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 Alastair Goodlad Mr Alastair Goodlad , Northwich 12:00 am, 5th April 1976

I am extremely unhappy with the case deployed by the Government on 4th March for accepting the EEC Directives, which we are now discussing, and the amendment in the name of the hon. Member for Wood Green (Mrs. Butler).

I should say that a substantial number of my constituents are employed at a factory of the Associated Octel Company Limited in Northwich, which manufactures lead-based anti-knock compounds for use in petrol.

I am, however, concerned more generally that the Government should be prepared to set forth on a slippery slope of accepting Directives which may be extremely expensive to this country's balance of payments on the basis of flimsy or non-existent evidence for their desirability or necessity. In this case acceptance of the course of action recommended in the Directives may indeed even inhibit the development of the lead trap, which has been carried out in the area of my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Benyon), which could subsequently reduce, if not eliminate, any lead content in exhaust fumes at a tiny fraction of the cost of the proposals in the Directives.

The case rests on the possible risk to health—predominantly children's health—from the lead content of the air, and reference has been made by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Silverman) to Gravelly Hill interchange. I defer to his expert knowledge of this subject and its effect on his constituents, but it is important that the House should recollect that the first report of the joint working party set up by the Minister of State, Department of the Environment to consider pollution at Gravelly Hill stated: Lead levels in the air around the Gravelly Hill motorway interchange, Birmingham, are in no way exceptional for urban areas and present levels in the blood streams of people living nearly are not abnormal for people living in cities. The full report goes on to say: A small increase, 4 to 5 microgrammes in the mean blood lead levels of people living near the motorway has been detected but present values remain within the normal physiological range for urban dwellers. There is no danger of these people developing clinical lead poisoning. It is only fair to point out that the report went on to say: unfortunately, the results obtained so far are difficult to interpret in detail for a number of reasons", and it gives the reasons but I shall not detain the House with them.

There seems to be some doubt, therefore, whether the interchange has led to an increase in the blood-lead levels of the residents of Gravelly Hill. If there has been a small increase, despite the sampling difficulties, and so on, referred to in the report, could it have been brought about by the content of lead in the air or in the dust at Gravelly Hill?

The EEC draft Directive which we are discussing states on page 16: From the many metabolic studies and epidemiological surveys on the affects of atmospheric lead on block lead levels we may conclude that the blood lead level rises by I to 2 microgrammes per 100 millilitres for every microgramme per cubic metre present in the atmosphere". Work at Harwell suggests that the relationship is nearer 1:1 and that view was supported by Sir Richard Doll in his evidence to the House of Lords Select Committee during its review of the draft Directive.

If we assume that exposure to an average of 1 microgramme of lead per cubic metre of air results in an increase of blood lead of 1·5 microgrammes per 100 millilitres, the suggested increase of 4 to 5 microgrammes in the blood of the Gravelly Hill residents would require an increase in the average air lead of about 3 microgrammes per cubic metre. Has this increase occurred?

Results of lead-in-air monitoring have been reported by the joint working party in both its first report and its interim report. For Salford Circus, which is within the interchange network, the results are as follows. In the first report, covering the period from October 1971 to August 1972, the average lead in air was 145 microgrammes per cubic metre. In the interim report, covering the period from May 1972 to May 1973, the average lead in air was 1·81 microgrammes per cubic metre. Again, in the interim report for the subsequent period May 1973 to December 1974 the average lead in air was down to 1·53 microgrammes.

The interim report continues: At sites further from the motorway airborne lead concentrations are lower and are typically about 0·8 microgrammes per cubic metre on a monthly average basis in the residential area. That is also very similar to the previous situation before the opening of the interchange.

It is thus clear from these official reports that no increase in the general lead-in-air level has occurred, certainly nothing comparable with the 3 microgrammes per cubic metre which would be necessary to give a measurable increase in the lead in blood concentrations.

There is no record of the lead-in-dust concentrations in Gravelly Hill district prior to the opening of the interchange, but since then extensive analyses have been made. These indicate, as my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) pointed out, that the lead content in Gravelly Hill dust is comparable with that of dust in residential areas of Birmingham.

The Minister of State was kind enough, in answer to a Question of mine on Friday 26th March, to state that his view that lead in petrol, taken in isolation, did not constitute a health hazard, was based in part on the work of Professor Barbara Clayton, of the Hospital for Sick Children. I wonder whether the Minister has read the paper "Lead—the relation of Environment and Experimental Work", published in the British Medical Bulletin in September 1975, by Professor Barbara Clayton. If he has, will he say when he replies whether he has found anything in it to justify the proposed actions of the Government?

The Minister said in the earlier debate that the Government would continue researching into the problems of lead, and that if there is further evidence of risk to health we shall consider moving to lower limits even more quickly than I have already announced."—[Official Report, 4th March 1976; Vol. 906, c. 1680.] To my mind, the Government have failed to produce any convincing evidence whatsoever, relevant to the United Kingdom, to show that the use of lead in petrol has anything more than a trivial impact on the normal lead content of human beings—in the main stemming from naturally-occurring lead in food—and has no relevance to the incidence of ill health in children or adults.

The inter-departmental report "Lead in the Environment and its Significance to Man" states that in the great majority of cases, air-borne lead seems unlikely to account for more than a minor proportion of the total lead uptake of the body and that no significant correlation exists between airborne levels and blood lead levels of exposed people". The report goes on further to say that the great increase in the use of the motor car has little to do with lead in the atmosphere, even at such places as Spaghetti Junction. It refers to the concentration of lead in city dusts in urban streets and gives figures to support its conclusions that very similar concentrations were observed as long ago as 1928".