HL Deb 16 June 1993 vol 546 cc1564-5

2.53 p.m.

The Countess of Mar asked Her Majesty's Government:

What practical support and advice are being provided by the National Health Service to patients suffering the chronic effects of exposure to organophosphates used in sheep dips and to their general practitioners and consultants.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Baroness Cumberlege)

My Lords, the Government's Chief Medical Officer wrote in 1991 to all doctors in the United Kingdom alerting them to the schemes in operation for reporting incidents of exposures to pesticides and to certain veterinary medicines such as sheep dips. The letter further advised them that advice on poisoning was available from the Employment Medical Advisory Service and the Department of Health book, Pesticide Poisoning: Notes for the guidance of medical practitioners.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her reply. Is she aware that while GPs may ask patients about enzootic diseases, they very rarely think of chemicals? That is my own experience as well as that of a great many other people. Is the Minister further aware that because they do not look at the signs and symptoms of organophosphate poisoning, many patients are being mistreated? Particularly if they display psychological signs, they are put into mental hospitals. In one case a young man was locked up for two years, given electrical treatment and then, when it was discovered that he was suffering from organophosphate poisoning, he was discharged with absolutely no support. That is happening over and over again. Is the Minister aware in addition that such an event happened to a 12 year-old boy just a few months ago and he was told that he was shamming? It is a very distressful situation for people suffering from organophosphate poisoning. Please can the Minister do as much as she can to alert the medical profession to the problems?

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, the Government have sympathy with the view expressed by the noble Countess. The Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Executive of the Veterinary Medicines Directorate together are going to write to all doctors (which includes GPs and consultants working in the NHS and the private sector) to draw their attention to the potential hazards.

Lord McColl of Dulwich

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that support and advice may be required for those noble Lords who are beginning to show symptoms and signs of repeated exposure to these questions on sheep dip?

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, the noble Countess has fought a vigorous and determined campaign. I believe that it is producing results.

Lord Carter

My Lords, is the Minister aware that some of us do not regard poisoning by organophosphates as a laughing matter? Is she further aware of the scientific opinion that the dipping of sheep with organophosphates has brought us no nearer to the eradication of sheep scab than when the compulsory dipping began in 1973? If that is the case, can the Minister say why farmers and farm workers are still being exposed to these extremely dangerous substances instead of using other less toxic materials?

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, an enormous amount of research is being undertaken at this moment on the subject by the London Poisons Unit, the West Midlands Poisons Unit, the Institute of Occupational Medicine in Edinburgh, the Institute of Occupational Health in Birmingham and the Health and Safety Executive Field Consultant Group, which is doing some fieldwork on the subject. In addition, Professor Peter Blain, Dr. Martin Johnston and Dr. Huw Rees are examining this subject with further research. All this research is due to come to the Government within the year, or at least within the next two or three years. When we know the results of that research we shall want to take definite action.

Lord Carter

My Lords, would it not be sensible to ban the use of these materials until the results of this research are available?

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, it is important that any action which the Government take is based on solid research. As I have said, some of that research is coming to fruition by the autumn and then the results will be considered.