Orders of the Day — Fluorine Pollution

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 18th January 1979.

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Motion made and Question proposed,That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Bates.]

10 p.m.

Photo of Mr Peter Hardy Mr Peter Hardy , Rother Valley

It is not my purpose to discuss the desirability of ensuring that drinking water contains a tiny proportion of fluoride for reasons of dental health. It may be that in that context it could have advantage. However, in more significant proportions fluoride can be very harmful indeed. It certainly has caused enormous problems for my constituent, Mr. Reg Ellis, of Warren House farm, Upper Haugh, in Rother Valley. As a result of my consideration of his experience and matters related to it, I shall be asking my hon. Friend to respond to a number of questions.

Warren House farm is part of the Wentworth Estate, one of many farms in this part of my constituency which have been operated with general success since important agricultural reforms were carried out during the eighteenth century. The farm adjoins the site of the Warren House colliery, which closed many years ago. The seam from which it is named stretches to the Selby coalfield and beyond. Mr. Ellis succeeded his father as tenant of the farm and is now a veteran farmer.

Over many years he built up a herd of Shorthorns, a herd which I had observed since my boyhood and which provided a pleasing balance to the much more common Friesian cattle. Reg Ellis was satisfied with both the meat and milk production his strain provided. Then came the tragedies which I raise tonight.

First, in 1976 and within a month 17head of cattle were lost and all value sacrificed by the onset of what has proved to be fluorosis. As the months passed other cattle were lost. One of the later ones was Mr. Ellis's good bull which, with other animals, went lame and was lost last autumn.

I am not an expert in animal health, but the cattle I saw at the farm last July were quite obviously badly and distressingly affected and a far cry from the animals I have seen on the Warren House fields over the years. Those cattle had deteriorated very badly and very swiftly. Altogether Reg Ellis has lost 34 head of cattle. He is not a big farmer and that loss represents the disappearance of a substantial part of his capital. I doubt if the total received for the whole 34, such was the effect of the disease, reached four figures.

I hope my hon. Friend will take my word for it that this farm should hold a total of 60 or more animals, including the young stock. Mr. Ellis needs to buy re-placements, and I really do not think he can be expected to do so, given the modern costs of cattle. A good dairy cow will cost at least £400. His herd should be a dairy herd, but he has seen his milk production diminish from 60 or 70 to about two gallons a day. Commercial operation has been destroyed, and that means that income has gone as well as capital.

Following my visit immediately after the local NFU contacted me, I wrote to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary at the Ministry of Agriculture. His initial response was, as we would expect, one of sympathy and interest. I was able to inform Mr. Ellis almost immediately that studies were in hand.

The Ministry seemed to suggest that atmospheric pollution was the cause. There may have been historic reasons for this, for fluoride contamination and fluorosis were once not rare in South Yorkshire. This is shown in the Burns and Allcroft report, which mapped the position fairly clearly 15 or 20 years ago. But, since then, there has been a vast change in our polluting activities. Indus-try has taken more care or dramatically changed its character. The British Steel Corporation is now able to tell me that it does not emit fluorides in the South Yorkshire area, yet 20 years ago the areas windward of the steel works at Stocks-bridge and Rotherham were very often terribly polluted by fluoride. That is not now the case.

I maintained my open mind about the source as the months passed. I also kept up pressure until by chance I learned that Mr. Ellis's earlier suspicions were justified. The sewage sludge provided by the Yorkshire water authority was heavily contaminated.

I regret, and I must stress, that the water authority has not yet replied to a letter that I sent to Leeds as soon as I felt sure that sewage sludge was the real cause of the havoc wreaked on my constituent's farm. That belief has been reinforced by the commendable and detailed care shown by the local authority, the Rotherham borough council.

The environmental health department of the council commenced and maintained detailed monitoring of not only the farm but other sites. The monitoring suggested that fluoride pollution in the area has fallen substantially in recent years and that at Warren House farm it is now quite insignificant. The highest weekly average measurement at Warren House farm was a factor of 50 below the threshold limit value, an American measurement adopted in 1957. On occasions there was no trace of the substance.

I gather from the grapevine, which sometimes serves us a little better than public bodies, that the sewage sludge used at Warren House contained 25,000 parts per million. It may be that fluoride content was high at the time when the disease struck. It may have been that the unaccustomed drought conditions, in association with the high level of pollution, was responsible for the rapid development of the disease. I hope that my hon. Friend will comment on that.

I hope that my hon. Friend will agree that the Yorkshire water authority should accept responsibility without delay and ensure that Mr. Ellis is able to pursue his occupation with disadvantage re-stored. I should deplore any delay or any attempt to defer justice by complex procedures or litigation. I understand that an officer of the authority has visited Mr. Ellis recently. I hope that that is a good sign and that there will soon be a happy outcome.

My hon. Friend will appreciate that when I saw the bad condition of Reg Ellis's cows last July I was deeply anxious about human health. A mile or two south of the farm there are thousands of my Rawmarsh constituents. Fortunately, the authorities proved swift in their response. I am especially grateful to Mr. Neil Morton, the director of environmental health at Rotherham, and to the present mayor, Councillor Charles Breet, who chaired the committee and who is the representative of the ward.

The council has been able to provide me with detailed information. It has provided expert advice about fluorosis. It has provided details published by the Health and Safety Executive. That information allowed me to feel rather re-assured. At the same time, I was given reassurance by an experienced alkali inspector. Initial anxiety was relieved although it was not allayed entirely.

I do not wish to sensationalise, but I hope that my hon. Friend has had an opportunity to read either Mr. Malcolm Stewart's report in The Guardian or theJournal of Occupational Medicine of America of January 1977. Those sources suggest that public bodies in this country may be offering reassurance that is not entirely justified.

We have known about the disease for some time. It was recognised in the1930s when it was known that skeletal abnormalities, calcification of ligaments and certain non-skeletal conditions could result from exposure to fluoride pollution in significant quantities. I accept that we are less likely to incur disadvantage than cattle. We do not eat like cattle, which graze short and redigest. However, it seems fairly obvious that there can be extremely harmful effects upon man as well as upon farm beasts.

Given what happened at Warren House farm before the sludge contamination was established, we could surely have seen amore alert and vigorous national response. I do not criticise our local alkali inspector, and certainly not the local authority. But I believe that the assurance that I was given about the lack of harm to human beings was not wholly justified. I say that as a result of consideration of experience in Bedfordshire, where substantial emissions from brick works occur.

It seems that in the Bedfordshire area also reassurance is offered. The liaison committee sponsored by the county authority suggested in a press release last November that there was no cause for concern. However, one resident in the area, a Mr. P. Goode, who farms in Ridgmont, near Bedford, who has been extremely helpful and supplied me with a great deal of information, was told by the deputy chief alkali inspector that there has been no organised monitoring. Clearly, present arrangements do not allow adequate supervision of fluoride emission. How anyone can say that there is no evidence of a public health hazard is somewhat suspect.

It has been stated that if harmful effect is shown the appropriate Government Departments will investigate. However, anxiety is not relieved by the knowledge that the DHSS may not keep adequate records on relevant matters and that there is an absence of organised monitoring. This absence of monitoring and of relevant records might make investigation rather abortive in any case. Mr. Goode was right to remind the authorities in his area that since evidence is lacking they should not have offered such categoric assurances.

The experience in Bedfordshire, and my own doubts about the swift reassurance that I was given, suggest that we do not know enough. Nor do we monitor enough or keep sufficient relevant records to be absolutely confident. There should be more research on a sustained basis to ascertain whether, for example, there is a long-term link between this contamination and arthritis. Certainly, we should take much more care about levels of fluoride in the atmosphere.

I have asked my area health authority to consider the incidence of limb fractures among the elderly in my area which once suffered severe pollution. I want it to compare that with a similar group of people from an area where there has been no pollution. Perhaps my hon. Friend will indicate whether the Department will pursue the matter. I cannot see how existing arrangements are adequate. Possibly the Open university will make a helpful contribution, because I gather from The Guardian that it is to be involved. I welcome the concern which has developed.

Also there is cause for relief in that those responsible for the aluminium smelter at Invergordon have established an arrangement whereby, if a local farmer loses cattle as a result of fluorosis, a veterinary surgeon gives certification and compensation is paid without delay. Whether the long-term interest is sufficient to ascertain whether the farmer involved is affected is rather more doubtful. The United States Department of Agriculture regards airborne fluorides as the most damaging of pollutants.

The Ministry of Agriculture published advice last year—AF 51—a document concerned with the use of sewage sludge as a fertiliser. I stress that we should not waste this valuable substance. We need fertiliser and that is a very good source. However, I regret that in the report there is no reference to fluoride, although there is to other dangers. Could additional advice be given if there is any use of contaminated sludge or sludge which has not been analysed which might be contaminated? In such cases it should not be used, particularly on grazing land. If there is any risk of a combination of moderately contaminated sludge with the use of compound rations with a high phosphorous content, great caution should be exercised.

I welcome the much safer air of South Yorkshire today. It may be that what we had in our air is now being increasingly concentrated in our sewage effluent. This would imperil wise use of material for fertilising our fields. At least our air is cleaner. It would be rather nice to make sure that we used our waste wisely as well.

On the other hand, we do not face the same problems of areas such as Bedford-shire, where pollution continues. Obviously my concern must be about the Rother Valley, and I ask my hon. Firend whether he will ensure that there is adequate analysis of sewage and whether there is any possibility of an arrangement to filter the noxious substances out. Can we be absolutely sure that no more contaminated sludge will be deposited on curpastures?

I emphasise that the official view is that fluoro-emissions in Britain today are not a danger to human health. I believe that that reassurance should be re-examined and, if there is any doubt at all, adequate research should begin. I hope that we can have that assurance without delay.

I repeat that my constituent's dreadful experience should not be ignored. It illustrates the need for adequate safe-guards and secure arrangements. It also demonstrates how tragic damage has been caused to an individual without any fault on his part. He should be compensated and I hope that the Minister will encourage the water authority to ensure that this is swiftly provided. Then that farm can soon resume its long history of good quality and palatable food production.

10.15 p.m.

Photo of Mr Peter Doig Mr Peter Doig , Dundee West

May I make a short point? There is a brain-washing campaign going on concerning toothpaste which contains fluoride. One may buy toothpaste but it is very difficult to know whether it contains fluoride. Can the Government do something, first, to stop this brainwashing campaign? Secondly, could they make it compulsory for those who sell toothpaste to say which toothpastes do not contain fluoride, because many people are looking for such toothpaste?

10.16 p.m.

Photo of Mr Kenneth Marks Mr Kenneth Marks , Manchester, Gorton

I shall ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services to take note of what my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, West (Mr. Doig) has said.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Hardy)for raising this matter on the Adjournment because it provides a valuable opportunity for me to deal, so far as I can, with the specific problem of my hon. Friend's constituent, Mr. Ellis, as well as to answer other questions which this subject may raise generally in the minds of hon. Members.

The subject spans several Departments' interests and I have been in close touch this week with the Ministry of Agriculture,Fisheries and Food and the Department of Health and Social Security, as well as with the Yorkshire water authority and other local bodies. I endorse what my hon. Friend said about Rotherham metropolitan district and its environmental health officers because of the work that they had done.

I have read both articles in The Guardian on the case to which my hon. Friend referred, as well as the Bedford-shire case, and I propose to have further meetings with the various Departments and to include the Alkali Inspectorate in future meetings.

The Yorkshire water authority has invited Mr. Ellis to approach it with a representative of the National Farmers' Union to discuss ways of assisting him with his problem. I understand that the authority enjoys good relations with Mr. Ellis and that it took the initiative before this debate was requested. My hon. Friend will, however, be aware that there has been some speculation and, as I have realised this week, some controversy, about the source of the fluoride contamination which caused the illness in these animals, although I know my hon. Friend has his own opinions about the cause. Results of investigations are still inconclusive and incomplete. I believe that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has explained that point, and I know my hon. Friend will appreciate that, with the sensitive question of compensation in mind, the Ministry has been concerned to avoid premature comment and conjecture.

I am sure my hon. Friend will appreciate that I cannot comment to night on the question of compensation. Never the less, I know that the water authority is sympathetic to Mr. Ellis's problem of financial loss and appreciates that he does not want to await the results of the various investigations being carried out and it has, without prejudice to the out-come of the investigations, offered to help where it can.

However, I am sure the water authority would like to stress that, whatever the cause, the situation that has arisen is extremely rare and that the combination of circumstances involved is quite unusual. As my hon. Friend said, the contamination caused by atmospheric pollution is one possibility and has been a certain factor in the past. The spreading of digested sludge on the land is another. We have to ask our selves whether there has been a combination of these factors.

In the past, fluorosis in cattle was generally associated with certain industrial areas producing high emissions of fluorides into the atmosphere. Rotherham was one such area, with a history of fluorosis going back to the 1940s. In fact Rotherham is, I believe, one of the few areas, if not the only one, manufacturing fluorine compounds as the main product, as distinct from those produced as by-products of other processes. Tighter emission standards required by the Alkali Inspectorate have, in the past decade or so, brought about considerable improvement in airborne pollution although evidence exists to show that intermittent atmospheric contamination has affected some farms in the area up to 1975.

The case is the first brought to my attention where it has been suggested that contamination stems from a high concentration of fluorides in sewage sludge. The argument, of course, is that the reduction of fluorides in the atmosphere has transferred the problem from atmospheric pollution to the liquid trade effluent received at Aldwarke sewage works and applied to Mr. Ellis's land. However, from investigations conducted so far, a number of factors cannot be reconciled to show that the sewage sludge is necessarily the cause of the contamination which started in 1976. One factor concerns the timing of the application of sludge to the land in relation to the normal course and manifestation of the disease. Sludge was first applied in May1976 and in the same year well established clinical symptoms are known to have appeared. I am advised by the Ministry of Agriculture's veterinary service that the symptoms take at least a year to manifest themselves, which means that if sludge was the cause it would have to have been spread in 1975or earlier. My hon. Friend has pointed out that 1975 and 1976 were drought years and that that may have had an effect. I shall follow up that idea.

Other factors concern the fluctuations of fluorine in the soil. Though tests have shown that some levels have been un-deniably high—the implications of different patterns of farming in the area—Iunderstand that Mr. Ellis's cattle are in pasture all year round, whereas other cattle are taken in for winter feeding. There is a lack of similar evidence from any of the other 35 farms in the area which have received Aldwarke sludge,18 of which have cattle.

Take-up of fluorine by vegetation and herbage is minimal as only the soluble fluorine is available, but it is arguable whether the insoluble portion remaining in the soil could be ingested continually by cattle. All these aspects need further investigation and I hope that my hon. Friend will accept that position.

But I should like to make a number of points generally by way of assurance for the future. First, my Department's guidelines on sludge disposal do not refer to a limit or analysis for fluorine be-cause it has not been regarded as a problem in the past. However, I am considering suitable modifications to the guide-lines for the future for all water authorities, although I see no reason to depart from the views expressed in 1970 by the working party on sewage disposal which advocated the application of sewage sludge to land as good agricultural practice. My hon. Friend has confirmed that view. The South Yorkshire code has already been adopted for analysis of fluorine. I shall draw the attention of the DHSS and the Minister of Agriculture to what my hon. Friend said about the need for analysis of certain cases.

Secondly, although the water authority's current agreement with industrialists for the reception and treatment of trade waste containing fluoride cannot be altered until1980, it is the authority's intention to reduce the fluoride content in the waste as soon as it can legally do so.

Thirdly, disposal on pasture land was discontinued as soon as the fluorosis was confirmed. The water authority does not propose to resume this practice until the levels of fluoride in the industrial effluent have been reduced. Disposal on arable land was discontinued because of weather conditions and, when resumed, will continue to be applied strictly within accept-able limits.

My hon. Friend also expressed concern about the wider aspects of human health. These matters are more for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services. I refer him to a written reply on 11th April last year when it was said that no human hazard had been shown by inhalation of fluoride. I also refer him to the Adjournment debate on 10thNovember 1978.

Other reports and investigations have shown that man's fluoride intake from vegetables in contaminated areas is insignificant that the fluoride content of milk from cows suffering from fluorosis is negligible and that there is no specific accumulation of fluoride in the meat. and prolonged boiling of bones from cattle bred in contaminataed areas has shown that there is no hazard to man in the making of soups and stews. The negligible intake of fluorides from the meat or milk of affected cattle would not affect the safety of the consumption by humans of fluoridated water containing one part per million of fluoride—a concentration which takes account of dietary intake.

I am aware of the emissions from the London Brick Company's works in Bedfordshire and the case of Peter Goode to which my hon. Friend referred. The company has been farming dairy herds local to the Stewart by works in Bedford-shire for many years, and appears to have demonstrated that good husbandry methods make it possible for farming to be successfully carried out in the area despite the presence of fluorides. How-ever, this matter is currently under discussion with the Ministry of Agriculture central veterinary laboratory at Weybridge, and a further investigation is being considered.

I am assured that the Alkali Inspector-ate is concerned about the problems associated with these brickworks. I understand that a liaison committee, including the relevant local authorities, was established in 1974. The inspectorate considers that continued external monitoring might pro-vide additional information and is accordingly co-operating fully with the company, the local authorities and other organisations.

The case of the Invergordon smelting plant is not directly comparable with this case. Invergordon involved planning per-mission with a condition relating to monitoring procedures. Although the power under English law to impose planning conditions is wide, case law has limited the discretion of planning authorities and it is accepted that conditions must serve a genuine planning purpose. Monitoring might be included as a planning condition but anything wider than that would not be acceptable under planning law.

Finally, I return to the subject of compensation. We are, of course, always ready to consider measures to deal with hardships, where no other remedy is avail-able. But a formalised compensation system is not the answer. Where responsibility for damage can be allocated with-out difficulty, the court or other tribunal will be able to assess the compensation under the law as it stands—usually on the basis of restoring the injured party to the position that he was in before the damage. But where, as in this case, responsibility cannot easily be ascertained, and there may be no breach of a statutory function, formal rules clearly have no part to play. But the water authority is meeting my hon. Friend's constituent informally on that matter.

Photo of Mr Peter Hardy Mr Peter Hardy , Rother Valley

Will my hon. Friend en-sure that the water authority writes to me and that consideration is given to the possibility of another national survey?

Photo of Mr Kenneth Marks Mr Kenneth Marks , Manchester, Gorton

I give my hon. Friend that assurance. I shall keep in close touch with the Yorkshire water authority. My right hon. Friends the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Secretary of State for Social Services will maintain a watch on the considerable re-search that is being carried out into atmospheric and possible soil pollution from the disposal of sewage sludge in this way.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-eight minutes past Ten o'clock.