HL Deb 23 May 1985 vol 464 cc399-401

11.6 a.m.

Lord Molloy

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

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what is the form and extent of technical and scientific research currently being undertaken in the attempt to prevent outbreaks of legionnaire's disease.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health and Social Security (Baroness Trumpington)

My Lords, in 1981 the department commissioned an extensive three-year environmental study on legionnaire's disease to be undertaken by the Communicable Disease Surveillance Centre at Colindale. The main objective of this research was to determine how frequently the bacterium may be found in water systems and to identify the design features and other factors which permit its growth and establishment. In addition, basic research is being carried out by the Public Health Laboratory Service and at universities.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Baroness for that reply. However, the frightening truth is that legionnaire's disease seems to have triumphed despite the research that has been carried out to try to limit it. Can the noble Baroness please answer me on two particular points: first, inasmuch as legionnaire's disease originated in America and has spread to some other countries, will the department consider international co-operation in order to find an answer? The figures given for the numbers of people who have died vary in different parts of the media. Can the noble Baroness tell the House precisely what the figures are?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, in answer to the first part of the noble Lord's question, I am sure the bodies that I have already mentioned will be doing exactly what the noble Lord suggested. In answer to the second part of his question, 37 deaths have been reported in the press, and of these 14 were patients with legionnaire's disease.

Lord Ironside

My Lords, in view of the fact that legionnaire's disease seems to be associated with water circulation plant downstream of the metering points, and bearing in mind that in the United Kingdom we are accustomed to a mains supply which is wholesome and disinfected upstream of the metering point, does my noble friend feel that there is now a necessity to look more carefully at the regulations governing disinfection of water below the metering point, when it is used in water circulation plant and other treatment plant involving items such as washing and air conditioning?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, I feel sure that my noble friend's remarks will also be studied by the bodies I have mentioned. The bacterium is not normally found in mains water but can establish itself in water systems in buildings, in stagnant water and in temperatures between 20 centigrade and 45 centigrade. As my noble friend said, it has been isolated from water in air conditioning cooling towers, humidifiers and shower-heads.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, in view of the fact that the disease has started in an inland area like Staffordshire, and not in a port, is the disease regarded as a native disease and not an imported disease? Secondly, can the noble Baroness tell us whether the researches to which she has referred will be published at some stage by the Department of Health and Social Security, in the form of a document?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, the documents will be published when they are available. However, that will take some time.

Lord Nugent of Guildford

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that in addition to the normal sterilizing process in the treatment of water before it is put into the mains, it is normal practice to include in the mains a certain amount of chlorine in order to keep the water supply sterile? The mains often run many miles before the water reaches the point of consumption. Therefore there is a very major safeguard there which should prevent any danger of infection getting in in the course of supply.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, I am most grateful for the remarks of my noble friend Lord Nugent. As he said, biocides can play an important role in water treatment. However, where the guidance states that chlorine should be used, biocides cannot be considered a suitable alternative, at least until independent scientific evidence supporting their use is made available.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, I wonder whether I may ask the noble Baroness this. In the event of the possibility of an outbreak in some other part of the country, is there available a group of specialists, medical, technical and scientific, which could make an immediate examination? Since the department with which she is connected is making very great efforts to control legionnaire's disease, will the noble Baroness ensure that the media are informed step by step of the endeavours of the department, because the general public are very much concerned?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, I realise that the general public are very concerned. That is why I gave a detailed Answer in my first reply.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, can the noble Baroness tell us whether the Government are making any extra money available for research into this important and dangerous disease?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, I am not aware that extra money is needed because this is exactly the kind of work that the Communicable Disease Surveillance Centre is paid to do.