§ The Countess of Mar asked Her Majesty's Government:
§ Whether they will fund a further research programme by the poisons unit of Guy's Hospital during the summer dipping period into the effects upon humans of organophosphates used in sheep dip.
The Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Earl Howe)
My Lords, in October 1992 a report was published by the national poisons unit at Guy's Hospital on work funded by the Veterinary Medicines Directorate into the effects on human health of exposure to sheep dips. The report recommended that further work was necessary to enable an assessment of risk to be made. The Veterinary Medicines Directorate has agreed to fund that additional work, which is expected to be completed by the summer. It is premature at this stage to consider whether it will be necessary to carry out further studies.
§ The Countess of Mar
My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for that full Answer to my Question. Does he agree that there is still insufficient evidence about the long-term effects of organophosphate poisoning? Does he also agree that the Guy's Hospital poisons unit needs extra funding so that it can continue its work and follow-up existing patients and also cover a wider spectrum of people who dip sheep during the summer period? Few people were dipping sheep in the autumn because it was no longer compulsory at that stage.
My Lords, there is no conclusive evidence to show that organophosphate sheep dips, if used in accordance with the manufacturers' instructions, are hazardous to human health. However, we are happy to look at any proposal to extend the research programme. If the national poisons unit wishes to make such a proposal, it should contact the Veterinary Medicines Directorate.
§ Lord Carter
My Lords, if there is no evidence concerning the dangers to human health, can the Minister explain to the House why, as I understand, a number of products have been withdrawn on the ostensible grounds that testing was too expensive? Within the industry there is a strong belief that withdrawal was because of the danger to human health. If the Minister agrees that the work of the poisons unit at Guy's into such poisoning is so valuable, will he protect the future funding of its work rather than merely the current funding?
My Lords, I believe that the noble Lord is misinformed about the withdrawal of the products. As I understand it, all of the products which have been withdrawn contained phenols, and the companies concerned concluded that the cost of generating the data they were asked to provide was uneconomic. That was an economic decision. The companies therefore decided either to withdraw the products or to remove the phenols from the formulation.
§ Baroness Masham of Ilton
My Lords, is it not the case that if the Government take note of the Tomlinson Report, the poisons unit at Guy's Hospital, which is a national unit serving the whole country, might be under threat of closure?
My Lords, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Health is currently considering Sir Bernard Tomlinson's report and will make an announcement about all the institutions involved in the near future.
§ Viscount Hanworth
My Lords, can the noble Earl say whether the study includes spraying, which also appears to be a hazardous procedure for some people?
My Lords, the national poisons unit study is based on follow-up work on individual case histories. The noble Viscount may be interested to know that two projects specific to sheep dips are under way. One is an occupational health assessment of dipping practices undertaken by the Institute of Occupational Medicine in Edinburgh. That will finish by 30th June this year. The other is an investigation into the possible chronic effects on farmers of occupational exposure to organophosphorous dips. That will finish on 30th September next year.
§ Lord Campbell of Alloway
My Lords, if Guy's Hospital were to be closed, what would happen to the national poisons unit?
My Lords, as I said, that is a matter for my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Health.
§ Lord Carter
My Lords, if, as the Minister said, the products were withdrawn because of the cost of testing, is there any connection with the fact that there is now some evidence to show that the reaction of the product on rubber protective clothing is dangerous?
My Lords, there is evidence to suggest that when phenols are in contact with natural rubber, they penetrate the rubber. It is therefore recommended that artificial rubber is used instead of the natural product.
§ Lord Ashley of Stoke
My Lords, in order to satisfy Members of this House, will the Minister ask what the exact cost of the investigations would have been?
§ The Countess of Mar
My Lords, will the noble Earl explain why the Government have taken so long to start to investigate the long-term toxic effects of 1131 organophosphates? In his report on Toxic Chemicals in Agriculture in 1951—that is 40 years ago—the noble Lord, Lord Zuckerman, stated:The chief danger lies in the chronic effects which result from frequent exposure to these chemicals".
My Lords, anxiety has been expressed most especially in recent years. The Government are doing everything possible to ensure that those anxieties are addressed.