§ 7.59 p.m.
§ LORD O'HAGAN rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what action they propose in order to protect children (and also adults) against harm from lead derived from petrol and other sources. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I feel that after such a serious and intensive afternoon and early evening the Unstarred 727 Question in my name on the Order Paper is rather a descent, but I hope to prove that there is quite a connection between what we have been talking about earlier and this rather narrower Question.
§ I should like to give the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, two promises: first, I will attempt to restrict my remarks to under one-third of the length of the speech of his noble friend Lord Drumalbyn; secondly, that I will study all that he says with the greatest of interest because this debate has been organised in cooperation with him and his Ministry, both as to the date and as to terms of the Unstarred Question.
§ I should like to make two disclaimers. First of all, I should like to make it quite clear—and I am sure it will become clear—that I am not a scientist, a chemist or even a doctor, and if the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, finds faults in the advocacy that I shall be trying to lay before him, I am sure he will not discount the validity of my cause for the weakness of its advocacy. Secondly, there are emotional overtones in the wording of my Motion. It is a subject which arouses emotion, but I shall do my best to keep emotion in its proper place.
§ We have been talking about energy and the use of energy. This debate is in part about the clash between the interest of human beings and the interest of the great industries such as the oil industry, the lead mining industry and other great international multi-national concerns. So although we must not become romantic or sentimental, we are trying to help the Government decide with more precision and justice whether it is fair that Shell should have greater profits if it means that so many more children will receive an overdose of lead when young and suffer permanent and irredeemable brain damage. This ought to be in the back of our minds when we are thinking about the subject that we are talking about to-night.
§ Lead is not some new, crazy fad invented by the Friends of the Earth, or some other ecological propaganda pressure group; it is an old, old hazard known to the lead miners who have been in this country since Roman times, and there is an old, old word, "Saturnism" for lead poisoning. As lead builds up in the body it flows around 728 the bloodstream and collects, and it is very difficult to get rid of it.
§ I hope that the Government will be able to give me to-night, or on some other occasion, a breakdown of the figures of the use of lead in industry to-day in this country, how much comes into the country, how much we get from our own resources, and some estimation of whether in all cases it is certain that this lead could not be replaced by something else. This is what we should like to know. I have given an indication of the seriousness of the subject of lead in human beings, but it appears that the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, does not take it quite as seriously as the Lancet. In a letter to me recently, the noble Lord rather pooh-poohed an article which claimed to demonstrate an association between blood lead levels in children and hyper-activity. It may well be that the Government have information available to them that can disprove the collective wisdom of the Lancet, because now this matter has been taken up in editorial form in the Lancet. We should like to know what information the Government have that makes them so confident that the Lancet is not right on this point about an association between hyperactivity and blood lead levels in children. What are the Government doing regarding this, if anything?
§ One of the magic formulae, which is thrown about when one is discussing lead with people, whether they be chemists, doctors or ordinary members of the public like myself, is the threshold level at which lead becomes dangerous—the threshold beyond which is potential clinical poisoning. The Government stick to the old figure of the World Health Organisation. Why do they believe that that figure is correct? What justification is there for continuing to believe that figure? Some people can keep lead in their bodies, while others who take in just the same amount can get rid of it all. I may be a low lead excreter, while the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, may be very fortunate and dispose of all his lead and therefore not be creating a problem for himself in that way. What views have the Government on the World Health Organisation's figure for the clinical threshold for lead poisoning?
§ LORD PLATT
My Lords, may I intervene? I am not quite sure which figures 729 the noble Lord is referring to. Are these for adults?
§ LORD O'HAGAN
My Lords, the figure I have heard discussed most is 80 microgrammes per 100 millilitres, which I believe refers only to adults. On the subject of lead in petrol, which is the subject in Government circles that causes such continuous hilarity that the noble Lord, Lord Mowbray and Stourton, is usually asked to answer my Questions on it, can the Government tell me whether there is any need for lead in petrol? Is it not just an excuse for petrol companies to be sloppy in their refining process so that when they have not done their job properly they can just put in an amount of lead to top up the octane, and there they are?
Are the Government aware that in America there is now a commercially successful company making lead-free petrol, which costs only three cents more per gallon? Lead-free petrol is soon going to be compulsory in California; it will be compulsory in Japan by 1975, and has been compulsory in Russia for many years. Are people here more lead resistant than people in those territories? Perhaps the noble Lord can tell me whether he has studied the bad side effects that lead has on engines. I was lucky enough to be given an interesting document recently. We are always told how necessary lead is for engines. But for some reason on September 25, 1972, the Airworthiness Division of the Civil Aviation Authority had to issue an airworthiness notice because the supply of lead-free aviation gasolene was going to be discontinued. It had to warn the people who were responsible for safety of aeroplanes of all the dangers and difficulties that would now be caused because of the lead in petrol.
The possible effects of lead were: inlet valve head burning; exhaust valve erosion; valve sticking; spark plug erosion and fouling by lead deposits; piston rings sticking; and lead deposits in the oil. One of the by-products of lead being there was that chlorine was produced. Chlorine is very corrosive and, under severe conditions, can lead to exhaust valve failures. Not only is lead had for people, it is bad for engines. Lead inhibits combustion. If you are going to have lead in your petrol in order to be lazy about refining it, you have to put in 730 something else as well otherwise the engine will not work properly. One of the things you put in petrol in order to make the engine work has a by-product that may be familiar to your Lordships—it is called hydrochloric acid. By having lead in petrol you are creating hydrochloric acid in the car engine, and your car rots much quicker, which is very convenient for the car manufacturers. They are delighted to proclaim the continued need for lead in petrol because it means that they will sell more cars.
What reasons have the Government for retaining any lead in petrol? Are they aware that the air pollution unit of the Medical Research Council, the unit which is held up to so much criticism, has produced figures to show that up to 10 per cent. of the material emitted from the exhausts of cars is in organo-lead form? Organo-lead was one of the materials considered by the Germans and ourselves as an agent of chemical warfare. Does the noble Lord consider that we ought to be subjected to this chemical just because it is convenient for the refiners to be sloppy?
There has been much disagreement about how much lead is floating around in the air, how much of that lead derives from petrol and how much of the lead in the air actually goes into our lungs. I shall not venture into that dangerous territory; but whether or not the lead goes directly into our lungs, it certainly settles on plants, on rubbish, on sewage farms, which are collecting sludge and spreading it so that there is lead all over the countryside. Above all, the lead collects in household dust, where it builds up. Household dust is liable to get into all sorts of places—into cooking pots, washing-up water and, of course, into children's mouths. Certain research the noble Lord knows of has shown that in some houses in Birmingham there are up to 5,000 parts per million of lead. After a number of years that would build up in the body into quite a substantial proportion of lead. I should like to ask the noble Lord how he views this state of affairs, what he is going to do about it and whether the Government intend just to wait until the connection between lead in petrol, lead in air and lead in people is actually established. Would it not be possible for us to deal with 731 household dust, for example, which is a question so relevant to children?
We have grounds for concern, because the Government's action so far against lead in petrol represents one of the most blatant of public relations exercises that Mr. Peter Walker has indulged in. It was announced that after a period of years a maximum number of grammes of lead per litre of petrol would be allowed, taking as the starting figure (from which we would descend) the figure of grammes per litre which had not been used in this country since 1966. The final point was given as 0.45 grammes per litre, which was only one pip below the average amount occurring in petrol in 1970, when it was 0.46. So that after the grand fanfare of trumpets and the great unfurling of Government plans, and after many trials and tribulations, we would reach a point which was 0.01 better than we had in 1970. I submit that we really must have proof of the Government's concrete concern on this subject.
I confess to the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, that with the assistance of the intrepid Michael Palmer in the European Parliament I went in for a little guerrilla activity, because I found out there was to be an E.E.C. directive on the subject of lead in petrol. I had hoped to produce this directive to your Lordships' House to-night in order to chastise the noble Lord and the Government. Unfortunately, I can only describe the proposed directive in three words: knock-kneed, feeble and imprecise. If the Government are to be influencing the direction in which the E.E.C. is leading us, I think that would be a bad thing. I should like to ask the Minister whether he would tell us what part his Department played in putting together that directive; whether they shared in its creation, and what the Government's views are on its present state.
My Lords, I have almost finished; but there is one further controversy that concerns me. There are signs that there may be a connection between lead in people and behavioural disorder. This is a wide subject, and the Home Office is already looking at it. Can the noble Lord tell us whether his Department is considering it and, if so, in what way? I have concentrated on lead in petrol, not necessarily because this is the most important part of my Unstarred Question but because it 732 illustrates in capsule form so many of the difficulties one comes across when trying to disentangle this subject from the interests of business, and particularly big business. All the heavy metals give one cause for concern, and there are a great many people who are concerned about them.
Before I sit down I should like to mention something to prove to the Minister that he will have to take positive action and go on thinking about this problem, because ever since Avonmouth this is not just a crank's subject or a scientist's subject. All over the country are conservation society groups and local groups interested in this subject, and I have one paper, issued to-day by the Reading and District branch of the Conservation Society, containing a whole series of warnings about various forms of metal, particularly heavy metal, pollution.
I do hope the Minister will take this cue to give us evidence of the Government's research and plans which have been put into operation since Mr. Walker issued his list of research projects last year. I hope I have been neither imprecise nor over-emotional, but I believe this to be a subject which is not only relevant to those people who are interested in lead but also indicative of the complications that the Government must resolve when trying to disentangle the interests of the individual citizen from the commercial interests of big multi-national corporations.
§ 8.17 p.m.
§ BARONESS SUMMERSKILL
My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord O'Hagan, for raising this very important matter to-night. I ask him not to apologise for feeling emotional. I have been in Parliament long enough to hear serious matters raised late at night by one or two people because they have felt that insufficient attention has been paid to them by various Governments, whether of the Right or the Left. I have lived long enough to see at some subsequent date a spokesman for the Government of the day announcing that the law will be changed to enable the problem, probably raised a few years earlier, to be tackled in an energetic way. That is what I am really asking for to-night.
I suppose I have not felt quite strongly about lead, though, as a doctor, I realised 733 its appalling potential dangers. That is why I put down a Question last November, and then I realised that the Government were dragging their feet. I realised that a few miles from this House there was dust on the pavements which was impregnated with lead, and children were playing in that dust. After a lapse of a year when the workers in the factory had been examined, during which time local mothers had been taking their children to the local doctors, suddenly officialdom woke up to the fact that those children must be suffering from lead poisoning. After feet had been dragged for a long period, suddenly the children and their parents were removed from the infected area. The noble Lord need not apologise for being emotional: not at all. It is an emotional matter, and I am going to ask in a moment what information is available about those children and what progress has been made.
We are talking about a subject which, as the noble Lord quite rightly said, has been known for hundreds of years. For all those years lead poisoning has been traced to lead in water and pipes: this has been regarded as a health hazard for hundreds of years. Here we are in the 20th century asking that the Government should be more active in protecting the people against the ingestion and inhalation of lead. There has been a great deal of work on the subject. I am sorry to say that much of it does not stem from this country; nevertheless there has been much work which indicates the serious nature of the problem, for rises in blood lead might be associated with biochemical abnormalities in the developing brain of the human infant. Papers have been written directing attention to a causative role for lead in some cases of mental deficiency in children; and there is no doubt that biochemical changes may manifest themselves in those exposed to lead poisoning in industry, where lead can be absorbed through the lungs or through the alimentary tract.
I do not come here to-night as an expert on lead; I come because, as a doctor and as a politician, I believe that there is a problem which should have been tackled long ago but which at the moment is more or less neglected, although I understand that during, perhaps, the last Year there has been more activity in the Department than there has 734 been for many years previously. I understand that the inhalation of dust containing lead is a far more potent cause of poisoning than is the absorption through the digestive tract. It has been recognised for years that lead poisoning in infants has followed the playing with lead toys, the sucking of toys and of cots covered with paint, and that in children—and children are mentioned in this Question—the serious symptoms are mainly neurological and encephalitic. If only some of these things were associated with a rash! I remember in the 'thirties I used to say that I wished malnutrition was associated with a rash and then it would be diagnosed. Similarly, if the effects of lead were associated with a rash in children it would be diagnosed. However, as I have said, the effect is mainly neurological, and therefore it is possible for many of the symptoms to be missed.
I have mentioned the Question that I tabled on November 29 last. I was very disturbed then to hear what was happening a few miles from here in London, in the very heart of Britain. I learned that these deposits of dust which contained lead had been found and that it was believed that they had been there for a very long time. Inevitably they had to be traced. They were traced to H. J. Enthoven—I like to put his name again in Hansard—who was a lead merchant in the neighbourhood. I was shocked at the apparent ignorance of officialdom of the danger to the children, despite the report of the Royal Society on the Birmingham survey, which stated that in individual cases of dust there was as much as 3 per cent. of lead and that this was a hazard to children's health, and particularly a risk of brain damage.
Although that firm had been suspect for a year, during which time the workers in the factory had been examined and subsequently whole families had to he removed from the vicinity, we are told in the report on the matter that the firm had voluntarily closed until filters had been fitted. Voluntarily! There must have been officials, but I am afraid not enough officials were sent there to make an examination. It must have been clear that this was a glaring case of mismanagement. Surely this firm should have been compulsorily closed before it risked permanently damaging the health 735 of children. When the Government assume the curious kind of attitude that they have assumed, rather of being contemptuous of those who have written papers on the subject, it must be difficult for them to answer that question. They knew that the workers were being examined, they knew that the level of lead in the blood was high; they knew that all around this factory was dust and that children were playing there; and then, finally, after all that, they did not compulsorily close the factory. I should like to know how many factories there are in the country which are potential poisoners by lead of children in the neighbourhood, as it has been proved is the case of this factory.
The noble Lord, Lord Sandford, was the second Government spokesman to answer questions on lead last November. The first spokesman for the Government treated the whole matter lightly, and I was very glad when, on the second day, the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, arrived and I said I was glad that he was going to deal with the subject in this House. I am equally glad that he is here dealing with the matter to-night. I hope he will appreciate the seriousness of the Question that I tabled on that first day, when I quoted from an American source regarding the hazards of lead poisoning. I recall that the Government spokesman then seemed unimpressed, as though a scientist in the United States of America really could not be taken as seriously as a scientist in this country. I can now feel—I am informed—that perhaps the Government are now taking a little more interest in the subject; but until that happens, in any field of science we must take notice of eminent authorities in other countries, particularly in the United States of America, where they spend colossal sums in scientific research. Whereas I was rather shocked on that first day when, on quoting an American scientist, the spokesman for the Government said, "Well, that comes from an American source", it seems to me that the attitude has now changed. I hope the Government will consider the information concerning the behavioural effects of lead, which has been mostly obtained from animal experiments and from psychological studies in the United States of America of children accidentally poisoned 736 by lead in infancy. That is the kind of research we want.
Although it is known that lead is released to the environment from petrol, we are still left in the dark about its real effects, and I should like the Minister to tell the House what warnings are repeatedly given to the public regarding the potential dangers. If we cannot report on scientific research on the subject in any detail in this country, at least we know that lead in petrol is a danger, and I should like to know what warnings are being given. After all, no warnings were being given in the Enthoven factory. Those women who were going to the general practitioners in the neighbourhood of the Enthoven factory for a year or two with sick children were not given warnings, and the general practitioners were not given warnings that there might be lead in the atmosphere. What warnings are now given to the public in the country?
In adults most of the toxic effects disappear on removal from exposure, or by treatment, but in children, particularly those under five, the effect on the central nervous system and on behaviour constitutes a serious hazard. The House I hope will forgive me if I quote Americans, because it seems to me that they are the most important source of information. The outstanding contribution on the subject was made by R. K. Byers and E. E. Lord in the American Journal of Diseases of Children in 1943. They were the first to recognise the serious behavioural and educational abnormalities which can follow lead poisoning in children. Similar findings have been reported by other researchers and it seems agreed that at least 25 per cent. of the survivors of a childhood episode of lead encephalopathy suffer permanent brain damage; with a second episode, the incidence of permanent brain damage approaches 100 per cent. Perhaps it will now be understood by the House why it was necessary hastily to remove the families, particularly the children, bag and baggage from the environment of the Enthoven factory in Southwark last year. If the House will consider that, it will realise that it was near criminal to have left those children in those conditions while it was known that the workers in the factory had a high lead content in their blood.
737 I should like to know—and I think that this is very important, because the Government cannot say that they do not have material to examine now—whether the condition of these children is being carefully investigated, whether they are being carefully followed up, and whether we may expect a periodic report on their health. Unwittingly these poor unfortunate children were acting as guineapigs. Now that we know that their blood lead level was high, I should like to know when we can expect a report on the health of those children who have been removed.
Byers and Lord emphasised that the severity of the long-term brain damage was not clearly related to the severity of the original lead poisoning symptoms. The National Academy of Sciences of America pointed out that childhood attacks of symptomatic lead poisoning can produce in a child hostile, aggressive and destructive behaviour patterns. In view of that important research, why have the Government failed to act more vigorously? They have simply proposed to reduce the limit of lead allowed in petrol from 0.84 grams per litre, the present limit, to 0.45 in 1976. One reason why I feel very strongly about this is because Britain has always been regarded as a leader in the field of public health. Smaller countries in the world have looked to Britain for a lead and she has generally given it. Yet the standards I have quoted are the lowest prescribed by any of the six countries which have already declared their intention to reduce the amount of lead in petrol. We are at the bottom of the league and we should be at the top in this matter. We have the highest vehicle density in the world and surely we should he leading, not following, countries with lesser problems than our own in this field.
Of course, I know that the excuse will be that the information available on the subject in this country is limited. If that is so, it is our fault and nobody else's. I would say that the essential information is known; namely, that lead in petrol represents a serious health hazard and that lead can pollute the atmosphere. Furthermore, it is known that a petrol without a lead content is being used in some countries. I believe that it is being used in Western Germany. I should have thought, therefore, that 738 the most elementary protection which could be afforded to the public should be to prohibit filling stations from offering petrol which is known to have a high lead content. I should like an answer to the specific question: why are we permitting this? The noble Lord, Lord O'Hagan, has said that there is petrol without lead. That is the ideal. I am not asking the Government why they are not trying to approach the ideal, but why they are allowing petrol with the lead content that they have quoted to be sold. Perhaps, therefore, the Minister will tell me—and I have asked only two or three clear, specific questions—why this precaution is not being taken?
§ 8.36 p.m.
§ LORD PLATT
My Lords, I do not think that I shall have to speak at any length at all except perhaps to emphasise some of the points that have already been made by the noble Lord, Lord O'Hagan, and by the noble Baroness, Lady Summerskill. Lead poisoning, as has been said, has been known for hundreds of years. When I was a medical student, one used to recognise it occasionally in lead workers and people who, in one way or another, were obviously exposed to lead. Those were adults. One of the earliest recognitions that lead poisoning also occurred in young children was from Brisbane in Australia, I suppose twenty or thirty years ago, where they recognised that young children who, in the hot Queensland summers would lick the raindrops off the paint on the verandahs and suffer from lead poisoning, were particularly prone to develop a kind of chronic kidney disease from which a number of them died. As I was particularly interested in the kidney at that time, I remember that paper very well indeed. We now know, of course, that one of the chief hazards in the child is the effect on the brain. We know that this can be a permanent effect, and we know that it can in certain cases cause permanent interference with vision or even blindness. We know also that it can cause death.
One of the few points that I should like to make that has not already been made, is to point out the very big difference between the adult and the child —which I think is now coming out of recent research. Although it may—and I only say "may"—be still within safety 739 limits to have a lead content of the blood in adults of 80 microgrammes—I think that the noble Lord said milligrammes, but it is actually 80 microgrammes—recent papers quite clearly show that this is nothing like a safe proportion in children. Indeed, one of the fatal cases of lead poisoning in children in Birmingham that has recently been reported, in fact in the British Medical Journal of the 17th of this month, had, I believe, a blood level of 90 microgrammes. But they consider that any level of 37 microgrammes or above puts the child in danger of symptoms of lead poisoning affecting the nervous system. From that one paediatric clinic in Birmingham they picked up in the course of a few years thirty-eight cases of serious lead damage. It may be that even to-day, in spite of the amount of lead that gets into the atmosphere, into the soil, into the vegetables, into the food, is inhaled and is ingested, nets on to the hands of people who cat their food, it may be said that this is not numerically an enormous problem. Neither was thalidomide numerically a very big problem, but it has not passed unnoticed. The other point I should like to make, although it is a perfectly obvious one, is that all these cases are in fact preventable. Those are all the points that I wanted to make.
My Lords, I should like to echo only one thing that the noble Baroness opposite referred to. While my noble friend spoke mainly about lead from exhaust and petrol fumes, she also spoke about lead from food and from water in lead pipes. About 10 or 12 years ago in another place about this time in the evening I had to recommend, on behalf of the Government, new Orders controlling the amount of lead allowed in foodstuffs. At that time I believed, perhaps wrongly, that lead in food was the chief hazard to which we were exposed, and I was under the impression when I recommended those Orders to the House that they were very strict. Afterwards, I received a letter from a game pie manufacturer who told me that I had all but put him out of business, because the stain from lead shot—not the shot itself in the pie but the risk of lead stain—would mean that the pies they could be offering, through some 740 of the grandest shops in London, would fall outside the tolerance.
But it now seems that I was wrong in thinking that lead in food and water was the chief hazard to which we were exposed; and it is the motor car manufacturers and the petrol manufacturers, not the game pie manufacturers, who are in fact confronting innocent people with these great dangers. When I look round this House on this important occasion I am sorry that none of our Members, leaders of some of the bigger motor manufacturing firms and oil companies, are here, and I should have thought that at least one of them would have thought it right and proper to come here to explain to us how they see this problem, None of us wants to do them an injustice, but if we do them an injustice this evening it is nobody's fault but their own for not being here.
Perhaps I was wrong, as I say, in thinking that the lead from food was the chief hazard, and it may well be that lead from the motor car exhaust is a still greater hazard. Maybe there is a greater hazard still, and that is being knocked down by a motor car rather than being disabled by lead from the exhaust. But joking apart, I feel that the Minister to-night will be doing not only us but the country a very great service if he can clarify this issue and show us, even if at the present time the Government have not got everything under control as they would like, at least how they propose to deal with it in the near future.
§ 8.43 p.m.
§ THE PARLIAMENTARY UNDERSECRETARY OF STATE, DEPARTMENT OF THE ENVIRONMENT (LORD SANDFORD)
My Lords, we are all grateful to the noble Lord, Lord O'Hagan, for raising among us a subject that is wide in scope, of great importance and of public concern. I welcome this opportunity to set forth the Government's views and actions upon it. I will accept the same restraint that the noble Lord, Lord O'Hagan, did and try to keep my speech within bounds. If, after reading it through afterwards, I find that I have failed to answer some of the many points raised by noble Lords who have taken part in the debate, I will of course write to them.
741 This is an important subject. It has many facets. It is important that the matter be held in perspective. Throughout man's history, as the noble Baroness. Lady Summerskill, said, the existence of lead as a natural constituent of mineral soils has resulted in the presence of small amounts of lead in every man's diet and hence in the human body. The body copes naturally with these normal low levels, and indeed accumulation occurs naturally in the body just when the rate of absorption is higher than the rate of excretion. As the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Platt, both said, the amounts of lead to which people have been exposed has increased as a result of man's industrial activities over many hundreds of years. Lead and its compounds are, and have been for a very long time, vital industrial materials. Lead is smelted, refined, reprocessed from scrap, and used in a variety of products from batteries to paints and from glass to ships.
In the past, in much less enlightened times than those prevailing to-day, there was indeed a considerable human toll taken by the metal of those directly involved in its use in industry. In the year 1900 alone there were over 1,000 reported cases of clinical lead poisoning in industrial workers, and in that year alone there were 35 fatalities. But now, by contrast, we can look back for 20 years, and in that period there has been only one death in British factories listed in the records as being attributable to lead poisoning. I very much agree with my noble friend Lord Inglewood when he invites us to compare that with the toll upon the roads. Compared with the fatalities attributable to lead poisoning, one death in 20 years, on the roads we have 7.000 to 8,000 fatalities every year. This is a figure to bear in mind in holding this matter in perspective.
Fortunately, now the rarity of lead poisoning as an industrial disease is primarily thanks to joint action in the past by industry and Government. Those figures, I think, measure the success, but do not, of course, mean that we can now abandon our concern or our anxieties.
§ LORD PLATT
My Lords, may I intervene? I am afraid I may have let the moment go. I think the noble Lord is referring to deaths from lead poisoning in industry. We all know that industry has had to take this matter most seriously. 742 Some years ago people who worked with lead in batteries, for instance, very frequently got lead poisoning. That, I think, has all been blotted out by factory rules. But I do not think that is quite what we are discussing to-night.
My Lords, if the noble Lord would allow me, quite apart from water there is also lead from beer. In the old public house systems the old beer machines were, I believe, one of the most fruitful sources of lead poisoning.
§ BARONESS SUMMERSKILL
My Lords, I must add my word, because the noble Lord has so amazed us by getting up and telling us that there has only been one death from lead poisoning and that so many people die on the roads. There is no relationship between those two things. Does he realise that what we are talking about are the potential deaths, the undiagnosed cases? All the noble Lord has told us is that, so far as the doctors know, there was only one diagnosed case.
§ LORD SANDFORD
My Lords, if noble Lords will allow me to get on, I will attempt to cover the subject. I have only just started on one aspect. I was careful to say that there has been one death in British factories attributable to lead poisoning. I could hardly be more precise than that.
§ LORD SANDFORD
I certainly give noble Lords the assurance that I am going to try and cover all aspects, as indeed the noble Lord's Question indicated he wanted us to do. In fact I will go rather wider than the debate has already gone.
The dangers of lead in the non-industrial situation is the topic which most noble Lords have so far been speaking about. There is a danger that an excessive intake of lead over a period of time can lead to permanent brain damage, and as the noble Baroness, Lady Summerskill, and the noble Lord, Lord Platt, emphasised in their speeches, children are more susceptible than adults to the effects of lead poisoning. There is therefore an undeniable need to minimise the possibility of children being poisoned by lead. 743 We need to keep the subject in perspective and to do this we need to understand, in as much detail as we can, the relative importance of the various possible sources of intake, and I will deal with them all.
The Government's policy is to deal with the problem on two fronts; first, to keep the community intake of lead as low as is practicable, and, secondly, to continue to support and initiate research efforts to that end. I want now to demonstrate how this policy is being translated into positive action, dealing with lead in paint, lead in petrol, lead from industrial processes, lead in food, lead in household articles, and lead in water. First of all, lead in paint. The largest single non-industrial cause of lead poisoning is the chewing of old and decaying paint by young children, resulting in some 200 admissions to hospital every year. The lead content of primers and paint pigments manufactured and applied many decades ago was very much higher than those sold to-day; indeed, some paints contained as much as 40 per cent. of lead. Layers of these dangerous paints still remain in many old houses and other buildings, sometimes covered by new coatings. Children have a proclivity to chew a variety of objects and can gnaw their way through more recent coatings of paint to highly-leaded paint underneath. While modern paints also contain a certain, albeit much lower, amount of lead, paint manufacturers in this country have been voluntarily labelling paint which contains more than 1.5 per cent. of lead with a warning to the effect—and here is the first warning the noble Baroness asked about—that it should not be used on toys, nursery furniture or interior surfaces which may he chewed or sucked by children. Lead in paint on toys is a particular hazard to children. Most young children are inclined to chew or suck their toys, and it is clearly important that any paint or other coating on toys should not contain an excessive amount of lead.
The Toys (Safety) Regulations, 1967, prescribe limits for the amounts of lead and certain other toxic metals which may be present in the paint, or similar coating materials, on toys (whether imported or made in the United Kingdom) offered for sale in this country. In the case of lead, 744 the prescribed limit is 0.5 per cent. The Government are carrying out a serious review of present levels of lead in paint, and discussions are taking place between the Home Office and the Paintmakers' Association. It seems likely that agreement will be reached shortly on still lower figures.
On this point the noble Lord, Lord O'Hagan, referred to my correspondence with him and chided me with underating the opinions presented in the Lancet. I think that I must read the relevant paragraph to your Lordships for your consideration of what the Government's attitude is. In reply to the noble Lord I said:Naturally the Government are examining this report, but the number of children studied was small, and it is the view of the Government's expert medical advisers that it has not been satisfactorily shown whether the hyperactivity of the children was the result of exposure to lead or whether the raised blood-lead levels were a result of the children's hyperactivity. Further research into this subject is obviously required, and the Government are pursuing this question.I hope you will agree that that does not indicate any underestimate of the Lancet report, but really that it is a matter that should be pursued.
§ LORD O'HAGAN
My Lords, the noble Lord is quoting from his letter to me—and I am afraid that I do not have my copy as it is with Hansard. I do not want to enter into a debate of a textual critical nature, nor do I want to bandy expert medical opinion with him, but the point that I was trying to make was that, while there was not a particularly warm commendation of the attitude of the Lancet in what he said I was pressing upon him the need to take the Lancet a bit more seriously, because now there is an editorial endorsement of the view expressed in that article. I was hoping that this would lead him to take it further than he appeared to be doing in his letter. I am sorry to have intervened. I shall not refer to the Minister's letters in debates in future.
§ LORD SANDFORD
My Lords, we will come back to that in a moment.
I should like to turn to emissions of lead from motor vehicles. This is of course determined by the lead content of the petrol. The position on this matter 745 is that until this year the maximum permitted lead content of petrol in the United Kingdom was 0.84 grammes per litre. In 1970 the average level, as opposed to the maximum level, was 0.53. Last August the United Kingdom announced a programme of phased reduction as follows: by the end of 1972 0.64; by the end of 1973, 0.55; by the end of 1975. 0.45. Those are the maxima permitted. The average level in 1970 was 0.53. The noble Lord raised the technical problems of lead in petrol, and those related to reducing the lead limits further, and I should like to expand on that subject a little. The development of high output and specific power in modern engines has been made possible by high compression ratios and high engine speeds. This requires petrol of a high quality, which can only be obtained by the use of antiknock additives. Lead is the basis of the additives most frequently used because of its economic and technical advantages. If petrol has insufficient anti-knock quality, the variation in the pressure of the cylinder causes the engine to become overheated and overloaded mechanically, and prolonged operation under those conditions produces premature failure. So far from being harmful, lead deposit in the cylinder also acts as a lubricant for the valves and is used to meet the needs of present engines whose design assumes that this protection will be available. A certain amount of lead in the petrol is essential.
The oil and motor industries have identified 0.45 grammes per litre as a critical point where difficult technical problems begin to arise and below which it might not be practicable for the majority of oil companies to produce high quality petrol. If low leaded petrol only were permitted, there would be heavy cost in additional refining investment; many engines would have to be redesigned; vehicle users would face higher petrol prices and reduced road performance; and increased imports of oil would be needed, both to produce petrol with a lower lead content and also because of the vehicles' lower mileage per gallon. These are all problems which are being investigated.
§ LORD O'HAGAN
My Lords, is it fair for the noble Lord to say that he is investigating a problem when he puts only one side of the case that many other 746 people would question? I will not continue to intervene, but may I write to him about that?
§ LORD SANDFORD
My Lords, I think that the noble Lord has put his side of the case. It would be better if I were now left to put mine, but of course we can continue the discussion. The advice the Government have at the highest scientific and medical level available to us is that while it is desirable that present levels of lead emissions should not be exceeded and should be reduced if possible—and I have indicated that there is no evidence that at even their present levels they pose any danger to the health of the community at large—the Government have already taken action to reduce the lead content of petrol. This will reduce total emission of lead from petrol engines in 1976 to 4/5ths of its level in 1971, even allowing for the expected rise in car ownership and vehicle mileage. This, I would stress, is the first step and more is being done.
I turn now to lead pollution from industrial processes, which concerns the noble Baroness, Lady Summerskiil. As she said, it has lately received a good deal of publicity. Within factories using lead, the stringent requirements of Section 63 of the Factories Act for the control of dust and fumes are enforced by the Factory Inspectorate. I have already given an indication at the beginning of my speech of the effectiveness of the measures over the past seventy years. But, as she said, recent events have underlined the possibility that lead from a factory can be carried out on clothing into workers' homes, or can be blown from yards and stockpiles and from transport vehicles and so contaminate the neighbourhood. As a result of these recent incidents, the Government have taken further action on several fronts. The Factory Inspectorate have written to some 1,000 factories which handle lead, alerting management to the risks and emphasising the need for the strictest industrial hygiene. Factory Inspectors have also visited the works for which they are responsible, as have the Alkali and Clean Air Inspectorate, who are responsible for controlling emissions from lead smelting processes. Representatives from the lead industry have had it impressed upon them that every possible precaution must be taken to avoid the 747 possibility of lead contaminating the environment.
My own Department has also issued a Circular on Lead and the Environment (Circular 6/73) last month. The circular advises public health departments to carry out systematic checks of the pathways by which lead can reach the environment in all areas where there are factories using lead, in pursuance of their powers and duties under the Public Health Acts. The circular emphasises that the Alkali and Clean Air Inspectorate and the Factory Inspectorate are available to give specialist advice to local authority health departments should this be required. The circular also requests local authorities to inform the Secretary of State if their investigations reveal anything untoward—for example, unduly high lead levels among children resident near a factory, or a high lead content of dust on roads and other surfaces. There has been an encouragingly positive response to this circular by local authorities, and the necessary investigations are being set in hand. The Government, for their part, are now in the process of collating and preparing for issue further technical advice on procedural methods.
These measures are likely to result in the issue of detailed Codes of Practice for local authority action. Although I shall be dealing with the question of research later in my reply, I should perhaps mention here that the Government have been carrying out a programme of monitoring blood-lead levels in children and adults in the vicinity of a number of major lead works. The noble Baroness asked me about follow-up action in the particular case she mentioned. I am glad to say that when the blood-lead level measurements were completed, it was found that though nine children living near the works had high levels of lead in their blood, further tests showed that lead poisoning had not resulted. The local authority there have set action in hand to clean up the area and to re-house the affected children.
I turn now to lead in food. Of all the pathways of lead into people, this is the most common. Yet there is no evidence that we need have any cause for alarm. The Government's Working Party on the Monitoring of Foodstuffs for Heavy Metals issued a Report in June last year 748 on the results of its monitoring of foods in the national diet for lead. The Government were advised on the basis of the Report that there was no evidence of harm from present levels of lead in food comprising the diet of an average consumer. Indeed, the average levels were at about half the recommended limit laid down by the World Health Organisation and, in addition, average intakes of lead in food were found not to have increased since 1949. A reduction in the permitted level of lead in food specially prepared for babies and young children has already come into effect on January 1 this year, but this does not mean that the possibility of a further reduction here has been excluded. All maximum levels are to be reviewed yet again and the monitoring for lead in food is continuing.
I come now to another source of lead, mentioned by my noble friend Lord Inglewood; that is, lead in water. About 10 per cent. of our dietary intake of lead comes from water and we cope with that naturally. But statutory water undertakings are under a duty to ensure that the water they supply is pure and wholesome. To that end they carry out regular tests, including tests for lead solvency, to ensure that the lead content of water is kept well within the World Health Organisation's limits. In addition, medical officers of health carry out independent sampling and testing and keep a careful and constant watch for any possible risks to health.
The property of some waters to dissolve lead piping has been known for many years. The degree of risk varies according to the properties of the water and period of contact with lead pipes. Although other forms of piping are superseding lead pipes and the problem is therefore a declining one, water undertakings in general accept that they have a responsibility not only to ensure that the lead content of the water they put into supply does not exceed an acceptable limit, but also that they have a responsibility for treating water to guard against lead solvency. The correction for lead solvency can be effected by the simple process of treating water with hardeners before it is put into supply. Lead in consumer goods is of course a potential danger, especially where children are concerned. Regulations are being prepared by the Home Office which will 749 prescribe stringent limits for the lead content of coatings on pencils, pens and brushes, and also for the lead content of crayons and chalks, and of the inner cores of pencils and crayons.
Lead can also be found in tableware and cooking utensils. Regulations are currently being prepared by the Home Office which will impose limits on the amount of soluble lead and soluble cadmium in the glaze and decoration on all ceramic tableware and cookingware offered for sale in this country. These regulations will be based on a recently published British Standard (BS.4860). Heavy metals can also leach out from enamelled cooking utensils. The Government have asked the British Standards Institution to prepare a British Standard for such utensils, so that appropriate regulations may be brought in. Tin-coated cooking utensils are capable of contaminating food with lead if the coating is of poor quality. The Cooking Utensils (Safety) Regulations, made by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary in December, 1972, will come into operation shortly, on April 1 of this year.
My Lords, as I think I have already said in answer to an earlier question by the noble Lord, Lord O'Hagan, there are some 50 Government or Government-sponsored research schemes into lead pollution under way at present. Studies are in hand of airborne lead at roadside sites, in streets and houses, in areas such as service stations and underground garages, on heavily trafficked motorways and around industrial processes using lead; of waterborne lead in streams, reservoirs and the sea; of lead in foods, including edible fish and shellfish; of lead in plants, crops, grass and soil. Medical research, especially of the kind that the noble Baroness, Lady Summer-skill, was asking for, on the possible effects of lead on the mental condition 750 of children, on the long-term effects of lead ingestion and on the effects of lead on enzyme systems is also being carried out. In addition, the Government have set up an expert working group to advise on what further research is required. My Lords, I hope my reply has confirmed that we in the Government see lead in the environment as an important, many-sided problem in which the public rightly show a concern. I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving me an opportunity to set out Her Majesty's Government's many-sided approach to the problem.
§ LORD GARNSWORTHY
My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, may I say that he has been very careful in trying to answer most of the arguments, but he twice referred to acceptable lead limits in regard to World Health Organisation standards. As I understood the noble Lord, Lord O'Hagan, he specifically challenged the noble Lord to state, when replying, whether the Government accepted the W.H.O. figure and, if they were accepting it, how justified they felt in so doing. I think it would be helpful, for the sake of the record, if the noble Lord could perhaps deal with that point briefly.
§ LORD SANDFORD
My Lords, as the noble Lord will have realised from my speech, there are standards of an enormous number of different kinds and varieties in the field of lead. I certainly confirm the undertaking I gave at the beginning of my speech to look at the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord O'Hagan, and at the remarks of everybody else who has spoken in this debate, and where I can see that they have asked me specific questions which I have not answered in my 25-minute reply I will write to them, as I said I would.
§ House adjourned at ten minutes past nine o'clock.