Petrol (Lead Content)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 5th April 1976.

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Photo of Mr Donald Anderson Mr Donald Anderson , Swansea East 12:00 am, 5th April 1976

I support the amendment, and I shall confine my remarks to lead in petrol. The hon. Member for Hove (Mr. Sainsbury) indicated that a figure in the Petroleum Times last month added a new dimension to the debate, but in a Sunday Times article on 11th January there appeared a figure not unlike that quoted by the hon. Member. It said that the effect of the outlay on new refineries in West Germany appeared to have been exaggerated and that West German oil companies had spent £200 million on capital investment for this purpose, which compares reasonably with the Department of the Environment's estimate of £250 million, at 1971 prices, for re-equipping British refineries.

The question of lead in petrol is clearly a matter of balancing the economic considerations, which have been put forward cogently by the hon. Member for Bedford (Mr. Skeet), and the health considerations. This is an area in which, as laymen, we have to rely heavily on the expert evidence on the economics of the matter and on the health hazards.

Part of the difficulty arises from the fact that the economic disadvantages appear to be clear—the extra cost of re-equipping, the balance of payments considerations and the rest—while the health disadvantages are not conclusively proved. For this reason, there is a strong temptation for the Government to take the easy way out and, to put it emotively, to play Russian roulette with the nation's health. Where, however, there is reasonable evidence that substantial risks are involved, it would be improper for the Government to shirk their duty and not to take action until the health risks were overwhelmingly and conclusively proved.

There is substantial, if not conclusive, evidence of medical risk, and it is certain that existing concentrations of lead in the bodily tissues of the general populace come nearer to the recognised thresholds of overt clinical poisoning than any other existing pollutant.

It is also certain that children are more vulnerable to the risk of lead poisoning. An article in the Lancet of 28th October 1972 showed a correlation between body-lead levels and the diagnosis of hyperactivity in young children. There were also some disquieting conclusions of research by Goldberg, working for the Glasgow Medical Research Council, on lead levels found in mentally retarded children. His results suggested that even modest elevations of blood lead may be associated wits bio-chemical abnormalities in the child's brain. There is also some evidence of a causal connection between lead levels and delinquent behaviour. There was a Swiss study of this matter in 1971.

The relevance of these findings is that, although lead in the petrol and air is only a minor proportion of the total ingestion of lead into the body, it is still substantial and the most controllable.