HL Deb 21 June 1993 vol 547 cc4-6

2.44 p.m.

Lord Molloy asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will ban the use of the fungicide Benlate until the result of an inquiry into whether it causes children to be born without eyes is known.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Earl Howe)

My Lords, we greatly sympathise with families with children who are born without eyes. However, the Advisory Committee on Pesticides has examined, in the past 15 months, the data relating to benomyl (the active ingredient of Benlate) on two occasions. On both occasions it advised that there was no need for concern over its continued use in the UK. A ban would therefore not be appropriate.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, I thank the noble Earl, but is he aware that the very many women who have given birth to children who have no eyes—some 30-odd in the past few months—will not be particularly enamoured of that Answer? Would he be prepared to contact those scientists and researchers who have shown, not absolutely beyond peradventure but as a grave possibility, that the fungicide Benlate can be very dangerous? They are asking—these are not my words—whether its use should be stopped until the full inquiry which the Minister has announced has reported. Until then, should we be taking such a dreadful risk with other people's as yet unborn babies?

Earl Howe

My Lords, perhaps I should emphasise to the noble Lord that anophthalmia, the condition of being born without eyes, is very rare indeed. The figures that I have with me show that between 1980 and 1992 an average of 14 anophthalmia cases occurred each year. There is no perceptible trend in those figures over the period. The Government take this matter very seriously and, as well as consulting the ACP, we have invited the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine to submit research proposals for an epidemiological study of anophthalmia. Those are now being considered as a matter of urgency.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, while sympathising with those parents who, tragically, have had children born to them without eyes, does my noble friend agree that many medical scare stories arise as a result of unconfirmed experiments? Therefore, is it not quite right that the Government have instituted confirming experiments and, in this case, have come to the particular view that they have?

Earl Howe

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend. All the evidence suggests that the press have made links and suppositions that are not supported by the facts. As I said, anophthalmia is a very rare condition. Its incidence is not increasing. One cause is known to be genetic; another is German measles. Benomyl has been marketed in this country for many years and its toxicological profile is well established.

Lord Carter

My Lords, is the Minister aware that on 29th March, in a Written Answer to my noble friend Lord Ashley, he confirmed that no research studies had been conducted on humans into links between the use of pesticides and eye defects, and that in a further Written Answer on 14th April, he confirmed that the Advisory Committee on Pesticides had not examined the data on benomyl in those areas where it is used but had relied instead on information from California? In the light of that lack of information about experience in the UK, why has the Department of Health not yet responded to the proposals for a research study from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, to which he referred? The Department of Health actually asked for those proposals from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in March. In the light of the very distressing nature of the eye condition and the lack of information, should not the Government be moving rather more quickly on this matter since they asked for the research proposals in March and have not yet responded to them?

Earl Howe

My Lords, I can reassure the noble Lord that there is no delay. The Department of Health has taken steps to streamline the necessary procedures for committing public moneys to this significant research project It went out for peer review last month. The time allowed for that process was six weeks, and the contract for the study by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine should shortly be cleared by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Health.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, is it an absolute fact that there will be a full-scale investigation into this horrible substance, which very responsible researchers have claimed is the cause of children being born without eyes? Will the Government's researchers contact the people who have made and stand by those statements? Is the Minister aware that it has now been discovered that it is not a good thing even to spray crops or animal feed with this particular substance?

Earl Howe

My Lords, I take due note of the last part of the noble Lord's question and I shall look into it. As regards the first part of his question, Moorfields Eye Hospital, with geographers from Lancaster University, are conducting research into cases of anophthalmia and microphthalmia which are known to them. The Department of Health's expert independent advisers will review all data on anophthalmia and microphthalmia and examine Moorfields' study as soon as it is available.

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, does the data which the Ministry has available indicate that on the introduction of this fungicide there was an increase in the number of those suffering from the condition, or has there been a continuing level going back many years?

Earl Howe

My Lords, the only figures that we have date back to 1976. Benomyl was first marketed in the UK in 1969 but we are attempting to collate details dating back further than those which we have.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, do the Government conduct any independent research for themselves as regards agricultural pesticides or do they rely entirely on the manufacturers' data?

Earl Howe

My Lords, by far the largest section of the R&D budget of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Foods is devoted to pesticides.