§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Maclean.]
§ 10 pm
§ Mr. Martyn Jones (Clywd, South West)
No doubt the Minister is aware of my early-day motion 143. That briefly puts the case and, with supporting amendments, now has the signatures of more than 117 right hon. and hon. Members. The toxicity of lindane and of pentachlorophenol is well known and well documented in this country and abroad. I quote from information supplied by the Royal Society of Chemistry on lindane alone:Lindane—or to give it its proper name: the gamma isomer of hexachlorocyclohexane … sometimes called benzene hexachloride—produces signs of poisonings that resemble those produced by DDT, ie tremors, ataxia, convulsions and prostration, with stimulated respiration. Violent tonic and clonic convulsions occur in severe cases of acute poisoning. Fatty changes in the liver and kidney tubule degeneration have been noted in fatal cases.As to lindane's carcinogenic, teratogenic and mutagenic properties, the society comments:Epidemiologic studies have not demonstrated associations between DDT exposure and cancer in humans. There was a review in 1976 of the program on the evaluation of the carcinogenic risk of chemicals to humans of the International Agency for Research on Cancer … Ten of the ninety-four chemicals, which the agency had determined to be carcinogenic on experimental animals only, were pesticides. These included Lindane.As to systemic toxicology,In animal tests, Lindane causes convulsions. In a study in 1976 this effect was produced by a single topical application of 1 per cent. Lindane on weaning rabbits. Since topical Lindane is used in treatment of scabies, the production of convulsions by this route of application is of significance. Lindane has also been reported to have an effect on host defence mechanisms.On toxic responses of the immune system, the Royal Society of Chemistry comments:Insecticides examined for immunotoxicity in rodents can be grouped into three general classes. Lindane belongs in the general class of the organochlorine insecticides.There is also some evidence that lindane affects female
For those reasons, many countries have restricted lindane, and the United States of America has banned its use in the home. In 1976, it cancelled permits for products containing lindane in vapourisers for indoor usage, such as smoke fumigation devices. America also cancelled registrations and denied applications for registrations of lindane-containing products for all uses unless labels giving statements for each application are used. In addition, at least 16 countries restrict lindane's use. They include Argentina, Bulgaria, Canada, Cyprus, West Germany, Finland, Hungary, Israel, Japan, New Zealand, Philippines, Singapore and Yugoslavia. France has also almost banned PCP.
The connection between aplastic anaemia and lindane is perhaps circumstantial, but it was mooted as long ago as 1965 in an American study entitled, "Aplastic Anaemia Following Exposure to Benzine Hexachloride (Lindane)". In cases involving an eight-year-old girl and a 52-year-man, a connection was established between the use of lindane in smoke pellets, which is a use within the home, and a high concentration risk. I believe that that certainly had a bearing on its prohibition in America.
Aplastic anaemia is a rare disease, but all the textbooks relate its occurrence to exposure to radiation and one 252 exotic chemical or another, and at least one authority quotes lindane as possibly such a chemical. I have had letters from many people throughout the country who suspect they have suffered from the effects of these chemicals—anecdotal evidence, but taken together, constituting weighty circumstantial evidence.
I submit that, as many countries have already banned or severely restricted the use, of lindane, it is anomalous for us to continue to permit its use. It is not that there are no alternatives. Several large timber treatment firms have already responded to public and medical concern by abandoning pentachlorophenol lindane and another suspect chemical—TB 10—in spray treatments. They use permethrin or cidomethrin, a pyrethrin-based compound, which is currently considered the least suspect chemical. I say "least suspect" because all these treatments are, after all, designed to be harmful to some form of life. This one is perhaps not so long lasting, and, at present, building societies insist on 30-year guarantees. I am sure that the industry would prefer not to have to offer such a lengthy guarantee, because it forces them to use chemicals that remain in the environment too long.
One way of putting the matter right might be for the building societies to be discouraged from making such environmentally damaging demands. I submit that it would be more sensible to have a 10-year guarantee and relative safety. I at least believe that people are more important than the protection of investments.
It was the very insistence of building societies that drew the problem to my attention in the first instance. In my constituency a young boy was subjected to this chemical after his parents' house, which was bought with a mortgage, was sprayed by a firm that used lindane and PCP. The boy was affected after three or four weeks, and it was only later that his parents realised that his condition had been caused by this chemical. Fortunately he survived the experience, although he is still His is not the only case that I know of. The only reason he is not in worse health—and I hope that it will continue to improve—is that he was moved out of the house. Of course, that caused problems for his parents. They now have to live apart, which imposes a financial burden on them.
The Under-Secretary of State for Employment will be replying on behalf of the Government, although I suspect that his Department is not necessarily entirely responsible for this matter. That is another facet of the problem, for, while the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 covers workers in this and other situations in which these chemicals are used, it specifies that people working with them should have respirators and gloves.
It specifies also that when wood treated with the chemicals is used for fabrication, the chemicals should be allowed to evaporate in the open air for a number of weeks. If these rules are properly enforced, the people who work in the industry are probably at little risk, but that does not help the poor residents of houses that have had remedial woodworm treatment. They have no protection and are exposed to very high levels 24 hours a day. Indeed, the Building Research Establishment has discovered that maximum levels are reached after four weeks. It is fair to assume from that that the high levels are maintained for a matter of months, and it is certainly not safe for people to enter after two days, as woodworm treatment packages recommend at present. I am sure that the Minister has 253 considered that point, and I hope that he will be prepared to exact some action from his colleagues in other Departments.
This loophole desperately needs plugging. It is ludicrous that lindane cannot be sprayed when bats are present because, not surprisingly, they die, while humans can legitimately be exposed for indefinite periods to chemicals that are extremely dangerous to susceptible individuals.
I have a wealth of material on the subject with me and could go on for hours, but I will leave it at that and allow the hon. Member for Norfolk, North-West (Mr. Bellingham) to add his comments.
§ Mr. Henry Bellingham (Norfolk, North-West)
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Clwyd, South-West (Mr. Jones) for allowing me five minutes of his Adjournment debate. He has made an extremely powerful case.
I became involved because a constituent of mine, Mr. Eric Riley, died in January 1988 in tragic circumstances. The Rileys bought an old pub in Kings Lynn called The Old Town Wall House, in Wyatt street. The Elizabethan building required a tremendous amount of work. Being DIY enthusiasts the Rileys did much of it themselves, but they also called in professionals to treat the timber beams. The professionals applied lindane and PCP.
Within days both Rileys began to feel ill. They suffered from headaches, flu-like symptoms and stomach upsets. Eric Riley, as well as working in the house, was sleeping in a room whose beams had been recently treated. The professionals who treated them had said that it was perfectly in order for the couple to move into the room within a week or so, so that is what they did.
About four months later, in April, Mr. Riley was no better. He collapsed from an epileptic fit, after which his health deteriorated steadily. He also suffered from appalling memory loss. The sad saga—a catalogue of health deterioration—culminated in his death in January 1988. All the evidence points to his having died as a result of exposure to lindane and PCP.
Like the hon. Member for Clwyd, South-West I have received many letters from people throughout the country who have heard about our EDM and the enormous concern felt by hon. Members. Those who have written have related similar cases—similar incidents, a similar pattern of health deterioration and in some instances death.
We should like these products to be banned as they are in other countries. As the hon. Member for Clwyd, South-West pointed out, there are alternatives on the market. One company, Cuprinol—based in Frome—has removed lindane and PCP from its manufacturing process, substituting other products. It is not as though those chemicals have to be used in wood preservatives.
If my hon. Friend the Minister feels that he cannot act to ban these products, they must be withdrawn pending a full investigation. I also urge my hon. Friend as strongly as I can to play a part in bringing in a centralised system to co-ordinate reports of pesticide poisoning. We also need an independent body to monitor such poisoning: at present we have no such mechanism.
The problem cuts across a number of Departments. As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, at present the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food answers for the Advisory 254 Committee on Pesticides, which, I understand, is carrying out a report on lindane at present. The Department of Health is involved, as is his own Department, through the Health and Safety Executive. It is regrettable that there is not one Minister to co-ordinate or control these matters. If the Government are to be taken seriously in terms of concern for consumers, concern for the environment and concern for green issues, they must get a grip of this problem.
We are not discussing salmonella or listeria, from which the weakest in the community may die, but healthy young people who have died as a result of exposure to these chemicals. The medical evidence is overwhelming. I urge the Minister to play a part in trying to make some of the running on this issue. If he feels that he cannot go as far as I would like, he can, at least play a part in bringing in the measures suggested by the hon. Member for Clwyd, South-West which are reasonable and which the Minister could co-ordinate and see through. I support the hon. Gentleman entirely and hope that a senior Minister will soon stand up and announce positive action.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Patrick Nicholls)
I want first to thank the hon. Member for Clwyd, South-West (Mr. Jones) for the way in which he introduced the debate. He has brought before the House a matter of great seriousness, which was reflected in the support that his early day motion has attracted. I am grateful for the opportunity to put the facts before the House.
We have been given a somewhat alarming picture of death and disease, but on present evidence, wood preservatives used in this country, providing they are used in the correct way, do not present a hazard to health. All pesticides are, by their nature, active against living organisms and hence their use can pose a potential risk both to health and to the environment. It is therefore particularly important that all users follow the required safety precautions. Provided that this is done, there is no evidence to suggest that the wood preservatives in use generally present any threat to human health.
First, I want to set out the measures that the Government have introduced to control pesticides and that will explain to the hon. Gentleman why it is appropriate that I should be standing at the Dispatch Box even if, as an Under-Secretary of State for Employment, my relevance is not immediately apparent.
Under the Control of Pesticides Regulations 1986, wood preservatives and other pesticides require approval before they can be advertised, supplied, sold or used. That is given jointly by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment and Ministers in five other Departments, including the Department of the Environment. My right hon. Friends are advised on this by the independent Advisory Committee on Pesticides. It consists of a number of eminent scientists and experts drawn from research establishments, universities and medical colleges. Before approval, all productss have to be thoroughly tested using recognised scientific procedures and the data from those tests are then assessed by the committee.
Approval to put a product on the market will be given only if it can be used without risk to people, livestock, domestic animals and the environment. All products must 255 be properly labelled, setting out the correct conditions for use, which include appropriate safety precautions and warnings. The way in which these products are then used is invariably subject to the general provisions of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974. That means that employers have to ensure that employees carrying out the work are safe. Employees have to follow the instructions of use carefully and take all possible precautions to protect others who may be affected. Those are powerful and wide-ranging provisions.
I recognise that there has been considerable publicity in recent months over wood preservatives. The Health and Safety Executive has been looking into cases reported in the media where allegations have been made of ill health caused by wood preservatives. I am sure that hon. Members will understand that, before a judgment can be made on such incidents, all the relevant scientific information—including possible exposure to other hazardous substances—must be available, but it is not always easy to ensure that.
However, where it has been possible fully to establish the facts, no firm evidence has emerged of properly used wood preservatives containing lindane, PCP or TBTO causing harm to human beings. The executive's inspectors and doctors in its employment medical advisory service carry out investigations into all individual cases of suspected pesticide poisoning which are notified.
The results of those investigations are considered by the pesticides incident appraisal panel, entered into a national computer database and published annually. The advisory committee on pesticides is currently considering whether there are any ways in which the system of reporting pesticide incidents may be further co-ordinated or improved.
The hon. Member particularly mentioned the tragic case in his own constituency of a local schoolboy who developed aplastic anaemia. That case is distressing and clearly the possible causes of the serious condition must be investigated. I know that it has been suggested that the condition might have been caused by the treatment of his house with wood preservatives. But again I have to tell the House that the weight of scientific knowledge does not support the case that lindane, an ingredient in wood preservatives, is the cause of aplastic anaemia.
My hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, North-West (Mr. Bellingham) made a powerful contribution, drawing on knowledge of a case in his constituency concerning the Riley family. I appreciate the concern that he feels for his constituents. If I heard him aright, he said that medical evidence overwhelmingly points to the fact that people suffer in the way he described because of pesticides. I do not know about the case of which he has spoken. If he gives me details I will look into it. When he said that the overwhelming medical evidence is that these pesticides are causing the types of illness that he described, my understanding is that the medical evidence does not point in that direction.
Lindane has been extensively used in agriculture, medicine, forestry and wood preservation on a worldwide basis for almost 40 years. It is one of the most widely studied of all chemicals and the weight of evidence suggests that wood preservatives containing lindane are safe if used in accordance with the required conditions of 256 approval. The possibility that is may cause aplastic anaemia or other blood disorders has been studied by a number of national and international expert committees, but none has been able to identify a clear relationship.
The advisory committee on pesticides reviewed all the scientific evidence on lindane in 1981. It concluded that current evidence did not confirm that is should be considered carcinogenic and recommended that is should continue to be approved as an ingredient in wood preservatives. However, due to public concern about the risks to human health. In 1988 the committee recommended that all uses of lindane should be reviewed again. That review has now started.
The hon. Member for Clwyd, South-West also referred to PCP, another active ingredient in wood preservatives. It has also been widely used in wood preservatives for many years. Concern has been expressed about the dioxins which may be produced during the manufacturing process and which may be present in PCP as impurities. In fact, PCP is not manufactured in Great Britain, but all PCP used here is required to comply with a detailed specification which strictly controls the level of dioxin impurities. The available evidence does not justify greater restrictions being placed on PCP than at present, but it is now being looked at again within the European Community. Of course the Government are taking a full part in those discussions.
In recent years there has also been international evidence indicating that TBTO, used in anti-fouling paints on boats, could seriously affect marine life and aquatic systems. Strict controls have therefore been placed on the use of TBTO in such paints. Although there is no clear evidence that the use of TBTO in wood preservatives presents a threat to human health, the Advisory Committee on Pesticides is nevertheless undertaking a review of this substance.
I know that environmental groups have expressed concern in the light of recent studies which have indicated that wood preservatives containing lindane are toxic to bats. The Advisory Committee on Pesticides is examining the issue of wood preservatives and bats in greater detail and a working group of scientists will be reporting to the committee. In the meantime, the Health and Safety Executive has specified that timber treatments containing lindane must be labelled "Dangerous to Bats".
The hon. Member has raised the question of the health of those employed to treat timber in situ using wood preservatives. Again I concede that it is a very important issue. Although the precautions to be taken when using a wood preservative appear on the container label, the Health and Safety Executive has also prepared a guidance note on the subject. It reinforces the precautions and gives general advice to professional users, including builders, on all aspects of the safe use of preservatives. The executive plans to publish that in the next month or two.
The note outlines the need for a thorough site survey and gives advice on the selection of the treatment necessary, which may not always involve the use of pesticides. If wood preservatives are needed, the note suggests that assessment is necessay to select which approved pesticide should be used. The choice should be based on that which offers the lowest risk to the health and safety of users, members of the public, domestic animals, wildlife and the environment generally.
The note also advises on the training necessary for professional users of wood preservatives and identifies the 257 hazards which may arise in the workplace when wood preservatives are used. In particular, it gives advice on the control measures necessary to r otect users and the actions which should be taken to protect the occupants of any premises being treated. The hon. Gentleman also referred to the standard of controls elsewhere. He is, of course, right to say that where other countries have placed restrictions on the use of certain substances we should take note and assess whether we should take similar action ourselves. On the other hand, if we consider that more stringent controls than those currently in place elsewhere are necessary, we should not hesitate to take the lead in introducing them.
The House should know that most European Community countries allow both lindane and PCP to be used in wood preservatives, subject to certain restrictions. The exception is France, which is not thought to place any restriction on wood preservatives whatsoever. In the United Kingdom, of course, our restrictions are set out in the regulations to which I referred earlier.
Another very important step is that the Government have approached the European Commission with a proposal that controls on the use of wood preservatives should be standardised throughout the European Community. Those proposals are currently under discussion.
§ Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse (Pontefract and Castleford)
Does the Minister appreciate that in a recent answer, I was told by a Minister that in excess of 200 people a year—including many young people—were dying of aplastic anaemia? Are there any records available to identify whether among those 200—including a young, fit man of 19 in my constituency—were people working with the chemicals to which the hon. Gentleman has referred?
§ Mr. Nicholls
I cannot recall having given that answer myself to the hon. Gentleman. [Interruption.] I am grateful to him for clarifying that my memory on that point is correct. Obviously, it is a point that he will want to take up with the right hon. or hon. Friend of mine who gave him that answer. Tonight I am trying to set out the known medical position. Clearly, if he takes the matter up with my right hon. or hon. Friend, he will receive an answer.
In conclusion, I would emphasise that many of the allegations about wood preservatives in current use are anecdotal and on examination prove to be groundless. Nevertheless, as I have said, there is already an extensive control regime in operation in the United Kingdom, and the advisory committee on pesticides is further reviewing lindane and TBTO.
Discussions about PCP are taking place within the European Community, and the Government have proposed across the board controls on the use of wood preservatives throughout the European Community.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and to my hon. Friend for providing the opportunity for this debate.
Of course, it would be premature to judge the outcome of the reviews being undertaken by the advisory committee on pesticides or the European Community. Nevertheless, the Government will continue to keep the situation under review and will make their decision based on a scientific assessment of the facts.
We shall not hesitate to take appropriate action if any new and significant evidence becomes available.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at twenty-seven minutes past Ten o'clock.