HL Deb 16 February 1998 vol 586 cc9-12

3.3 p.m.

The Countess of Mar

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether, in the light of the outcome of four recent court cases and new scientific evidence of the health effects of organophosphates, they will now implement an immediate moratorium on the manufacture and sale of organophosphorus compounds.

Lord Carter

My Lords, organophosphorus compounds remain effective medicinal products and pesticides when used properly. I am advised that the ill effects noted in the Hong Kong and Australian cases resulted from the use of organophosphates in a manner that is not authorised in this country. The Government are advised on the use of organophosphates by expert scientific committees and the current advice is that there is no scientific justification for a moratorium on the manufacture and sale of these compounds. However, all new evidence is examined carefully. Any new advice from the expert scientific committees will be acted on immediately.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that reply. Is he aware that what is crucial in relation to the four court cases is that at long last the fact of chronic ill health as a result of exposure to OPs has been found acceptable in the courts? It would appear that Her Majesty's Government do not accept that. Is the noble Lord further aware that work in Israel indicates that stress, whether from heat, emotion or physical activity, causes the blood vein barrier to break down and organophosphates and viruses to enter the brain? That is particularly applicable to sheep dipping. Is the noble Lord also aware that children are now being found to suffer from organophosphate poisoning to a much greater extent than was anticipated because they are particularly vulnerable? There is a lot of other epidemiological evidence which is now coming forward. Will the noble Lord ask his colleagues in another place urgently to reconsider their decision in relation organophosphates?

Lord Carter

My Lords, first, in relation to liability, we are advised that it is for an individual to take up the matter with the manufacturers of the sheep dip. It is significant that in the cases in Australia and Hong Kong, and also that involving Lancashire County Council, the action was between the individual and his employer.

As regards the exposure of children, the safety assessments carried out in relation to such products must take into account exposure of members of the public, including children. Such assessments are particularly important in relation to OP flea treatment for pets, since children come into close contact with treated animals.

On the question of a revision of the present position, as I said, the approach to the approval of pesticides and veterinary and human medicines is precautionary. The expert scientific committees review the data to ensure that the balance between risk and benefit is correctly drawn. Any new evidence will be taken into account.

Baroness Turner of Camden

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the Transport and General Workers' Union supported at least one of the cases referred to in the Question and there is great concern about the health and safety of workers, particularly those involved with sheep dipping? There is apparently evidence that the protective clothing does not adequately protect. Could there be consultation with the workers in the industry via their unions on the issues raised in the Question tabled by the noble Countess, Lady Mar?

Lord Carter

My Lords, the case of the employee to which my noble friend refers was in fact settled out of court. I refer to the case of Mr. Rob Shepherd and Lancashire County Council. We therefore have no details as to the background to the settlement, and further comment would not be appropriate.

Regarding the use of the currently recommended personal protective equipment (PPE), we understand that it can be worn with comfort, and consultation with contractors has suggested that it is fit for the purpose. However, the Veterinary Products Committee has recommended that research should be carried out into the use of lighter, user friendly materials for the manufacture of PPE which would still protect dippers against exposure to OPs. The Health and Safety Executive is taking that work forward.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that it is a matter of some astonishment to many people that the government departments concerned should for so long have remained impervious to the arguments of the noble Countess? One understands why the noble Lord rather hurried through his answers, given to him as they were by experts. Would it be too much to hope that he might deliver a fairly powerful message to those experts that the answers he has been given are not wholly satisfactory?

Lord Carter

My Lords, for the benefit of the noble Lord, I will speak very slowly. As I am sure the noble Lord is aware, advice on the approval or review of OPs is provided by the Veterinary Products Committee, the Veterinary Medicines Directorate, the Committee on the Safety of Medicines, the Advisory Committee on Pesticides, the Working Party on Pesticide Residues, the Pesticides Forum, the Health and Safety Executive and the Pesticides Incidents Appraisal Panel, to name but a few. It is not clear how much more advice we could actually seek.

Earl Russell

My Lords, perhaps I may congratulate the noble Lord on his wisdom in choosing the words, "the current advice is". In the light of the past history of this subject, will he convey the warning inherent in those words to his advisers as well as to this House?

Lord Carter

Yes, of course, my Lords. As I have already said, any new evidence and advice will be taken into account.

The Earl of Clanwilliam

My Lords, will the Minister arrange for the publication of a list of pharmaceutical and agricultural products containing organophosphates so that the public can be reasonably aware of the dangers to which they are subjected?

Lord Carter

Yes, my Lords. A full list of all products is available through a number of publications. In the case of OPs, 13 evaluation documents are available; and there is full information on 80 or more pesticides, of which about 30 are OPs.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, can the Minister answer a conundrum which occurs to many of us? Since he mentioned the word "precaution", and since the ministry has banned beef on the bone as "a precaution'', why, with far better evidence, have OPs not been banned?

Lord Carter

My Lords, I believe I have already answered that question. The approach to the approval of pesticides and veterinary and human medicines is already precautionary. The expert scientific committee reviews data to ensure that the balance between risks and benefits is correctly drawn. At the moment the committee's view is that there is no scientific evidence to support the idea of a ban or a moratorium.