§ The Countess of Mar asked Her Majesty's Government:
§ Whether they consider that Section 19, as defined by Section 132 of the Medicines Act 1968, has been adequately considered when licences have been granted to manufacturers of organophosphate sheep dips.
The Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Earl Howe)
My Lords, the Government are satisfied that the provisions of the Medicines Act have been applied properly to organophosphate sheep dip products. Nevertheless, all sheep dip products are currently being reviewed by the Veterinary Products Committee to ensure that they meet up-to-date standards of safety, quality and efficacy.
§ The Countess of Mar
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. When licences for organophosphate sheep dips were first issued, was the licensing authority aware that sulfotepp, which is 60 to 100 times more toxic than diazinon—the basic constituent of sheep dip—is an integral and unavoidable part of the production process and is much more stable than diazinon and therefore does not break down in the soil but becomes residual? If they were aware of that—I hope the Minister will not hide behind Section 118 of the Medicines Act (the secrecy clause)—are they satisfied that the licensing authority has taken sufficient care to ensure the safety of users and the community and that the quality of the product is satisfactory, considering that the manufacturers are expected to do the quality testing, and that the original laboratory testing—
§ The Countess of Mar
My Lords, I am asking a question. —was done on the pure products and not on the manufactured ones?
My Lords, tepp and sulfotepp are known human neurotoxins which can arise as manufacturing impurities and as degradation products from diazinon, which is an active ingredient within some sheep dip formulations. Manufacturers of sheep dips include a stabiliser in the product formulation to prevent any breakdown to tepp and sulfotepp. The specifications for such products set upper limits for the impurities so as to ensure that no significant toxicological hazard can arise.
§ Lord Stewartby
My Lords, for those who are less expert in these matters than the noble Countess, will 526 my noble friend tell us in simple terms whether the scientific evidence supports the anxieties that she has expressed?
My Lords, the scientific evidence on the safety of organophosphate-based sheep dips is inconclusive. That is why a number of research projects are currently under way to verify the facts.
§ Lord John-Mackie
My Lords, are there any statistics on how many accidents or illnesses there have been as a result of the use of sheep dip? We have been dipping sheep for a long time.
My Lords, in the period January 1985 to 27th January 1993, 338 reports, involving 423 people, relating to organophosphorus sheep dips have been received. A significant proportion of the reports received since 1990 relate to historical cases where a suspected adverse reaction had occurred more than one year previously. To put those figures into context, during the same period over 1 million sheep dippings would have been carried out.
§ Lord Carter
My Lords, is the Minister aware that work by the Poisons Unit at Guy's Hospital, the Southern General Hospital in Glasgow and the South West Environmental Protection Agency all indicate that there is at least a strong possibility that sheep dips are dangerous to human life? Is there not now a need for a proper inquiry and a statement on the matter from the Government to clear up a matter which is now causing considerable anxiety to the agricultural industry?
My Lords, as I said to my noble friend a moment ago, the scientific evidence is inconclusive. Licences are issued on the basis that a product is safe if used in accordance with the manufacturer's instructions. To ban organophosphate sheep dips, without hard evidence, would be unwarranted and would have serious consequences in terms of animal welfare.
§ Lord Carter
My Lords, have not the manufacturers indicated that the users of sheep dip should use protective clothing? Have we not just discovered that phenol acts adversely on natural rubber? That was not known until recently.
My Lords, the labels and instructions for the use of organophosphate compounds containing phenols have been updated from time to time to reflect the latest advice from the Veterinary Products Committee about operator and environmental safety. They have all been included in the review of sheep dip products which is now being undertaken by that committee.
§ Lord Zuckerman
My Lords, what scientific evidence relating to which particular substance is inconclusive? Are we talking about organophosphorous compounds or some other substance about which there are doubts? Perhaps I may remind your Lordships that organophosphorous compounds are the nerve gas compounds.
My Lords, the noble Lord is correct in saying that certain nerve gases were developed many years ago using organophosphate compounds. However, they incorporate organophosphate compounds which are different from those used in sheep dips; they are not the same at all. I referred earlier to the fact that evidence on whether organophosphatebased sheep dips are not safe when used in accordance with the manufacturers' instructions is inconclusive.
§ Lord Campbell of Alloway
My Lords, will my noble friend confirm that the poisons unit at Guy's Hospital, which is involved in research into these matters, will not be disbanded on the latter's merger with St Thomas' Hospital?
My Lords, that is a matter for my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Health.
§ The Countess of Mar
My Lords, is the Minister aware that the number of cases of organophosphate poisoning may be seriously under reported for several reasons? The first is that farmers are stoical and they carry on working regardless of their complaints. Another reason is that GPs have not been good at diagnosing chemical poisoning. Yet another reason is illustrated in reports which I have received from two Welsh farmers and I should like the Minister to take it up. They have reported that their driving licenses have been removed and they have been forced to take eyesight tests because they reported their sheep-dip poisoning to the Veterinary Medicines Directorate.
My Lords, I am not aware of the particular instances which the noble Countess cites but I shall look into them. It is a matter which the Government take seriously, as they do all suspected adverse reaction reports. Every case that is reported to the Veterinary Medicines Directorate is investigated. I repeat that we must get the matter in proportion and that at present the evidence is not conclusive.