HL Deb 22 July 1977 vol 386 cc615-8

11.17 a.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the second Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they have now studied the report of the expanding disaster consequent on the emission of toxic gas from the ECMISA plant at Seveso in July 1976 and what further controls are being imposed on the use of Dioxin in this country.


My Lords, Her Majesty's Government have studied the report on the dioxin contamination at Seveso presented by the Italian delegate to the Chemicals Group of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development at their 12th meeting in October 1976, and which was subsequently reconsidered at the 13th meeting of the Group in Paris on 23rd February 1977.

The chemical known as dioxin has no known commercial use and is not manufactured in the United Kingdom. It may be formed in trace quantities as an unwanted by-product during the manufacture of 2, 4, 5-trichlorophenol. The sole manufacturer of this chemical in the United Kingdom decided to cease manufacture in October 1976, following upon the Seveso disaster. Her Majesty's Government therefore do not consider it necessary to introduce further controls related to the use of dioxin in this country.


My Lords, is my noble friend not aware, since I asked a Question on this in October 1976, and was assured, after a very regrettable delay by the Italian authorities, that inquiries were being made, that it is now clear that it is a disaster of great magnitude; that it is perfectly plain that Italian politicians are frustrating all the efforts of international scientists to help; and that Dr. James Allen, an internationally-known expert from the University of Wisconsin, who has been there with his own team of international scientists, and who has been largely ignored by the Italians, describes this as the most dangerous poison in the world? Is he further aware that there have been 14 such international explosions, many of them fully documented; that the behaviour of the National Coal Board in this respect was magnificent and set a superb example; that some people say that they went too far in protecting; and that they authorised the publication of absolutely full details? Is he finally aware that the Question I am now asking is about the emission over Milan of tons of poisonous fumes affecting a large population which has never been isolated; that it is about people being forced back into houses which have not been decontaminated, and about nonsoluble poison still going into the river at Seveso—

The LORD PRIVY SEAL (Lord Peart)

My Lord, I hope that my noble friend will make his remarks shorter.


My Lords, it is a question of great gravity, which is giving great anxiety and one which was thought suitable for a full investigation by the Sunday Times, a programme on ITV and so on—

Several noble Lords

Order, Order!


My Lords, I am replying to the interruption. Is my noble friend satisfied that there will be any protection against the international spread and expansion of what has been described by Dr. Allen as the deadliest poison in the world?


My Lords, as far as the United Kingdom is concerned, we have taken our own steps. The manufacturers in this country have ceased production and the matter is for international control and concern. The report to which my noble friend and I referred concluded by saying that it is now necessary to look with an entirely new perspective at the subject of protection in instances such as the one described. It further states that, in Italy, both the legislative norms and the precautionary measures have been found to be lacking. The report calls for national controlling bodies and scientists to co-operate in devising emergency plans which can be put into effect in the event of all other precautionary measures failing. So far as this country is concerned, we have no need for alarm because there will be no such production in Britain.


My Lords, regarding the closing down of the Bolsover factory, may I ask my noble friend whether the Government think that this was really necessary? Is it not true that we now have to import all the tri-chlorophenol which is used in this country, whereas previously we were also exporting about £1 million worth per annum? Is it not also true that the Health and Safety Executive on 9th September of last year said that the factory was perfectly safe and merely recommended that there should be a slight improvement in some of the electrical controls? Would my noble friend agree that it is unfortunate if a pure scare stops the production of something which is needed in this country?


My Lords, what is needed in this country for the manufacture of herbicides and antiseptics is imported; so far as I am aware—and since I met my noble friend yesterday I have made further inquiries—there is no proposal for a new plant to be made available. The plant for making 2, 4, 5—trichlorophenol was redesigned in about 1972 and was called the "new plant". This is being cleaned out and its future use is uncertain, although it will not be used—and I repeat, not be used—for 2, 4, 5—trichlorophenol. In February 1977 a brand new plant was completed. This will be a general purpose plant. It will be used for a variety of fine chemicals, but, again, definitely not—and I repeat, definitely not—for 2, 4, 5—trichlorophenol.


My Lords, is my noble friend aware that those of us who know what the molecular cousins of this poisonous substance did to the people and herbage of Vietnam will not care a damn if it is never produced again for mankind?