HL Deb 19 June 1991 vol 530 cc163-5

2.59 p.m.

The Viscount of Falkland asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether the relatively high levels of pesticide recently found in water in some areas of the United Kingdom pose any threat to the health of consumers.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, trace amounts of pesticides, in some public water supplies, revealed by extensive monitoring, have not been shown to endanger public health.

The Viscount of Falkland

My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for that Answer. Is he aware that as a result of recent publicity there is considerable public concern about the state of drinking water and the pesticides contained therein? Is he further aware that at the end of last year the British Medical Association produced a report entitled Pesticides, Chemicals and Health in which the BMA stated that it was not possible to say whether the accumulation of pesticides was or was not a threat to health? The report explained that suitable analytical techniques were not available to discover what was truly the case and that the cost of providing them would be high. Does the current profitability of the water companies indicate that they are now in a position to develop such analytical techniques?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, the noble Viscount raises an important question. However, it hides the fact that there are two standards. First, there is the Community standard for pesticides, which is precautionary and much more stringent than most World Health Organisation health related guideline concentrations. Therefore, although the EC directive might be exceeded, the level might still be well below the World Health Organisation recommendations. The noble Viscount is right. Reports are being prepared at the moment about the amount of pesticides. Some have been discovered for the first time as technology improves. Likewise, this is an area where the water companies will spend billions of pounds in the future. However, what they do not want to do—I am sure that the House will agree with this—is to introduce technology which in itself makes matters worse without improving the situation.

Lord Brougham and Vaux

My Lords, can my noble friend explain to me and to the House what the European standards are?

The Earl of Caithness

Yes, my Lords. The EC drinking water directive pesticide standard is 0.1 microgrammes per litre for individual pesticides. In simple English, that is one drop in an Olympic size swimming pool.

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, is it not the case that the European Commission is about to take action against the United Kingdom for exceeding EC limits? Is it not also the case that 10 million of us are being supplied with water which contains pesticide levels above those supposedly safe limits? If injury is proved to be caused as a result of drinking this polluted water, who will be liable? Does the "polluter pays" principle hold good here? If that is so, will the farmers who use the pesticides pay or will it be the chemical companies which produce them?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I regret that I cannot answer the second question. I shall try to find an answer for the noble Baroness. With regard to the first question, I have heard that the European Community is thinking about taking action against us. That is perhaps the penalty that Britain pays for producing facts and figures.

Lord Winstanley

My Lords, in his Answer to my noble friend Lord Falkland, the noble Earl said that there is no evidence that pesticides in water supplies are dangerous to health. Is there any positive evidence that pesticides in water supplies are not dangerous to health?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I said in my first Answer that they have not been shown to endanger public health. I go back to an answer that I gave to the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland. A further report is being prepared at the moment. Until we get that report I cannot fully answer the noble Lord's question.

Lord Gisborough

My Lords, criticism is being made about this country's compliance with European legislation. Can my noble friend put the matter into perspective by saying to what extent action is being taken against other countries of the European Community?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, my noble friend raises an important point. Action can be taken only if one provides facts and figures. We have provided facts and figures. As far as we are aware, all other European Community countries have problems in implementing the directive. I can say from my experience of travelling round the world that we are extremely fortunate in this country to have a water supply in the condition that we have it; and it is going to be yet further improved.

Earl Russell

My Lords, the noble Earl has explained clearly the difference between the European Community standard and the World Health Organisation standard. As the Government do not make clinical judgments, can he tell us on what basis the Government have decided which of those standards is correct?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, they are both correct. We have to abide by the European standard, although I remember taking the Commission to task in order to bring the standard more into line with health related standards. We are continuing to pursue that matter. In addition, we take great heed of what the World Health Organisation tells us.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, is the noble Earl aware that a great deal of work is going on to evolve techniques which involve a much lower use of pesticides to provide the same protection? Can he say what help the Government are giving to this work, or do they regard it as near market research?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, considerable efforts are being made by companies to produce less potent pesticides. When, following years of negotiation, the EC drinking water directive was signed at the beginning of 1980, there was concern about organo-chlorine pesticides, concern which I know the noble Lord will well remember. Now different pesticides such as atrazine and simazine are affecting the water supply. As more people use other types of pesticides, so we shall have less problem with those.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, are the Government doing anything to help?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, the water companies are doing a lot to help. I know that the farmers are doing things to help. Most of the problems from simazine and atrazine are dealt with by local authorities. I know that they are doing things to help.