HC Deb 28 June 2000 vol 352 cc199-218WH

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.[Mr. Kevin Hughes.]

9.30 am
Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North)

People all over Britain will be waking up today wondering about organophosphates as we debate the subject in this august place. I am sure that we shall impart some information this morning, so that the public know why we take the matter seriously. I welcome the chairman of the all-party organophosphate group to the Chamber. I pay tribute to the Countess of Mar, who has fought a continuous battle and has bombarded Ministers with questions for years. Indeed, she has distinguished herself in that campaign.

The organophosphate group of chemicals causes many problems. They are implicated in the Gulf war syndrome, and they affect agricultural workers. Organophosphates have been the cause of debate in rural communities about their effects on the people who live and work there. The chemicals are the cause of problems in animal welfare, medicine is involved and there are many other aspects to the problem. Indeed, I note that the Sunday papers report that organophosphates can be found in aircraft; not only can one get a pulmonary embolism four days after flying, one can also get a good whiff of organophosphates on the transatlantic flight. That is something for everyone to enjoy.

The subject also creates problems for Ministers. It covers so many areas, and many Ministers have something to say about it. We have got round that problem today by not having five Ministers here. That would have been too much to handle, and, perhaps, too radical. I am pleased that we can concentrate on the agricultural implications of organophosphates and how they affect people's health.

My interest in the use of chemicals in rural communities stems from work that I did some years ago, when young agricultural workers in Norfolk wanted to talk to doctors about impotence and about not being able to start families. That was in the early days of chemical use in the farmyard. Insecticides and pesticides were implicated, because they washed into the Broads and the rivers and fouled up plant life there. We wondered then whether the chemicals could have had some effect on people in rural communities. Although gloves and uniforms were available as a safety measure, I am sorry to say that people had problems with wearing chemical suits to prevent their bodies getting near chemicals. People were found to be using about 20 chemicals a day. We tried to ensure that they took precautions, and many of those young men successfully sired children a few years later.

It was difficult to nail down which chemical could have caused the sterility, and a doubt remains to this day. Because so many chemicals are used, it is often hard to find evidence that a particular chemical has caused a problem. I am pleased that organophosphates have been studied and that research has been carried out, but it is sometimes difficult to gain the scientific and medical surety of evidence that is needed to take matters forward.

Organophosphates were first shown to have biological uses in about 1937, and they are now widely used as pesticides in agricultural, public health, veterinary, domestic and medicinal applications. Some organophosphates are used as lubricants and plasticisers. The one thing that is clear, however, is that whenever and wherever they are used, humans are always exposed to them; people come up against them, and take them in through the skin or in other ways.

The organophosphate compounds used in warfare are chemically different. We do not want a chemistry lecture—goodness forbid that. I do not understand chemistry much, anyway. We are not going to talk about the organophosphates said to have had an effect in Gulf war syndrome. They are a different kettle of fish, have different chemical structures and probably work differently from those used on farms.

The use of organophosphates in arable and livestock farming has raised many concerns. People will know especially of the adverse effects on sheep farmers exposed to low doses for long periods while, for example, sheep dipping. Publicity on that subject has come in at a great rate. We also know that it is possible to be affected during crop spraying. It has been suggested that pesticides, including organophosphates, have appeared in water supplies and food. There is much concern about that, and the issue is still very alive today.

Research has shown that many organophosphates work by affecting a key protein or enzyme in the human body, which is involved in nerve function—way in which nerves interact. Brain function and the nerves controlling muscles are affected through contact with the chemicals. Organophosphates are of great use on farms. They are used to eliminate scab disease and they kill insects and plants. They are used around cats' necks to kill fleas and they are used around the home to kill flies, wasps and ants. They are often used in soil to affect living organisms by working through that enzyme. They have a function. Today, however, we are discussing the other side of the issue—the aberrant effects on humans.

It is often asked what the short and long-term effects are. I will not give descriptions using medical terminology, but saying that organophosphates do your brain in might help people to understand. That is how people describe the effects in the media. Organophosphates cause muscular twitching. There can be effects immediately or in the long term on muscle and brain function, memory retention, learning skills and other aspects of life. Chemicals, including lead, have often been shown to affect the intellectual ability of young people in particular, whose brains and cells are forming to function properly in school.

We will no doubt learn much more as research informs us about the way in which the chemicals work. I am sure that different classes of the chemicals will work differently and have different functions. We will have to find a language for describing medically the way in which functions are impaired by different organophosphates.

There has been much scientific and medical research into the effects of the compounds, both with regard to the Gulf war and to farms. Many reports have been produced by august bodies. The argument has moved forward in some ways, but it has not progressed fast enough. I will illustrate some of the directions in which we might still need to carry out research. The questions being asked about organophosphates concern long-term toxic effects following low-level exposure. That is an area of great debate. There is good evidence that where there is high-level exposure to organophosphates, there are immediate toxic effects on the peripheral nervous system and the skeletal muscle. There is uncertainty about the mechanism of how they work, but there is no real argument that there is an effect on those functions.

As the implications of the human genome project explode around the world and we get more information, we are sure to find that some people are more susceptible to the chemicals than others. That will make it more difficult for us to say that everyone will be affected by organophosphates. It is like an airline that says that it did not create the blood clot on the passenger's lungs because the clot developed four days after the flight. Many delayed effects can happen after the body is subjected to some influence.

It is agreed that OPs have potential long-term effects that justify caution in their use. That is the base line on which we can all agree. There is good evidence, too, for delayed effects. Some effects appear in the short term —a matter of days, weeks or just hours —but exposure to high levels of the compounds can also have delayed effects on the nervous and muscular systems.

An explanation is needed for a range of reactions from different organophosphates. The debate is often clouded by arguments about the difficulty of knowing the extent of someone's exposure to a particular organophosphate. It is difficult to record that information. Studies have been rubbished because of the problem of arriving at figures for the level of exposure, and that compounds the confusion in obtaining evidence that could lead to legislation.

Another problem is defining the effects. Some, such as dizziness and twitching, can always be argued to have been caused by something other than organophosphate exposure. It is hard to tie down such symptoms to a low or high dose of a chemical. Some of the effects that are claimed, such as suicide and depression, are also hard to narrow down to one event in someone's complicated life. There may be multifactorial reasons for those problems. However, when one starts to add all the elements together, a picture emerges. Something is going on with the coming of organophosphates into rural communities and lives.

I am pleased that the Government are investigating ways to increase research. I know that research councils and other bodies are funding research into not just Gulf war syndrome but other aspects of chemical pollution. We need more biochemical research, which raises the question of using animals. I see no other way to obtain the necessary results about the effect on nervous systems and behaviour. We can study the way that mice run in mazes, for example. That is the nearest we can come to decent experiments without using human beings. Of course, we can look at tissue culture and ask questions about the enzymes and proteins that are affected and the resulting effects on nerve cells. We can examine brain tissue in post mortems and study the concentration of organophosphates in nerve tissue. We can use electrophysiology to study brain and organ function for the effects of toxic subjection to an organophosphate. At the same time, clinical trials are being conducted —more will be needed —on groups of people who have been affected by the substances, to find out how memory and behaviour develop in the short and long term.

All the research has resulted in many reviews, but the royal colleges and the Medical Research Council tend to focus on symptoms and treatment. The Medical Research Council has gone a little further and suggested in its report that there may be a correlation between occupations using OPs and learning problems. The possibility of a correlation is about as far as one gets in this argument. One wonders what one would have to find out to establish a hard and fast link.

It is hard to define, using different studies from different countries, the general phenomenon of good mental health. That makes gathering evidence difficult and accounts for the many disagreements in academic circles. While admitting that there must be some effects from organophosphates, as they are not natural components of the human body, some authorities question their seriousness. They argue that the body has systems for dealing with the many foreign materials in food and that perhaps we can handle a little dose of organophosphate. However, I do not feel that that would ever be good for me and I do not believe that those who work on farms think that it is good for them. That raises an issue relating to those who say that a little new chemistry in the body does no harm.

How should we go about resolving the issues, given that the response to high or low levels of organophosphates is complex? As people agree that high doses can cause immediate, intermediate or long-term toxic effects, the regulations set about minimising those effects by attempting to limit exposure to sheep dipping or crop spraying. Those regulations often involve advising people to wear gloves, and so on. I understand very well why people are not too good at following that sort of health and safety advice. I am sure that every one of us in the Chamber has taken a risk at some time when we know that we should not have done so. I do not just mean by smoking, but when handling things in the home, spraying plants or whatever, because certain chemicals affect the person. Therefore, we have not resolved the problems of chronic and adverse health effects through regulation, and disagreement continues.

Although further research will continue to resolve some of the problems and find better answers so that we can say, "Yes, it does affect the system, so it is no wonder that people are feeling ill", we must have a much more determined approach.

There have been many suggestions about what we should do about organophosphates, especially in relation to sheep dippers. Many people have argued that there should be a moratorium. We have heard about moratoriums in relation to genetically modified crops, which expresses a certain attitude to tackling such problems while we do not know much about them. The other argument is to look for alternatives, such as other chemicals that might be less harmful to human beings. Another suggestion is to introduce tighter regulation to ensure that people are protected and that the regulations operate properly. I have spoken about how difficult the latter option is and about how difficult it is to get people to play along. On farms, continuous monitoring would be necessary because activities change daily and are unpredictable; people are in a hurry and so they cut corners. That is sad, but that is the way it is. There are other approaches to dealing with that problem, which I shall not talk about now.

The alternatives have not proved to be very effective. There is evidence that some of the alternatives damage the environment, get into rivers, cause algal blooms and destroy plant life and animal life around rivers. Some people throw up their hands in horror at the idea of a moratorium because they worry about how we would handle the problem of sheep scab. The only answer is that, in some countries where organophosphates are not used, there is no problem with sheep scab, so people argue, "If it all right for them, why is it not all right for us?" That argument is batted back and forth by the warring parties, and we do not seem to move forward.

Science is one way forward, and we are all in favour of good science and understanding things at a deeper level. At the same time, legal cases are pending. Sadly, some of those legal cases are resolved in out-of-court settlements. I say "sadly" because, although I am glad that the cases are resolved, that does not help in bringing cases into the legal system, where other minds and sensitivities can become involved in trying to resolve the problems of people whose health has clearly been damaged by being subjected to such chemicals. I believe that we shall see more instances of that in the next few years. Gulf war syndrome is one such illness that is setting precedents. Farm workers are also bringing forward cases.

We are learning something from Europe —this is something that we have discussed before in the House—from the so-called precautionary principle. That relates to the situation in which 100 per cent. scientific evidence that one thing causes another is unavailable and considers how that situation should be handled until more information is available. I am fascinated by the precautionary principle. I find that there is no definition of the principle in Europe, but there are 14 alternative interpretations of it in Government legislation around the world. I shall mention just two of those interpretations because the principle is relevant in certain situations, and we have used it recently in this country in relation to radio frequency waves for cellular phones and mobile phone bases. In the absence of 100 per cent. scientific evidence, the Stewart report made recommendations to the Government on the basis of the precautionary principle, stating that radiation emanating from phones and bases was causing problems.

In regulating new technologies, whether they are chemical technologies such as OPs or physical technologies such as cellular phones, there must be something in the equation besides science. It is increasingly obvious that public understanding and acceptance that there are problems persuade Governments to take action. For example, the public have been extremely influential in fashioning Government policy in the GM debate and we should be grateful for that.

On the precautionary principle, I pick the two extremes that support my argument from the 14 alternatives—I am prepared to elaborate on the other 12, but I hope that no one is too keen for me to do so. When a hazard is appraised, any risk of harm is noted, built into the control measures and taken seriously. If it is assumed that the evidence is indicative of a problem, that will be taken into account in framing legislation. One alternative would be to ban its use, another to limit the exposure but to take it seriously and accept that something is going on, and that what has happened is not an accident or an act of God.

Another view is that there must be reasonable grounds to conclude that there is a risk, although that gives rise to an argument about what are reasonable grounds. Those who support that view believe that there must be a good reason for doing nothing.

The first approach to the precautionary principle is an alternative to risk analysis; it is assumed that something is a problem and that is built into the equation. The second approach is risk analysis. I do not know how people decide which approach to take; to judge from published literature, the second approach is favoured in respect of OPs, but the first approach was taken by the Countess of Mar when she gave evidence to various committees. She is a brilliant advocate of the precautionary principle.

The issue is political as well as socio-economic, and public opinion has a vital role in bringing matters to the attention of Governments. The precautionary principle had to be adopted in the case of cellular masts for mobile phones because Members of Parliament were hammered by their constituents about the issue; people are suspicious about cellular phones, and especially about the masts on school buildings. The OP lobby, although it is laudable, may not yet have been voluble enough to make that kind of impact on political decisions.

In the three years since I have been a member of the all-party organophosphate group, which was formed eight years ago, the balance of the argument on OPs has been swinging towards a ban on their use, and to other methods of handling the problem of sheep, cat fleas and so on. I hope that the debate will support the argument that these harmful chemicals should be eliminated.

I welcome the Government's action on the issue. They are taking it seriously and tackling the problems, unlike the previous Administration. I urge them to take the final step and act to reduce exposure to harmful organophosphate chemicals.

9.54 am
Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) on securing the debate and on an excellent speech. He has scientific expertise that I, as a layman, certainly do not. That is one of the reasons why he and the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill), who is also present, have been such valuable members of our all-party group.

I do not have the scientific background of the hon. Member for Norwich, North, but I want to follow his definition of the precautionary principle in relation to long low-level exposure to organophosphates. My simple, layman's translation of that principle is, "If in doubt, don't". I have learned that that principle has not applied in many areas from meeting a huge number of people over the past 10 years who have been exposed to these extremely damaging chemicals.

The focus in the recent past has been on the use of organophosphates in agriculture, but they have a long history and are used in several other ways, both domestically and commercially. I want to consider the use of OPs as a lubricant in aircraft engines. The hon. Member for Norwich, North referred to that subject, but he would agree that it has not received the same attention as the agricultural use. It is worrying that some aircraft that use those lubricants are especially susceptible to problems. One of those aircraft, the BAe 146, is used by the Queen's flight, so the House will recognise that the issue is important. The health of pilots, crew and passengers could be affected.

In its evidence to the current House of Lords inquiry into aircraft cabin environment, the Aviation Health Institute —a reputable body —has admirably summed up the situation. Its document states: Passengers and crew on some aircraft are being subjected to organophosphates exposure from oil seal leaks into the air conditioning systems. The most common aircraft models involved are Airbus 320 MD-80 and the BAe 146. In the case of the latter, Professor Chris van Netten has demonstrated that filters had sometimes been overloaded allowing fumes to enter the cabin. It is known that organophosphate pesticides have a significant deleterious effect on the human immune system as well as being a neurotoxin. In the UK the DETR has confirmed that the failure of oil seals occurs in one in every 22,000 flights, resulting in organophosphate exposure. At Heathrow, where there are 440,000 aircraft movements, this could effect 20 aircraft a year or some 2,000 passengers. That is not a tiny minority. The document continues: In Australia a senate committee is investigating the neurotoxic effect of BAe 146 and lawsuits are pending in the US and Canada on leakage of organophosphates into aircraft cabins. I am in touch with the chairman of that Australian senate inquiry, whose report is imminent. He is visiting this country shortly, and I hope that he will have the opportunity to meet others of us who are concerned about the issue.

I find alarming the apparent complacency of the United Kingdom authorities. We have known for some time that those potentially lethal chemicals are used as lubricants in aircraft engines —not only fixed-wing aircraft but in helicopters. I notice from this morning's Hansard that, in the debate about the RAF Chinook crash that took place in this Chamber yesterday, the reason why pilots took the action that they did was not identified. There may be a connection with organophosphates.

Early in 1999, I obtained information from Ministers at the Department of Health and the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. Since then, we have sought assurances about the use of OP lubricants and safety precautions. Last December, I received a disturbing report from Sweden, which stated that, on 12 November, an unidentified toxic gas almost caused a catastrophe in a BAe 146 passenger aircraft operated by Braathens Malmo Aviation. The Minister may be able to correct my Swedish pronunciation, as she is a known linguist.

On the first leg of a three-part trip, the cabin attendants felt strange and experienced incredible pressure. One attendant described the experience as like a "moonwalk." On the second leg, the discomfort returned, and the two pilots experienced it too. On the third leg, to Sturrup airport, the cabin manager realised that something was seriously wrong, went forward to the cockpit before landing and found that both pilots were wearing their oxygen masks. The captain was so near to blackout, in his words: feeling dizzy and groggy despite the oxygen that he had instructed the first officer to take over the controls and land the plane.

The Swedish board of accident investigation, the airline and the aircraft engine manufacturers all treated the incident as very serious, as well they might. The initial investigation pointed to a leak of a potentially toxic engine lubricant. I was anxious to establish whether that was an OP. We already know that they were originally intended only for helicopter engines, which operate at relatively low altitudes—therefore without the air pressure problems —and at lower speeds.

That incident and others have been drawn to the attention of our Ministers, but there seems to have been no effective analysis or dissemination of information to warn aircrews and passengers. In evidence to the House of Lords, the British Air Line Pilots Association writes: Our concerns have been raised with both the CAA and the DETR, however, their response was that any such contamination could be controlled by either isolating the air conditioning unit or shutting down the affected engine. This action, however, can only be taken after exposure has occurred and this would be experienced by not just one or two individuals, but possibly all of the passengers and crew. Due to the flight safety issues raised by the symptoms of exposure such as disorientation, blurred vision, impaired memory and altered coordination, attempts have been made to address these problems worldwide. These include changes in design, maintenance and operation procedures. However, while the problem persists, exposure of staff and the public to levels of toxicants that may affect safety and health continues. Despite the flight safety issues and health risks associated with the use of toxic compounds and reported incidents of cabin air contamination, neither the Industry nor Government has fully investigated this issue. We, therefore, feel that the use of these substances should be investigated and reconsidered. I apologise for reading a long extract from that evidence, but I think that hon. Members will agree that its influence and importance are considerable, as it comes from such an authoritative source.

However, Ministers still show the most extraordinary and breathtaking complacency. As long ago as last December, I asked the Ministry of Defence and the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions to investigate the implications of the BAe incident. A Minister from the MOD replied: We have no record of any recent military aircraft incidents relating to the use of organophosphate lubricants. The organophosphate compound tricresylphosphate is present in almost all military aero-engine lubricants and, as no viable alternative products are available, appropriate measures are taken to avoid the exposure of air and ground crew to any potential health hazards. We understand that BAe systems is investigating the incident involving a civil BAe 146 aircraft on 12 November and we will consider any recommendations that emerge.—[Official Report, House of Commons, 20 December 1999; Vol. 341, c. 363W.] I will not repeat the DETR's answer, because other hon. Members want to speak, but I hope that they will accept that it is similar. Again, acute exposure high-level dosage is mentioned, but there is no recognition of the damage that can be caused to human health by low-level exposure over a long period.

What conclusions have been reached? It is now many months since the incident, and presumably there has been at least an interim report. What advice has been given to airlines that operate those planes or, indeed, those who operate the Queen's flight? Are there maintenance or flying instruction implications? Who knows? Ministers continue to disclose the minimum of information. I have again questioned them and received equally sketchy answers. I tabled written questions to ask the Secretary of State for Defence and the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions whether their reviews of the incidents involving possible organophosphate air pollution on board aircraft had reached conclusions. On 13 June, the Minister for the Armed Forces said: We have no evidence of organophosphate pollution on military aircraft affecting personnel, but we will consider carefully any conclusions from an on-going BAe Systems investigation into an incident involving a civil BAe 146 aircraft last year.—[Official Report, House of Commons, 13 June 2000; Vol. 351, c. 564W.] The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), said: The investigation of these incidents is still under review. The report will be published following its outcome. I am unable to comment until that stage has been reached.—[Official Report, House of Commons, 13 June 2000; Vol. 351, c. 555W.] The emphasis is on allowing the commercial operators or manufacturers of the aircraft or the engines to do their own research. It worries me that there is no sign of any external, objective and authoritative analysis of that incident.

In the meantime, I have received an interesting letter from BAE Systems. It does not deny any of the information that I have related, but, in a revealing phrase, it claims that the implication in a recent report that the issue is specific to the BAE 146 is inaccurate. In other words, other craft may be involved. Two wrongs, let alone 2,000 wrongs, do not make a right. There was no attempt to suggest that the media or those directly involved as air crews had encouraged the concern. BAe Systems accepted that a problem exists. Of course, it, too, awaits the outcome of the Swedish investigation.

As the hon. Member for Norwich, North said, official research reports dating back to the 1950s identify OPs as potentially extremely dangerous toxic chemicals. In concentrated form, they have been proved to have acute effects on human health. Low-level dosage over long periods is still being investigated, and I, too, pay tribute to the Government for accelerating such research in the past three years. There is widespread evidence of chronic effects in at least a substantial proportion of those exposed to OP vapour.

If the legal and official inquiries produce firm evidence that the health and safety of aircraft crews and passengers are being risked regularly by exposure to toxic fumes, the consequences will be far-reaching. This summer, tour operators, those responsible for military aircraft and perhaps the officials responsible for the Queen's household should be made aware of the facts. I hope that as soon as the current investigations are complete, the Government will produce a full report.

Investigations by the OP Information Network, an extremely effective voluntary organisation which has done much pioneering work, have revealed a hiatus at the heart of the Government. The Department of Health, the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the Health and Safety Executive, the Environment Agency and the Civil Aviation Authority do not accept responsibility for threats to human health once an aircraft has left the ground. People are on their own. A request that the application of the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 1999 be checked has remained unanswered.

The OP saga remains a chronicle of disinformation, dither and delay over many decades. The continuing failure of the United Kingdom authorities to insist on a withdrawal or moratorium on the use of OP products until they are proved to be safe will expose Ministers to renewed claims for compensation. Meanwhile, as the hon. Member for Norwich, North said, research at Imperial college London, and University college, London shows new evidence of damage to human brain and nervous systems, even from long-term low-level exposure to OP sheep dips. The many victims are now asking, "When will Ministers ever learn?"

10.9 am

Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow)

As a fellow vice-chairman of the all-party group on organophosphates, I congratulate the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) on having obtained this important debate.

I also congratulate the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler), who was the driving force behind the formation of the all-party group. I should like to voice my appreciation of all the time, effort and sheer hard work that he has put into the topic over a long period. It is rare in this place for compliments to be handed across the Chamber, but I would like to give credit where it is due, and he deserves some recognition for his work on this issue.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about OP use in relation to aircraft, and I am sure that hon. Members were interested in what he had to say. I will confine my remarks to OPs in the sheep industry, of which I have first-hand experience. Colleagues will recognise that the sheep industry is valuable and important in the Ludlow constituency.

Based on my experience and from talking to many farmers, I can say that a generation of farmers, shepherds and others involved in sheep dipping were totally unaware of the risks of using organophosphates for a long time. Although it might be feasible for the Government to claim that individual users of OPs should have taken greater steps to satisfy themselves that they used materials safely, the investigation of the past few years has shown that successive Governments have failed to impress the dangers on the users. To this day, it is emphasised that the user should take all reasonable precautions and, for example, read the instructions on the label. I shall describe in a moment how the guidance is not practical and has not had the desired effect. I shall mention some cases of people in my constituency affected by OPs.

As an officer of the all-party OP group, I welcome the decision made by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in December to put a temporary ban on the production and sale of OP sheep dips, pending the industry designing safer containers. I was surprised at the reaction of the National Farmers Union, which I gathered from the farming press was critical of Ministers' decisions. I understand why; there is no question but that OP sheep dips have been efficacious and relatively cheap. If a product that is effective and cheap is taken off the market, sheep farmers and their profit margins ߞif they have any —will obviously be affected.

I have received no representations from the NFU or individual farmers to say that the Government were wrong to make that decision. That puzzles me somewhat. I would have expected some of my sheep-farming constituents to approach me, knowing my involvement in the all-party group. The fact that I have received no such representations suggests that the majority of sheep farmers, at least in my constituency, recognise that the decision may have been right and understand the serious effect of the chemical on the health of their colleagues.

I shall quote three examples: first, the case of Mr. Evans of Lydbury North who kindly convened a meeting of farmers in my constituency who had various tales to tell about OPs. Mr. Evans believes that his health was impaired as a result of using organophosphate sheep dips, and one of his greatest difficulties was that the medical profession refused to accept that. For a long time, doctors said, "You have all the classic symptoms of Parkinson's disease. Go away and do not trouble us again." That is a common experience. One of our problems in the industry has been persuading general practitioners and others in the medical profession to accept that the symptoms displayed by sheep farmers are more likely to have been caused by the use of organophosphate sheep dips than by more conventional, recognised diseases or illnesses.

Another case involves a constituent who drank from a work mate's pop bottle on a very hot day. Unfortunately, the contents were not pop but sheep dip, which had been bottled by the farmer for use on another occasion. That case, which will shortly come to court, is technically sub judice, so I shall say only that between drinking the contents of the bottle, which my constituent thought was pop, and his life being saved in hospital a few hours later, technically the man "died" several times, because the effect of concentrated OPs on the human body is dramatic and devastating.

My next case concerns a constituent who suffers from a condition caused by low dosage absorption of OPs over a long period. The man ran a pregnancy testing service for sheep farmers. He went round farms testing the ewes to see whether they were in lamb, which helped the farmer to decide on their nutritional requirements. They need less feed if they are not in lamb and more if they are carrying twins or triplets.

My constituent operated the sheep pregnancy testing service for 10 or 11 years until he began to feel unwell. He concluded that he became ill as a result of his contact with sheep, especially their nether regions, to which the sheep dip migrates. The man possibly never saw the sheep dipped because he would be carrying out the pregnancy testing at a later, indeterminate stage. It is unlikely that he ever saw a tin of dip with the instruction on the label that Ministers are keen to tell farmers that they should have read. That man was not technically a sheep farmer or a shepherd, but he was closely involved in the sheep industry. He is convinced, as I am, having heard him speak about his experiences, that his health has been impaired because of his provision of that service.

As the hon. Member for Norwich, North has said, organophosphates potentially affect the human body in all sorts of ways. They are obviously invasive of the nervous system and there is no doubt that they affect memory. They cause intolerance to alcohol, affect muscular processes and, as the hon. Gentleman said, lead to mental health problems. There is circumstantial evidence that such health problems lead many farmers and shepherds to take their life.

People suffering from the ingestion of OPs are shy about telling others about another aspect of the symptoms. The chemicals can affect libido. Such people might not feel quite themselves. I was going to say that they might feel under the weather, but that would take us back to the pregnancy tester. Naturally, someone in that situation would not want to tell their family and local community that they had lost their sex drive. He might be thought to be rather an odd fish. We are considering just the tip of the iceberg. For that reason and others, there is great reluctance among people affected to declare their concern about the use of organophosphates.

Has the Government's reaction to OPs been proportionate? How does the action taken compare, for example, with the action on BSE or CJD? As the hon. Member for North Cornwall said, it appears to many people that there has been complacency on the issue, even though there has been so much circumstantial evidence suggesting that people's health has been seriously impaired by the use of the chemicals.

10.23 am
Dr. George Turner (North-West Norfolk)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) on introducing the debate on what is an important topic for me and my constituency because organophosphates are produced in King's Lynn.

As ever, my hon. Friend has given a balanced view of the topic. However, that is not always what we find in the media. I have been made especially aware since my election of the dangers of hype and of what I refer to as junk science. For their own reasons, the media, businesses, politicians and individual scientists sometimes wish to use faulty scientific data and, in particular, to group together chemicals that should not be grouped together. I would like to make it clear that I do not want to argue with the need for caution or that some organophosphates are not dangerous. We must not conclude that we should be frightened of using chemicals because some are dangerous, but we must be careful to act on real evidence and not to be pushed or harried by exaggeration into actions in our role as regulators that are detrimental to the wider interests of not only agriculture, but all our constituents.

This morning's debate is timely because the product that is made in King's Lynn has been in the international news. In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency, through agreements with Dow Chemical Company, has introduced changes to its regulations, which remove the single most used insecticide from the domestic market in the US and restrict its use in agriculture. I was aware that chlorpyrifos was part of an insecticide named dursban, which has been produced in King's Lynn since 1978. Last year, as a result of scare stories, I checked what was made at Dow Chemicals and looked at some of the chemicals' properties.

Chlorpyrifos is not emitted into the air during manufacture. It has low vapour pressure, and I was assured that there is no danger to those who work in the plant or to the local community from the manufacturing process. It is not listed as a human carcinogen. Extensive tests are required around the world, including in the US and Europe, and the tests for carcinoginicity, mutagenicity and teratogenic activities were all negative. Therefore, I have no concerns about my constituents who live or work near or at the plant. However, like all hon. Members, I am anxious that we should heed good science and protect consumers.

The announcement was made in the United States on 6 or 7 June. On 9 June, a press release was issued by a pressure group in the United Kingdom, demanding that Britain follow the American lead and bans the dangerous pesticide chlorpyrifos, which has been associated with brain damage…UK consumers are regularly exposed to this chemical in their diets. The press release quotes documents from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food as saying that the chemical has been found in apples, grapes, strawberries, oranges and celery. It goes on to say, New research by the US Environmental Protection Agency has shown that it can cause brain damage in rats. The pressure group comments: This filthy pesticide should be taken off the shelves at once. If it's too toxic for the US, it's too toxic for us. Next week is Food Safety Week —the Government will be telling people how to prepare their food safely. But the Government has to set an example —and make sure that food is grown safely in the first place. That sort of press release is not untypical of pretty junky science. I took the trouble to look up some of the original documents to see what was said in the press reports and by scientists about the decisions taken in the United States. I also looked at the summaries of the pesticides monitoring data published by MAFF to see what was actually said. The fear expressed in the press release is that people are regularly exposed to the chemical, are finding it in their fruit and that it must be taken away.

The independent chairman of a working group on the subject said that it was not possible to detect the pesticides in almost 99 per cent. of the samples examined. The legal limits are set so as to include large safety factors. The chairman said that none of the residues that exceeded those limits were high enough to cause concern. He said: The extremely small proportion of samples which exceeded the legal limits would not cause harm to consumers. Similarly, it has been said that the results show that consumers would be at negligible risk from the small proportion of samples where maximum residue limits were exceeded. Of course, samples that show that the legal limits have been exceeded are cause for concern, but they are not necessarily cause for panic if we have gained efficacy in the product. The reason that such products have been used for 30-odd years is that they are known to be efficient.

In looking at the US decision, I was particularly interested in an article in The Seattle Times by William O. Robertson, who was head of the Washington poison control centre for 30 years. He explained that he did not recall a single incident of dursban-caused illness. He went on to explain that that chemical was withdrawn because safety factor was piled upon safety factor. The US Environmental Protection Agency decided that it would not use human test data; it was thought to be ethically unacceptable. It decided instead to base the safety factor on animal doses. It worked out the dose that seemed to cause an effect on the animal, multiplied it by 10 for safety and then by a further factor of 10; it also took account of the size of the animal compared to humans to allow for the possibility that we might be more sensitive than the animal, and then added another factor of 10 because children might be involved. That is a safety factor of 1,000.

I know that time is pressing, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I want to balance the argument. I accept the precautionary principle, but I want to add a little common sense. A safety factor of 1,000 is leading to the removal of goods from the shelves. That may be correct, and I am happy for our regulators to consider it, but we should not automatically assume that we need a safety factor of 1,000 between what the tests show to be harmful and what we allow. There is room for debate.

For instance, I shall consider the precautionary principle in relation to the poison that I know best —alcohol. If we tested how much alcohol could be given to a dog before it became affected and then applied a safety factor of 1,000, I would not be allowed even a teaspoon of beer. That is not reasonable, because we have thousands of years of experience of alcohol. The precautionary principle depends on a degree of ignorance. It might be argued that, because children are damaged in motor vehicle accidents and exposed to risks on the roads, we should introduce a further factor of 10 as a precautionary principle and reduce the speed limit on motorways to 7 mph.

A balancing act is needed. I hope that the Government will take it seriously. Of course we must listen to what science has to say, but we must use a modicum of common sense in balancing efficacy against knowledge. We have 30 years' experience. I hope that the Government will distinguish between chemicals, consider the evidence and not be bulldozed into making decisions across broad spectrums because of the trash science that we too often read in our media.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Frank Cook)

Order. I appeal to the remaining speakers to take account of the reduced time left for Front-Bench spokesmen.

10.34 am
Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall)

Successive Governments have shown a remarkable unwillingness to act on any sort of precautionary principle in the handling of OPs. Indeed, as early as 1951, it was recommended that dye be added to organophosphate sheep dips to enable farmers to identify splashes, and that labels reading "Deadly poison" be used. What we are talking about has been known for a long time.

I believe that OP sufferers have gone for years without being properly diagnosed. General practitioners and hospitals have received little guidance in diagnosing the symptoms, and many victims have been diagnosed with different problems, such as myalgic encephalomyelitis or Parkinson's disease. It is only recently that, following the report of the Committee on Toxicity of Chemicals in Food, Consumer Products and the Environment and the recommendation of the Veterinary Products Committee, it has been decided to ban OPs pending the improvement of their containers, to prevent exposure to concentrate.

At present, no one is really winning. Farmers are suffering because of sheep scab in their flocks while OP dips are banned. More importantly, they suffer ill health after years of inadequate precautions. There seems to be no doubt that OP sheep dips are dangerous and toxic. Surely, all the evidence that has been available for some time is sufficient to conclude that the precautionary principle in some form—and I accept that there are various forms —demands protection for all those who work with OPs as well as substantial Government support for the development of alternative, and less risky, methods of preventing sheep scab in particular. Like many of my colleagues, I was a little disappointed by the failure of the Agriculture Committee's report to expose the area of need that I have outlined. By focusing chiefly on the containers issue, the Committee has deflected attention from the crucial need to investigate alternatives.

The Government have sought to deny any risk, claiming that most of the people in contact with concentrates such as OPs would have been environmental health officers, technicians or individual regimental hygiene duties personnel, who are appropriately trained in procedures and the use of equipment. However, it is clear that many people use OPs without that training and without an understanding of the precautions that are needed. Indeed, an answer to a recent parliamentary question stated: there is currently no reason to believe that Gulf veterans who might have been in casual contact with dilute pesticide…or with the malathion dust used to de-louse Iraqi prisoners of war, are at increased risk of long-term ill health. —[0fficial Report, House of Commons, 20 January 2000: Vol. 342, c. 536W.] Surely, however, the crucial word in that passage is "currently". Constant use of such language leaves the door open. The scientific jury is clearly out, and there is a need at least for further investigation of such poisoning.

What all kinds of sufferers want is real action by the Government. I have three quick suggestions. First, we should clearly and immediately adopt the precautionary principle, and Government policy should in every way possible take account of the lessons of the past when insufficient precautions have been taken. Secondly, we should undertake a scheme properly to assess the risks associated with OPs. Those are jumping up in all sorts of areas, such as aircraft lubricants, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler). There are all kinds of ways in which OPs can become a part of people's lives without their knowing about it. Thirdly, I am concerned about funding for research and development. We heard earlier about the genome project. The money available to investigate that was enormous. That is because of the enormous commercial benefits. Research and development today seem to be driven more by the commercial benefit imperative than by some other considerations such as the health of people who come into contact with chemicals.

Mr. Lembit Opik (Montgomeryshire)

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Breed

I am afraid that I do not have time.

10.39 am
Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire)

I shall be brief, to allow the Minister time to respond. I add my congratulations to those already given to the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson). This is an important debate and he has given a comprehensive presentation on this problem.

It is no surprise to me that the Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is responding to the debate. However, the issue straddles more than one Department, and the need for co-ordination between Government Departments is one message that has come out of the debate. The matter should be addressed from several different angles, not only from the MAFF perspective.

I shall restrict my comments to the MAFF decision taken in December 1999 and announced through a written answer in the Lords to withdraw all organophosphate sheep dips in response to fears that the chemicals posed a danger to human health. We should be clear that the ban is not a blanket ban on OP dip chemicals, but a withdrawal of the OP dip containers. The Government appear to be saying that OPs will be reintroduced when the containers have been redesigned to minimise operator exposure to OPs. Many anti-OP campaigners, including the Pesticides Trust, welcomed their move, as have most of this morning's speakers, but the general reaction from the agricultural community has been more hostile.

Many livestock producers believe that OP dips are the most effective means of controlling common ectoparasites on sheep, such as scab and blowfly. The alternatives are all problematic owing to lack of effectiveness, expense and time restrictions on releasing treated animals into the food chain. The main alternatives are synthetic pyrethroids, greater use of which is likely to increase resistance to parasites.

Farmers are concerned about their animals' welfare and fear the effect of worsening animal welfare on their livelihoods. Although parasitic infection may not cause premature death, there is a direct read-across from it to rate of maturation, the value of by-products such as sheepskin and increased veterinary expenses. The greatest fear is of an outbreak of scab. The hon. Member for Norwich, North said that there was little sign of that at the moment, but the use of illegally held stockpiles of OP dips may be keeping such an outbreak in check.

Although farmers are primarily concerned with the animal welfare consequences of withdrawal of OPs, concerns have also been expressed about environmental consequences. The problem lies in the lack of suitable alternatives to OPs. The Environment Agency, which monitors pollution levels in watercourses, warns of a much greater risk of groundwater pollution from the use of synthetic pyrethroids, which are the main alternative to OPs for sheep farmers. Those chemicals are 100 times more toxic to aquatic life than OPs, and pose a particular threat to invertebrate creatures that sustain larger aquatic animals such as salmon.

The Agriculture Committee report was critical of the Government and took MAFF to task over its handling of the decision. The Committee said that much of the confusion surrounding the announcement of 20 December could have been prevented if more effective procedures had been in place for consulting manufacturers, farmers' representatives and statutory agencies and for disseminating advice and information after the decision had been made public. The Committee was also clear about the consequences of the Government's actions, stating: We remain concerned that users of sheep dips are without their preferred means of combating sheep disease for the foreseeable future and there are likely to be severe economic, environmental and animal welfare implications as a result.

Mr. Richard Livsey (Brecon and Radnorshire)

Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that the horns of the dilemma are that either the chemicals used seriously damage human health or they devastate the environment? Should not objective, non-commercial research be carried out to produce new products as soon as possible to overcome both those problems?

Mr. Moss

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, but the Government are not saying that at the moment. They have acted merely because doing nothing would not have been acceptable. There are no real alternatives to OPs apart from pyrethroids. Research, not least into the effects on human health, is important in regard to every aspect of OPs.

I wish to ask the Minister several questions, some of which she might not be able to answer today; if not, I would welcome answers in writing. First, why did not MAFF Ministers consult more widely before announcing the ban on OP dips? Which organisations did the Government consult in the months between receiving the report from the Institute of Occupational Medicine and making their decision to withdraw OPs? Does MAFF have any contingency plan in the event of a major outbreak of scab occur? If MAFF intends to reintroduce OPs, will it publish a timetable for that? What advice will MAFF give farmers on alternatives to OP dips? Why did not the Government consider the environmental impact of OP withdrawal before making their announcement? Finally, will the Government accept and implement the recommendations of the Agriculture Committee?

10.46 am
The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Ms Joyce Quin)

I am pleased to respond to the debate, which is on a subject of interest and concern to many people. I begin by emphasizing that the Government take those concerns seriously. Two years ago, we initiated the most rigorous and transparent scrutiny of OPs ever undertaken.

I appreciate the way in which the debate has been conducted, beginning with the balanced introduction of my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson). He pointed to the wide-ranging nature of the debate and said that the concerns that have been expressed relate to a number of different Departments. I do not accept the criticism of the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss), who speaks for the Opposition on such issues, that we do not have a co-ordinated approach to the matter. The Government set up an official group on OPs, which is co-ordinated by my department and which reported in June 1998. Since then, all Departments with an interest have been involved —the Ministry of Defence, the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the Health and Safety Executive, the Cabinet Office, the territorial departments and so on. We are anxious to ensure co-ordination on the issue, different aspects of which come under the responsibility of different Departments, and to ensure that the matters are properly considered. The existence of the all-party group helps in that respect because it offers a way of bringing together interested members from all parties who may be interested in different aspects of the issue —that has certainly been reflected in the varied contributions that have been made this morning.

We all know that OPs are toxic chemicals, acute exposure to which has ill-health effects. The question that needs to be answered is whether long-term exposure to low levels of OPs has similarly detrimental effects —a point that was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North in his introduction. It is the question that we put to the Committee on Toxicity of Chemicals in Food, Consumer Products and the Environment —COT—in 1998. It set up a working group of the best specialists in the field, which took evidence from those with an interest in the problem, including representatives of sufferers' groups. Its report was published last November. It concluded that ill-health effects from prolonged low-level exposure to OPs remained unproven, although there is still a question about whether a small group of individuals may be especially susceptible to OPs.

The three regulatory committees that advise the Government on the subject are the Veterinary Products Committee, the Advisory Committee on Pesticides and the Committee on Safety of Medicines. We asked them to consider the implications of the report. They all advised that, on the basis of current scientific knowledge, there should be no general withdrawal of OPs from the market. However, they endorsed the need for further research to tackle the identified points of uncertainty.

Simultaneously, the Veterinary Products Committee advised us on the results of a three-year study by the Institute of Occupational Medicine in Edinburgh into sheep dippers' exposure to OPs. It suggested that the greatest hazard arose when handling the concentrated dip.

We took immediate action to implement the committees' advice through a four-point plan. First, marketing authorisation holders were required to withdraw all OP sheep dips from the market pending the introduction of modified concentrate containers designed to minimise the risk of operator exposure. Secondly, we revoked the approval for three OP pesticide compounds for which data packages had not been submitted as part of the review on OPs by the Advisory Committee on Pesticides. Thirdly, we implemented measures to promote best practice and, fourthly, we are developing a targeted research programme to implement the research recommendations of the committees. The importance of research was rightly emphasised by several hon. Members in the debate.

Many views have been expressed. The hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire mentioned the report of the Select Committee on Agriculture. The hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill) referred to concerns in his constituency and to his contact with the farming community, especially sheep farmers. He signalled the fact that there has been a mixed reaction to the Government's decision. Some people have supported it, but we know that the National Farmers Union did not welcome the procedure or the substance of the decision. Nor did other organisations such as the National Sheep Association.

Hon. Members will be aware of the views that were expressed to the Select Committee on Agriculture. It concluded that, although it did not want to dismiss the sufferings of those whose ill health had been linked to OP sheep dips, it would be of general benefit if OP sheep dip concentrates were restored to the market in suitably designed containers as soon as possible. It is fair to say, therefore, that many different views have been expressed on the subject. It is the Government's responsibility to listen to representations and to act on the basis of our scientific advice, which we have done. However, I would not underestimate the complexity of some of the issues involved, and my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North did not do so either.

Mr. Öpik

As a member of the Select Committee, I want to remind the Minister that the view expressed in the report was mainly based on the fact that at present no alternative product balances the interests of preventing sheep scab and not wrecking the environment.

Ms Quin

I understand the hon. Gentleman's point. Some products are used as alternatives; the hon. Member for Ludlow spoke about their cost and efficacy and the question of long-lasting effects in controlling the parasites and the relevant diseases. That explains many of the representations that the Government have received.

I understand that hon. Members are concerned to know whether OP sheep dips might return to the market and, if so, when. All that I can say is that we expect to receive further advice from the Veterinary Products Committee shortly, and, in common with previous practice, we shall make an announcement to Parliament before informing the marketing authorisation holders of the Government's decision.

The hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire asked several questions that were also raised in the Select Committee's report. Obviously, the Government have a responsibility to respond to that report and shall do so shortly. If that response does not answer the questions that the hon. Gentleman asked, I shall write to him and, given the interest that has been shown this morning, ensure that my letter is available in the House of Commons Library.

The precautionary principle was mentioned, and I accept that there is no universally accepted definition of the principle, either domestically or across Europe, where many such regulations are negotiated and agreed. None the less, the authorisation procedures for veterinary medicinal products and pesticides take a generally precautionary approach to risk assessment. The thrust of our precautionary approach is that exposure should be reduced well below the level that might cause problems.

The Health and Safety Executive evaluates the practicality of recommended proportions. Surveys of dipping practice and inspections have taken place, so we believe that there is evidence of improved practice. That is borne out by the fact that the number of incidents investigated has now fallen from its peak in the early 1990s. We must pay tribute to those who expressed concern about the products. Their action brought about some extra controls and extra precautions. As a result, an approach that is generally more responsible has emerged. I would not like to under-emphasise that.

The risk from pesticides was mentioned, and, in that regard, the Government's primary aim is to protect people, animals and the environment. Like veterinary medicines, all pesticides are assessed for safety in use, and no pesticide may be sold or used unless approved by Ministers. All pesticides are subject to routine review if evidence emerges about their safety. In response to public concern, our current domestic review programme has focused on the use of OP compounds.

I shall briefly refer to the research programme that we are undertaking. Hon. Members present, particularly those in the all-party group, are familiar with the research programme, but the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Livsey) asked about research into alternatives to dips, and I feel that neither he nor the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire recognised the work that we are doing.

We are funding a major programme of research into alternative strategies for controlling sheep scab, costing £1.6 million. The projects include basic studies on the biology of the scab mite, aimed at identifying aspects of the mite's physiology that could be targets for alternative control methods. They could include vaccines, fungi pathogenic to the mites, means of altering the allergic response of the sheep or means of interfering with the mite's feeding process. It is important that hon. Members recognise that the Government are focusing on that and are keen to deal with the issue seriously

I welcome the fact that this debate has taken place. Ministers in other Departments who are interested in the subjects raised will be aware of it, but I shall draw their attention to the comments made by hon. Members about the responsibility of other Departments. I hope that, in attempting to answer at least some of the questions that have been asked, I have persuaded hon. Members that the Government are dealing with the issue with the utmost seriousness.

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