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 Frank Hooley Mr Frank Hooley , Sheffield, Heeley 12:00 am, 5th April 1976

I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Minister of State on his initiative in setting up the joint working party to study the question of Gravelly Hill. Studies have been conducted elsewhere in the kingdom which bear out some of the findings in this report.

Reference has been made to uncertainty expressed in the report and so conflict between some of the findings. There are two findings which are consistent throughout the report. The first is that there is a direct correlation between density of traffic and lead pollution in the atmosphere and dust. I shall not quote too many examples of this consistency in the report. One is on page 4: The site at Salford Circus is very near the carriageways of the intercharge (within about 45 metres) and airborne lead concentrations are characteristed by being higher during the day, when traffic flow is heavy, than at night. On average, concentrations at night are currently about 60 per cent, of the daytime values. Put the other way round, it means that the concentration when the traffic is heavy is 66⅔ per cent, higher than a times when traffic is virtually absent or very low. There are several other examples to that effect.

The second consistency in the report which cannot be escaped from is that there is a direct correlation between lead concentration and traffic density. There are some interesting figures on pages 12 and 13 of the document. On page 12 it is stated that A small but statistically significant trend towards higher blood lead concentrations was observed in children living in the inner and middle rings, as compared with those living in the outer ring and Sutton Coldfield. I ought to know something about the atmosphere in Sutton Coldfield because I live there.

On page 13 it is stated that Of the 714 children in the study, only 20 had blood leads equal to or greater than 25 ug/100 ml, the highest being 34 ug/100 ml. which, incidentally, is only a microgramme below the danger level. Of these 20 children, 7 lived in the inner ring, 11 in the middle ring, 1 in the outer ring and 1 in Sutton Coldfield. Thus, there is a quite clear correlation between traffic density and lead concentration in the atmosphere and in the blood.

Great play has been made by the economic and commercial interests, who want to make money out of the situation, of the fact that the lead level in the blood arising from this cause is small. As my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Silverman) said, the key point is that this is superimposed on, and additional to, the naturally occurring lead. The problem with lead, as with other toxic materials, is that the body cannot get rid of them once they are absorbed. This is the problem that arose with strontium 90 following nuclear fallout. The body is not able to rid itself of such toxic substances, and if the toxic content goes above a certain threshold it becomes very serious.

Another disturbing point about the report is that apparently there is very little evidence of the effect on the youngest children. I quote from page 14 of the report: However, there is a dearth of adequate information on the blood lead levels of young children living in our cities and this gap needs to be filled, in particular because of the possible exposure of the very young to lead in dusts. The Working Party therefore recommend that a survey of urban children aged 1–7 years be carried out on the same basis as the survey reported herein. Expertise and analytical facilities fully able to carry out such work now exist in Birmingham and the Working Party therefore recommend an extension of the current programme to cover this need. In case it be thought that we are talking about one particular spot, namely Gravelly Hill, in which this phenomenon has been observed, I point out that similar work has also been done in Manchester. Research scientists in the Department of Chemistry at Manchester University have carried out measurements of lead in children, which have shown that it would be possible for a child to consume at least 10 times its tolerable daily lead intake from 20 contaminated sweets or other objects that it may pick up and suck. These scientists at Manchester emphasise that the problem posed is urgent and important, and they point out that while upper limits are laid down by statute for the amount of lead in food and paint, there is no regulation of lead in urban and city dust.

It should be remembered that the working party has been in operation for only a short period, over the past two years or so. The work has not proceeded over a lengthy period, but already the working party has come up with some rather disturbing factors. The tragedy is that this country had every intention of coming down to the 0·40 level on 1st November 1974. Not on economic grounds but on health grounds it was proposed to come down to that level, but unfortunately, with the onset of the oil crisis, we changed our minds and did not take that action. However, I believe there is a very strong reason why we should act in the terms of the amendment to this motion.

I want to make a comment on the financial problem. There is a company called Associated Octel which has been bombarding me with masses of paper during the last two or three days, apparently fearing that I might contribute to this debate. I point out that a professor of organic chemistry, Professor Bryce-Smith, published a letter in The Guardian on 22nd March. He is a man who has devoted an enormous amount of time and energy to the study of the whole question of lead pollution, and I should have thought that his views demanded a certain amount of respect. He said in his letter: Moreover, the US Environmental Protection Agency has estimated the extra refining costs for implementing their proposed low-lead recommendations as a paltry 0·1 per cent, per gallon—about one-twentieth of a penny. I assume that the United States Environmental Agency has a reasonable way of making its calculations, and if that one-twentieth of a penny is anything like the real cost I would have thought it was well worth paying that sum to avoid the possibility of serious environmental danger.

Everybody in the House knows that about two decades ago the country was prepared to tolerate quite absurd levels of air pollution poured out into the air by domestic and industrial chimneys. The tragedy of the famous "smog" in 1952 or 1953 eventually persuaded the country that this was intolerable. We had the Clean Air Act, and I can testify from Sheffield what a colossal difference this made in the general environmental quality, apart from reducing the incidence of bronchial and heart disease. Before the introduction of that Act, pollution took a terrible toll in the city.

Here we are dealing with a much more subtle poison. We cannot see the gases. We cannot see the lead that is pumped into the air, although we know it is there. The contaminant is there. We also know that countries whose concern for the environment is not significantly less than ours—sophisticated industrial countries, like West Germany and the United States—have become gravely concerned about this problem and have been moved to take action on it. I do not believe that we are so desperately poor and downtrodden that we cannot carry some modest charge, if such a charge be necessary, in order to reduce what is an undoubted hazard to our environment.

Therefore, I hope the Government will move much more rapidly in the spirit of the amendment and will disregard the rather shabby commercial arguments produced by interested parties.