Public Health

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 11th April 1975.

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Photo of Mrs Joyce Butler Mrs Joyce Butler , Haringey Wood Green 12:00 am, 11th April 1975

I was about to come to the point of economic difficulties. In view of the clear case which can be made for reducing lead levels in petrol, I am concerned to see that the Government do more to make the public aware of the dangers and to appeal to the public on this point. It is always said that if we reduce lead levels in petrol the petrol will not be so effective and it will be more expensive. However, I was very impressed during the oil crisis last year at how ready everybody to whom I spoke seemed to be to make some kind of sacrifice on petrol. I believe that if the public were appealed to and told that lead in petrol is causing subtle neurological damage to the brains of some of our children they would accept the additional cost and they would press for the kind of action I am seeking.

I ask my hon. Friend the Minister whether he will please look at this again to see whether he can do something to stir up his Department and to introduce regulations on the matter. The decision to be taken is political. This is not just a matter for scientists or of evidence. We have to decide whether we can go on taking this risk with our children's health, and we must decide what to do about it. I do not believe that the public, which at the moment is showing so much concern about orphan children from Vietnam, would remain unmoved if the facts about the damage to children from lead in petrol were put over to them. There is great concern for children generally.

I ask my hon. Friend to take this action even if he cannot accept the terms of my motion. I hope that when there are Government petrol stations they will set a good example by giving motorists the opportunity to buy' lead-free petrol. It would be a very great boost for the cause I am advocating if it were done, and it would be very sad if it were not.

I should like to deal further with my main reason for raising this subject today. I do not just want to draw attention to the dangers. I want to impress on my hon. Friend the need for much greater attention to be paid to the fears and worries of the public, who do not always know what the trouble is but are very concerned that something may be going wrong. That is why I am asking for more effective monitoring arrangements.

The British Society for Social Responsibility in Science, with which I have dis- cussed this matter, has produced a full monitoring programme. I should like to put to my hon. Friend some of the points which it makes. It proposes, To introduce continuous monitoring of pollutants in vicinity of certain industries, where emissons may be harmful. It says that three categories of installations should be covered. First there are Those where some monitoring is already undertaken, and some of the results known. It quotes the examples of metals such as lead and cadmium. It stresses that, The monitoring should be made regular, and all the results automatically available to the public. It quotes as an example of what it has in mind that The results of the fluoride monitoring around the Invergordon aluminium smelter, are only available to farmers at the discretion of the British Aluminium Liaison Committee—despite the local farmer having been responsible for establishing the monitor in the first place. It points out that, Where there is established monitoring, the results should be made available, as if they had been obtained by the powers of the new Act. The second category is those installations where little monitoring is done of pollutants with known risks, e.g. asbestos factories and coking ovens…. These monitoring surveys should be complemented by epidemiological surveys (group health surveys)", such as the one to which I have referred, concerning the asbestos hazard in East London.

The third category is Those processes where the risks and the pollutant levels are not known. This category is the most serious, because it is new. We are inexperienced in the use of these processes, and we know little about the possible hazards. It includes vinyl chloride and other petrochemicals. The society stresses a list of chemicals which should be monitored continuously in this way. I shall not weary the House by mentioning any more of them, but the society emphasises—and I agree with what it says—that, The responsibility for monitoring and publishing the results should be made without qualifications such as 'reasonable', 'best practicable', etc., otherwise the undertaking will be useless—not only from a scientific point of view, but also if it is to gain public confidence. I mention in the motion the question of more effective monitoring. Can my hon. Friend say what monitoring is being undertaken, especially in the new petrochemical industries, and whether any results have come through?

The Association of Metropolitan Authorities has made some valuable suggestions in its recently published evidence to the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution. I believe that what it said in its evidence could be helpful in informing the public of the dangers.

As my hon. Friend knows, there is some criticism of the Alkali Inspectorate, but I do not wish to engage in such criticism this morning. The point which is frequently made, and which the AMA supports, that the inspectorate is scattered and is a national grouping, often remote from the local community, is important. If I or any other hon. Member had a pollution problem, such as a factory causing trouble, how many of us would know—I certainly would not—who the local alkali inspector was? But I know my local authority's address and telephone number.

The AMA makes the point that the new large local authorities have the power to appoint more environmental protection officers, who can work in liaison with the alkali inspectors. They are locally known, they know the local problems, and they could be valuable as a link with the public.

This is important because, as in the Laporte Industries incident at Ilford and the Pitsea scare, when people become alarmed they want to get in touch with someone who they think can help. If the local authorities had more powers and more officers it would be extremely helpful.

The AMA also makes the point that more needs to be done about planning decisions and the siting of such installations. I hope that my hon. Friend, if he has not already seen these comments, will study them with some care.

I have sought to open up a complex, difficult subject which is causing a great deal of concern to my hon. Friend and his Department, and to many members of the public. It is a subject about which a great deal has been done already. However, in the context of dangerous chemicals and hazards of one kind or another, the more one knows and the more one does, the more one discovers what there is to know and to do. Because we are living in a scientific age there will be no let up. We must keep moving forward all the time.

I appeal to my hon. Friend to accept my motion. If he does not, I hope that he will take note of some of the things I have said. I ask him to give us some reassurance cm some of these points and to make it clear that his Department and those concerned in the implementation of the Control of Pollution Act will be very much concerned with the newer substances, which can be extremely hazardous and which will probably need technical changes in monitoring if we are to evaluate them properly. I hope that I have not wearied my hon. Friend with this discourse. I shall be most grateful for any reassurance he can give.