no attention whatever appears to have been paid to their warning.

I have often heard members of the Government saying that this kind of Government is a useful thing because the country needs repose. Well, I am not prepared to disagree. I think that, after fever, rest may not be unwise, but when rest degenerates into torpor the condition of things becomes serious, and something should be done by which the subject should be aroused. It is with the desire that it should be aroused and that we should know what it is going to do that I have put this Motion on the Paper. Of one thing you may rest assured, that unless the Government acts nothing will be done. These vast trade organisations do not care how many people suffer from the exploitation of their goods, for commerce, as you know, has no conscience, and trade no tenderness of heart. If there be profit to be won by the sale of this spirit there will be thousands of men who will be ready to reap the gain, even though they do it with the certain knowledge that the harvest is only gathered at the cost of the lives and the suffering of their fellow men.

Moved to resolve, That it is expedient that His Majesty's Government should immediately set up a Committee to advise as to the public danger that may arise from the use of lead tetra-ethyl in motor spirit.—(Lord Buckmaster.)


My Lords, I should like to support very strongly the noble and learned Lord's Motion. It may be suspected that, in doing so, I have an axe of my own to grind, but I can assure your Lordships that that is not the case, but that I am taking up the matter solely in the interests of the oil industry as a whole. It may not be generally known that all of the big petrol producing companies are engaged on the problem of how to produce the quality of natural or compounded spirit best qualified to meet the demands of the large portion of the public who now favour high compression engines in motor cars, but none of us is desirous of producing a spirit which is liable to criticism on the score of danger. It is a matter of importance to know how far we can go in the admixture of non-petroliferous substances, which may themselves be of deleterious character, but which are not so when mixed in very small proportions with natural spirit.

The position as regards tetra-ethyl spirit is that this new compound has been placed on the market, and whilst the company which introduced it claims that it is non-injurious to health, various statements have appeared in the Press suggesting that it is toxic in character and dangerous to the health, or even the life, of the people who use or handle it. The number of people who use and handle petrol is now so enormous that I consider it essential in the public interest that a properly constituted board, including some of our leading chemists and toxicologists, should be appointed de- finitively to settle once and for all the point in dispute, and, if it be found that tetra-ethyl is non-toxic, it should be given a clean bill of health in order that the public may be able to buy it and use it freely; on the other hand, if it be found that it has dangerous properties it should be subjected to some such safeguards as are adopted in the case of other dangerous and poisonous compounds. The matter to me is one of the very first importance, not only from the point of view of the oil companies, but of the public generally. I therefore give the noble and learned Lord my heartiest support, and I hope the rest of the House will do the same.


My Lords, the noble and learned Lord has accused the Government of being torpid. Certainly, unless fatigue is the same as torpor I cannot say that I feel the least like what he described. When I think of the series of crises of the first order which we have had to deal with, the vast number of topics with which we have had to grapple, I must say that I think it is a little hard that the noble and learned Lord should accuse us of indolence in respect of public affairs. On the contrary, the real difficulty of modern government is that there is too much to do, and the implied charge of indolence against us is, I think, wholly undeserved.

Having made that protest, I want to make an admission to the noble and learned Lord. He suggests that my right hon. friend the Minister of Health and his office have been guilty of discourtesy to an eminent chemist because they have not paid sufficient attention to a letter which he addressed to the Department. I am afraid there was a little want of attention. It is not that the letter was not acknowledged. It was acknowledged, but, as is usual, I think, in cases of this kind, the definitive answer was reserved for future attention, when the necessary material for making the reply could be got together. Unfortunately, rather too long a period was allowed to elapse between the two letters—not, I think, a month; at any rate that is a matter of detail; but still too long, I fully admit. And if the noble and learned Lord thinks that this eminent chemist—whose eminence I do not dispute for a moment—feels in the least that he has not been properly treated, I hope he will accept from me the fullest apologies. I should be very sorry that anything of the kind should occur.

With regard to the substance of the noble and learned Lord's speech, I do not think a very great deal of difference will be found between His Majesty's Government and himself. He says that the great company which has the control of this commodity is thoroughly indifferent to human suffering. Even if I were an eminent lawyer and Judge I should hesitate to make so strong and unsupported a statement. So far as the Government are concerned there is no indifference at all. We recognise the importance of the matter. We recognise the risk attaching to this commodity and we propose to deal with it. Having said so much, I would ask your Lordships to bear in mind a certain distinction. There is this poison, the tetra-ethyl, and there is the petrol which has a small portion of the poison in its composition. Tetra-ethyl itself is highly dangerous. It has, of course, very serious consequences if it is not properly treated, and it is dangerous in the highest degree. But that does not mean that it must not be manufactured. We manufacture many things which are highly dangerous, such as vitriol and arsenic. But it does mean that the greatest care ought to be taken.

As a matter of fact it is not manufactured in this country at all, but in America. A moment of special risk occurs, however, when, having been imported into this country, it is blended with petrol spirit. The blending process involves considerable risk, undoubtedly, and that is a matter which is receiving the attention of the Home Office at this moment. As your Lordships will readily understand, an inspection of that kind comes under the Home Office administration, and it is being very carefully looked into. I ought, however, to say that up to now no case of lead poisoning has arisen from this commodity in England. I do not want to press that too far, but so it is that there is not yet a single case of lead poisoning which has arisen in consequence of the blending of this highly dangerous commodity in this country. Turning from the poison itself to the petrol which has a very small ad- mixture, I think I am correct in saying it is a mixture of one in 1,300 parts, or something of that kind. I do not mean to say that eliminates all its toxic character, but I want your Lordships to have a, true picture of the exact condition of affairs. That blend is undoubtedly a very useful commodity and a very useful source of power. I need not say, without derogating for a moment from the warning which the noble and learned Lord has given your lordships, that a matter which the Government have to consider is as to how far they ought to interfere with a recognised improvement in the source of power for petrol engines, especially for aeroplanes, where it is particularly useful.

What about the danger of ethyl petrol, the spirit which is slightly diluted with this commodity? As the noble Lord has stated, there has been an American investigation into it. The Public Health Department in America appointed an investigating body consisting of seven distinguished scientific men. The noble and learned Lord has referred to that inquiry, which is a very important one, and in quoting one of the letters I think he mentioned a phrase which appears in the the Report which that Committee made— No positive evidence could be obtained of harmful effects attributable to the use of ethyl gasolene. As a matter of fact the evidence goes considerably further, as your Lordships will see from the conclusions of the Committee. The first conclusion is:— Drivers of cars using ethyl gasolene as a fuel and in which the concentration of tetra-ethyl lead was not greater than one part to 1,300 parts by volume of gasolene, showed no definite signs of having absorbed lead after exposures approximating two years. As the noble and learned Lord will see, I am going a very long way to meet him in a moment, but I want him and your Lordships to realise that this matter has already been investigated, and that the findings, though not conclusive for us in this country, are still very significant—after two years Cleve was no definite sign of any lead having been absorbed.

The second conclusion is:— Employees of garages engaged in the handling and repairing of automobiles and employees of automobile service stations may show evidence of lead absorption. In garages and stations in which ethyl gasolene was used, the amount of apparent absorption was somewhat greater than in those without ethyl gasolene;"— I would like the noble and learned Lord to note this limitation— but the effect was slight in comparison with that shown by workers in other indus-industries when there was definite danger from lead … and for the periods of exposures studied was not sufficient to produce lead poisoning. And this is the third conclusion:— In the regions in which ethyl gasolene has been used to the greatest extent as a motor fuel for a period of between two and three years, no definite cases have been discovered of recognisable lead poisoning or other disease resulting from the use of ethyl gasolene. I do not desire your Lordships to accept the conclusions of that Report as conclusive. After all, it was not a British Committee, and I have no means of testing the competence of the scientific men who are said to have conducted the inquiry. But, undoubtedly, it was a Committee of scientific men appointed by the relevant Department in the United States, and those are the conclusions at which that Committee arrived. So I would suggest that we must approach the condemnation of this commodity with a certain amount of caution, and, at any rate until the steps are taken which I shall indicate in a moment, not fall into the error of assuming the worst until it is proved.

I come now to consider what ought to be done. Undoubtedly the British Government cannot be indifferent to the risk to which the noble and learned Lord has called attention, and they are intent upon the closest investigation and are about to undertake research of a careful character. For that purpose the Government are going to appoint an Inter-Departmental Committee, the composition of which has not been definitely settled, but I think it will consist of representatives of the Ministry of Health, of the Home Office and of the Medical Research Council. Those three bodies, I hope, will form part of this Inter-Departmental Committee, and they will be able to check the conclusions which have been arrived at in America and either confirm them or differ from them, as the case may be. I think I shall have satisfied your Lordships that we do not deny that there it a case for investigation, but we deprecate a hasty conclusion condemning this commodity without investigation. We, however, propose to set the matter absolutely at rest by appointing this Committee forthwith.


My Lords, the concluding words of the noble Marquess make it unnecessary for me to argue the main case ally further before your Lordships. I am personally very glad to hear that he is going to set up this Committee, and if the Committee come to findings resembling the American findings I think we may probably feel relieved in our minds. The noble Marquess will not mind, I am sure—he indicated as much himself—if I say that one would prefer to accept the findings of a Committee of our own in this country rather than be bound by any findings in America. I really rose, after what the noble Marquess has said, only to say that prima facie we do, of course, know that lead poisoning is a most insidious and a, most deadly disease, and that if this material actually causes it there would be the gravest necessity to take action.

Like the rest of your Lordships I am not capable, and only such experts as will sit on this Committee are capable, of saying whether, in fact, poisoning does or will take place from this diluted form of tetra-ethyl. I do think it is in the interests of everybody—in the interests of those who make and sell this spirit and of motorists, who I understand are using it in increasing numbers—to have it settled definitely whether or not this stuff is fit to use. That, I understand, is what will practically be the reference to this Committee. I am sure that will meet the noble and learned Lord who has moved this Motion. But prima facie lead is dangerous and this, as I understand, is a particularly soluble and volatile form of it, and does suggest such a dangerous chance of lead infection and of lead poisoning getting into the body that it certainly is a subject for inquiry. I can only say I am very glad that the noble and learned Lord has succeeded in his object and very glad to think this matter will be settled definitely one way or the other. We shall then all know where we are and we shall have nothing more to complain of. I have nothing further to say in view of what the noble Marquess has said.


My Lords, the noble Marquess (the Marquess of Salisbury) rather resented my suggesting that the Government had been inactive in this matter. If he will provide me with a proper word to describe the course of conduct which has already permitted six months to pass, while a spirit undoubtedly suspicious and condemned by eminent men as being dangerous has bean allowed to be disseminated throughout this country, without taking any steps whatever to inquire into this danger or to protect the public against its use, I will gladly substitute the word that he supplies for the one I used. The next thing he suggested—and I do not think he meant it—was that I was here representing Professor Baker. I do not know what he meant by that. Let me assure him that I had never spoken to Professor Baker about this matter before I put down the Motion. I do not think it is in accordance with the noble Marquess's habitual courtesy, most notably shown towards myself, to suggest that I have come here representing anybody else. I never have represented anybody else in this House except myself, and I am responsible for the things I say, and no one else is.

The noble Earl, Lord Russell, seems satisfied. I wish I could be. An Inter-Departmental Committee is not the thing I want. I want, and I submit the country wants, a scientific investigation, not, an investigation by a Departmental Committee. If a Departmental Committee can be of any use it could have been set up a year ago. What you want are eminent scientific men. Departments do not have eminent scientific men on their staffs.


The Council of Medical Research has.


The Council of Medical Research has a certain number of doctors, but what you want are scientific men, such as eminent chemists, who know all about this matter and who would soon satisfy the noble Marquess, who speaks lightly of one in 1,300, that watered vapour from nickel will poison with one in 20,000. Professor Baker, knowing that I was setting this Motion down, and after I had set it down, wrote to me a letter in which he said that after this spirit has burned in the cylinders of the engine the lead comes into the exhaust as a fine quality of lead oxide and that in a crowded street, like Piccadilly, for example, the unfortunate passer-by would be exposed to the same danger of lead poisoning as painters were before they were protected by Government action. I am not guaranteeing what Professor Baker says; I merely say that here is a man who ought to know, and that is what he says about it. He does not say that one in 1,300 is a matter that you need nut trouble about. On the contrary, he says it is very dangerous. I have never seen the Report which has been referred to, but I am bound to say I heard with alarm the statements made in that Report about the attendants and servants in motor garages already showing, not grave symptoms, but symptoms of illness from the use of this spirit.


I am afraid I have parted with the paper for a moment but what it stated was that they showed symptoms that they had absorbed lead—it may have been an infinitesimal amount—but the sentence went on to say that they were not poisoned by the lead.


The noble Marquess must know that lead poisoning is one of the most hideous and incurable of all our complaints. If he had ever seen a person suffering from it he would realise what the danger is.


I do realise it.


When you say a man is beginning to absorb lead in small quantities he is doing something which in the end can only lead to lead poisoning. It is not a matter of small moment because people are only found to be slightly affected. These people will go on getting more and more affected till illness and death overtake them, and we shall have done nothing except to wait nine months and then set up an Inter-Departmental Committee. I beg the House to note that they are about to appoint, not that they have appointed, a Committee to see what is to be done with regard to the dissemination of a spirit which men who ought to know say is fraught with greater danger than any other that is known to them. I know that it is no use asking for more. I know perfectly well that if we divided and beat the Government it would have no effect. I do not propose to proceed with my Motion. I have done my duty by calling attention to this matter.


May I, with the permission of the House, say one word? If the noble and learned Lord thinks that there should be scientific men added to those who sit on the Inter-Departmental Committee, I will certainly represent that in the proper quarter.


May I ask one question? Am I right in supposing that this Committee will have power to take evidence and be able to call before it eminent chemists, technologists and others to instruct them? If that is so it seems to me that would get over a good deal of the objection which the noble and learned Lord put forward against the Inter-Departmental Committee.


I will discuss all these matters with my right hon. friend in the light of what has been said.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.