HL Deb 14 October 1993 vol 549 cc256-8

3.16 p.m.

The Countess of Mar asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will state the source and date of the scientific data upon which paragraphs 3, 8 and 12 of Guidance Note MS 17 from the Health and Safety Executive were based, and whether this information was contained in versions of the note prior to October 1987.

Lord Henley

My Lords, the acute effect of organophosphorus poisoning mentioned in paragraphs 3 and 12 of MS 17 is well known and included in standard toxicological and pharmacological textbooks. Paragraph 8 is supported by HSE's extensive knowledge and experience of occupational health in manufacture and use of organophosphates and in information provided by manufacturers. The 1987 publication of MS 17 followed a 1980 edition. There are no changes of substance between the relevant paragraphs in the two versions.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Answer. Noble Lords should know that the guidance note is entitled Biological monitoring of workers exposed to organophosphorus pesticides. Paragraph 3 states: However, acute and subacute exposure to OP pesticides can produce harmful effects in man, and repeated exposure at lower doses may cause insidious cumulative toxicity". Paragraph 8 states: OP formulations based on organic solvents are liable to penetrate protective clothing unless contamination is washed off promptly". Paragraph 12 is similar. I have just two questions to ask the Minister. First, if that information was known in 1980, why was it not disseminated freely to all people likely to be exposed to organophosphorus pesticides—farmers, doctors and everyone else—instead of being available only to environmental health officers and people working in similar situations? Secondly, why has the House been misled consistently by being told that provided the recommended protective clothing is worn there is no evidence of damage to human health?

Lord Henley

My Lords, I do not believe that the House has been misled. The noble Countess implies that there is some contradiction between the advice given over the years by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to farmers, including sheep fanners, and that made available in the document to which she refers, which is not a document designed for sheep farmers. I do not accept that there is any contradiction between the advice offered by MAFF and that offered by the HSE, but I am of course aware, as is the noble Countess, that allegations to that effect have been made. The noble Countess will be aware that my right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, who rejects that claim firmly, has agreed that such matters may be put before the Veterinary Products Committee which meets, I think, on the 21st of this month. It will then be considering the future availability of organophosphorus sheep dips. That is the right forum in which to discuss these matters. I am not sure that it would be a highly productive operation for the noble Countess and I to argue science across the Floor of the House.

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, will the Minister give an assurance that when the result from that committee is known the Government will act quickly upon it? Will he give an assurance that the matter will be taken seriously?

Lord Henley

My Lords, my advice is that the findings of the Veterinary Products Committee are made public. So I am sure that it will be open to the noble Baroness, the noble Countess and others to apply all due pressure on the Government to act appropriately, according to whatever they decide. I do not want to second-guess the decisions of an expert committee which exists to advise Ministers in another department.

Baroness Turner of Camden

My Lords, the note indicates that substantial risks are involved in handling these substances and also that in recent years there has been a rapid increase in the production of OP pesticides. Are the Government satisfied that the monitoring arrangements are sufficient to protect workers? As the effects of the substance are regarded as an industrial disease, will the Minister tell the House how many cases there have been since the OP was first put into operation?

Lord Henley

My Lords, we are satisfied that the monitoring arrangements are satisfactory. It is an appropriate matter for the Veterinary Products Committee to consider and to come forward with expert advice for Ministers to consider and to act upon. On 18th May my noble friend Lord Howe stated that 474 cases had been reported to the Veterinary Medicines Directorate. Perhaps I may refer the noble Baroness to the Answer which he gave on that date, which appears at col. 1642 of the Official Report.

Earl Baldwin of Bewdley

My Lords, will the Minister take steps, perhaps through his colleagues, to ensure that in the light of all this the medical profession is made aware of the effects of long-term low dose exposure to environmental toxins of all kinds?

Lord Henley

My Lords, I am sure that my noble friends in the Department of Health will take note of what the noble Earl says and perhaps the appropriate advice can be circulated to the medical profession.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, does the Minister recognise that not only does the use of organophosphates in sheep dips have a serious effect on a number of farmers—the evidence has been clearly established—but also on the environment. As they enter our waters and streams so those waters and streams become polluted. That is a serious matter. I am glad that the Minister is treating it as such. Will he assure me that he will look at the environmental effects of the use of organophosphates in addition to their effects on human beings?

Lord Henley

My Lords, as regards the effect on human beings, we understand that people can be damaged by their use and that is the point of issuing the advice. However, we do not believe that people will be injured or harmed in any way if they follow the instructions provided by the manufacturer. As regards any environmental pollution, I would not wish to respond to the noble Lord's question at this stage, other than to say that I shall pass on his comments to the appropriate department. I am sure that if it is thought necessary it will take the appropriate action.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, is it not incumbent on the Health and Safety Executive to make sure that everyone using toxins, in addition to being told to take protective measures, is aware of the reasons why those protective measures should be taken?

Lord Henley

My Lords, yes, that is one of the functions of the HSE. As the noble Countess will know, that is one of the reasons why MAFF has provided detailed guidance. In addition, the Health and Safety Executive provides various leaflets which are freely available. MAFF wrote to all registered sheep farmers and the HSE publishes a document which I can provide for the noble Countess entitled Sheep Dipping: Protect Your Health. It gives all the appropriate guidance.

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