HL Deb 30 March 1983 vol 440 cc1560-1

3.3 p.m.

Baroness Fisher of Rednal

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

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they are satisfied that water authorities will be able to fulfil the standards contained in the EEC directive on water quality when it comes into effect in 1985.

Lord Skelmersdale

Yes, my Lords, water authorities will be able to comply with the provisions of the EC directive relating to the quality of water for human consumption by July 1985. Certain derogations and delays are specifically permitted in the directive. The Secretary of State will not allow such derogations or delays where is is thought that public health might be endangered.

Baroness Fisher of Rednal

My Lords, the noble Lord the Minister must be aware that the reports that have been coming from the Department of the Environment and the National Water Council show that there is very serious concern regarding nitrate levels in water. Evidence shows quite clearly that the nitrate levels are rising steadily, owing to an increase in the use of fertilisers. Does the Minister not recognise that there is a real need to monitor very carefully the findings and the evidence in his department regarding pure water supplies, to make quite sure that we are conforming to EEC nitrate levels, which in some water authority areas are now at the maximum level allowed?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her supplementary question. As I said in my original Answer, derogations are allowed under Article 9 of the directive. There is no doubt that in various quarters concern has been expressed over rising nitrate levels. These are treatable at a cost, and the medical evidence that we have at present does not lead us to believe that there is any cause for concern. But, naturally, we are watching very carefully indeed the progress of research in this particular respect. The use of nitrate fertilisers of course dramatically increases crop yields, but as yet it has not been shown to be a matter for serious concern in relation to water sources.

Lord Nugent of Guildford

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that while there is of course anxiety about the rising trend of nitrate levels in drinking water supplies, the standards set by the EEC are significantly higher than those set by the World Health Organisation, and that there is no certainty that there is a medical necessity to reach such a very high standard.

Lord Skelmersdale

Yes, my Lords; my noble friend, with his great knowledge of water, is absolutely correct. In the EEC directive that we are discussing the maximum permissible nitrate level is, I understand, 50 milligrammes per litre, whereas the maximum recommended by the World Health Organisation, backed up by our own Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, in its fairly recent seventh report, is 100 milligrammes per litre.

Lord Leatherland

My Lords, can the Minister tell us whether the effluent from the sewers in Scotland is channelled into the public water supply, and whether that has any harmful effect upon the population?

Lord Skelmersdale

I cannot answer that supplementary question without notice, my Lords. However, I would say that this particular directive is aimed not at water channels but at water which is actually consumed by humans; the so-called potable water.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, has the noble Lord's attention been drawn to the report in last Sunday's Observer newspaper, which stated quite categorically that the Government are seriously concerned, and unpleasantly surprised, at rapidly rising levels of nitrates, which are increasingly suspected of causing stomach cancer? Can the noble Lord say whether or not the Government are as concerned as the newspaper report indicated; and, if so, whether they will set up an immediate inquiry, and not wait until 1985 before action is taken? This kind of report causes serious public alarm unless it is categorically denied.

Lord Skelmersdale

No, my Lords; my attention was not drawn to the particular article in the Observer to which the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition has referred. However, we currently know that complex nitrogen compounds have been discovered in animals in laboratories, and these can cause cancer. But at the moment it is unknown whether that fact can be extrapolated so as to apply to humans. The Government are most seriously concerned with this matter, and in one of my supplementary answers I said that in this regard we were very carefully following medical science.

Lord Kennet

My Lords, is it not the case that, while some years ago the use of nitrate fertilisers dramatically increased agricultural yields, the evidence now is that greatly increased doses of nitrate fertilisers produce only very small increases in agricultural yields?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, that is rather another question; but I would assume that it depends entirely on what nitrate levels have already been added to the soil, as well as the type of soil structure that one is considering at the time.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, may I ask the Minister whether it is not a fact that some of our sewage pipes run rather near to drinking water supplies, and could that not be the cause of the rise in infective hepatitis A?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I fear that I am completely stumped by that supplementary question from the noble Baroness. I shall certainly make inquiries and report to her what I discover.