Orders of the Day — Petrol (Lead Content)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 4th March 1976.

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Photo of Mr Denis Howell Mr Denis Howell , Birmingham Small Heath 12:00 am, 4th March 1976

I am obliged, Mr. Speaker, for your ruling. Perhaps I may say to my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) and the right hon. Member for Knutsford (Mr. Davies) that nothing is further from our minds than attempting to be in any way discourteous to the House. It is true that in debating the motion we are seeking to debate the effects of the EEC Directives. I hope that we have not got the matter wrong, but I certainly undertake to consider the points that have been raised. The Government thought that it would be for the convenience of the House if during my contribution I gave an indication of the Government's thinking upon the Directives before the House. I have no doubt that if the House wishes to return to the subject at other times, it will be able to do so. If it is thought in any part of the House that any discourtesy has occurred, I apologise. That was the last thing that we intended to bring about.

I start by dealing with the history of these matters. There are two separate Directives, one for limiting the lead content of petrol and one for biological and air quality standards for lead. In 1972 the then Government announced a three-stage reduction in the amount of lead in petrol, to take effect as follows: the first stage, in January 1973, was to reduce the maximum level of 0·84 grammes per litre to 0·64. Stage two as proposed for 1st January 1974, but that was postponed until 1st November 1974 because of the oil crisis. Under the stage two programme the level was brought down from 0·64 grammes per litre to 0·55. It was further proposed that there should be a stage three to come into effect from 1st January 1976, when the level was to have been reduced to 0·45 grammes per litre. This was deferred, as I think the House will recall, in view of the full review which we were considering of the economic and medical implications.

That is what has got us into the little difficulty that we have been discussing. It was because the Government announced at that time that there would be a full review before the announcement of any further reductions, and because we have now conducted that review, that we thought that this debate was the right time to acquaint the House with the results of our review, which was well known to the House.

A further part of the history of the matter is that on 9th December 1974 my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy announced that no further reductions would be made pending the review to which I have just referred.

This matter has been considered by the Scrutiny Committee, and it is as a result of the Scrutiny Committee's recommendation that we are having this debate.

I now turn to the two Directives. I deal first with the Directive which sets biological and air quality standards to protect the health of the population outside the place of work. I will give the proposed standards in that Directive. I deal first with the biological standards. Those are that 100 per cent. of the population should not exceed 35 micro-grammes of lead per 100 millilitres of blood, that 90 per cent. should not exceed 30 microgrammes of lead per 100 millilitres of blood, and that 50 per cent. should not exceed 20 microgrammes of lead per 100 millilitres of blood. On the second part of this Directive, dealing with lead in air, the proposal is for an annual mean level of 2 microgrammes of lead per cubic metre and that a monthly median level of 8 microgrammes should be attained.

Compliance with these standards would be monitored by taking blood samples on a uniform basis and measuring the level of atmospheric lead in large urban residential areas. The various States would be required to take the necessary action where the levels I have quoted are found to be exceeded.

Perhaps the House will allow me to make a progress report. The United Kingdom has taken a wide range of action to prevent possible risks to public health from lead sources. In respect of both Directives it is the totality of lead in the atmosphere and in petrol to which we have to have regard. Lead can be consumed in a variety of ways. It can be consumed not only from breathing but from eating and drinking. Food and drink possibly play, in some parts of the country, a greater part in this consumption than the air that is breathed. We have taken a wide range of action, and especially monitoring action. Large- and small-scale monitoring exercises are being held to assess the problem of lead water pipes in soft-water areas, a situation to which we shall no doubt increasingly turn our attention as more factual and scientific evidence becomes available.

There has been a limitation of the lead content in paints for indoor use. It has been limited by voluntary agreement to 1 per cent. There has been a limitation by regulation to 0·5 per cent. for toys. Pencils and coatings are limited by regulation to a lead content of 0·025 per cent. The EEC proposal for paints is nearly ready to go to the Council. I understand that there is a further proposal for toys which is now at an early stage of drafting.

Foodstuffs is another area in which there has been a great deal of activity. The lead content is limited by Lead in Food Regulation 061 to a maximum of two parts per million for most food items.

There has been much activity as regards cooking utensils. Concern has been expressed in some quarters. The regulations are based on BSI standards for ceramic tableware, cooking ware and storage vessels. There are limits for lead and cadmium in solution. The EEC proposal for ceramics is nearly ready for the Council. Another proposal for enamel ware is at an earlier stage of development, but no doubt it will come forward in due course.

Having outlined the area of our concern and activity, I hope that I shall be able to offer a measure of reassurance. Practical measures of tackling potential risks at source are the best way of preventing individuals absorbing too much lead. The present Government and the Conservative Government have always supported such measures. We now have a wide-ranging monitoring and survey system available in potential risk areas which ensures that we are alerted to any possible dangers to health. By monitoring the physical environment, such as air and dust, the people by means of blood sampling and analyses, we believe that we are succeeding in our objectives. These surveys on the whole, have been reassuring for the general population—people not especially exposed to lead effects, and they provide a basis for remedial action where an undue exposure to lead has been discovered.

I turn to some of the criticisms of the Commission's proposals. We believe that the proposal in the Directive goes a little too far, because the scientific evidence, despite several years' work, is not clear enough, in our judgment, to justify precise standards. Precise standards imply that anybody with blood lead levels over the limits, or exposed to air lead levels over the limits, would be in danger. My professional advisers do not believe that to be the case. In this country we believe that, until further scientific evidence becomes available, we should follow the sage advice given to us by the Royal Commission.