Oil Seed Rape (Allergy)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 10:54 pm on 8th February 1990.

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Photo of Andrew Welsh Andrew Welsh , Angus East 10:54 pm, 8th February 1990

My purpose in drawing this subject to the attention of the House is to air an issue that is important to the health of the many sufferers who blame flowering oil seed rape for their allergies and to meet the needs of those involved in agriculture, for whom this crop is an important source of income. Both the public and farmers have a right to seek action from the Government in producing a solution to a proven problem.

Oil seed rape is a relatively new crop, appearing in the mid and late 1960s in England and Wales and from 1981 in Scotland. Its popularity, encouraged by Common Market subsidy, has seen a 25-fold increase in its planting in Europe, a 47-fold increase over 21 years in the United Kingdom, and a spectacular rise in Scotland from 0 per cent. to 14 per cent. of the United Kingdom total in only nine years. There has been an estimated 25 per cent. rise in the planting of the crop this year alone.

To clarify the extent of the situation, perhaps the Minister will inform the House, if he can, of the acreage of oil seed rape and of spring-sown oil seed rape that will be grown in 1990 as a percentage of previous years. What are the Government's figures for the acreage of brassica compestris or turnip rape that is to be grown in 1990 and its percentage change? I ask that because I should like to know whether the Minister is aware of the extent to which those forms of rape will extend the flowering period of the rape crop and thus the period during which complaints may occur. If he does not have those figures to hand, perhaps he will respond in writing at a later date, because far from going away, the problem is here to stay and is increasing rather than decreasing.

Oil seed rape is a popular and lucrative cash crop, which is very much suited to Scottish conditions. It is a major agricultural income-earner and has seen a massive and rapid expansion in its planting and thus in the exposure of the public to its effects on health. That creates problems for the general public, agricultural workers and livestock. The Minister may be aware of reports suggesting that oil seed rape may cause disease in animals, especially horses and dogs. I should be grateful if the Minister could make it clear whether he believes that the problem requires urgent investigation.

Other factors such as spring sowing, mild winters and new varieties are extending the oil seed rape flowering season and are adding to the problems. Quite simply, this is a situation on the move. Changes in varieties are occurring, especially from single to double low breeds, and in species, with the introduction of brassica compestris rape as well as of spring-grown brassica napus rape with its extended flowering period. All those changes in agricultural techniques will increase and influence allergic responses among the general public and agricultural workers.

Has the Minister any information to hand about the effect of the introduction of double low varieties of oil seed rape on allergic responses? Can he provide any facts about the effect on human health of sulphur-containing matabolites in cruciferous crops? On what exactly is the present policy of non-intervention based? There is now solid evidence pointing to oil seed rape as a source of health problems. Stories of harmful effects of the crop on health were at first anecdotal, with patients who reported to general practitioners' surgeries showing a wide range of symptoms during the oil seed rape flowering season. Doctors in Angus have consistently drawn that to my attention over many years.

Oil seed rape, with its bright yellow flower and heavy scent, is in some ways a very obvious and easy target at which to direct blame for a range of allergy symptoms, such as eczema, hay fever, coughing, sneezing, headaches, asthma and simple general debilitation. The question is: is it the culprit? Now, thanks to the Angus district council and Dundee university joint research project, there can be no doubt that there is a definite link between oil seed rape and allergic responses. Nor can there be any doubt that the problem is widespread, posing the real possibility of a public health nuisance and of a specific health hazard to agricultural workers.

During the 1989 flowering season, an epidemiological study was carried out in the village of Bowriefauld near Letham, in Angus. Angus district council, to its great credit, funded that study in response to allegations of public health nuisance. Eighty-five adults and 40 children were studied, and medical information obtained before, during and after the flowering season—using questionnaires, diary cards and standard skin and blood tests, along with the monitoring of pollen counts, wind-speed direction, temperatures and pollen collected by the Scottish Crop Research Institute in Invergowrie.

The results were both startling and clear: 46 per cent. of the study population reported symptoms at the time when oil seed rape pollen counts were high and when no other pollens were present. The culprit is clear. Half of those individuals confirmed positive allergy tests. Allergy skin testing revealed that reactivity increased from 5 per cent. before the flowering season to 38 per cent. after the season. That is a massive rise compared to the 20 per cent. sensitivity normally shown for most allergic substances.

Many previously non-allergic persons became reactive—suggesting that oil seed rape is a very potent inducer of allergy. Individuals sensitised to oil seed rape were very likely to become sensitised to other substances also, such as grass pollen, animal danders, and house dust mites. All that suggests that oil seed rape might well be triggering off allergic reactions to other substances. That must be a cause for concern.

As almost half the study group had symptoms that were due to oil seed rape, does the Minister agree that it is reasonable to infer that half the population in areas where oil seed rape is grown may equally be affected by these problems? Do the Government not regard it as alarming that oil seed rape may contribute to the development of other allergies and that it may seriously disturb the immunity of people in contact with the crop? If that is not a spur to action, what would be?

The study gives rise to major doubts about oil seed rape and should have been the stimulus for further detailed research to discover the exact nature of the problem and its solution. But, so far, Government funding has not been forthcoming. Previous experience at the Scottish Crop Research Institute reinforces the evidence and has revealed similar problems for staff working with brassicas as well as other related plants. The problems range from rashes and blisters, especially on the face and hands, but occasionally more widespread—for example, for staff wearing shorts or short-sleeved shirts—all the way to asthma and hay fever. For some staff the problems have become so severe that they have had to discontinue work with brassica crops. For others there has been a need to avoid contact with those crops, most usually at the time of flowering, either by not entering the glasshouses or seed production tunnels where the plants are in flower, or by wearing gloves or using barrier creams.

There has always been some doubt as to whether pollen alone is involved. Some staff complain of discomfort from breathing what they describe as acrid vapour given off by flowering brassicas. Others are aware of a strong smell, often as far as half a mile from the flowering crop, but suffer no ill effects. Yet others cannot smell the crop but suffer ill effects, which disappear as soon as they are no longer in close proximity to the crop. The men and women working with the crop know and confirm the views of the wider population.

The Minister will know that the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries for Scotland has funded research into the harmful effects on deer of ingestion of oil seed rape. That shows an odd sense of priority, given the human suffering. The Minister disagrees, but, as far as I am aware, money was made available for research on animals but none has so far been provided for research on human beings. That is the point of raising the matter.

The Government denied any link between ill health and oil seed rape when I first raised it. I note that in his reply to me of 29 June 1988 the Minister, Lord Skelmersdale, admitted: Oil seed rape pollen may be allergenic and affect the upper respiratory tract causing allergic rhinitis and the airways causing asthma.

The Angus district study confirms that. Deeper and more detailed probing is required.

The scale of scientific investigation has to be expanded to ensure that the high responses observed initially are maintained in a larger study, and to relate more closely the symptoms observed to specific events in the growth and flowering of oil seed rape. We need to ascertain whether the problem relates purely to pollen release or involves chemicals released by the plant, some of which are mustard oils, which are known from other work to cause acute irritation to skin and mucous membranes.

Given the economic importance of oil seed rape to the Scottish economy, the problem should be resolved by modification of the crop's characteristics and not by its elimination or its restricted growth in unpopulated areas. The required research is such that funding from Government agencies is essential. That is my plea to the Government.

In view of the fact that in Tayside there is an established research group, drawn from several institutions, with the necessary expertise to research the problem, and that two and a half years of experience is already credited to the group, can the Minister explain why it has not been funded, and why funding has not been made available for studies during the 1990 flowering season? Again, is the Minister aware that medical, immunological, agricultural and environmental expertise have been co-ordinated through the environmental health department of Angus district, the Scottish Crop Research Institute at Invergowrie and the medical school of the university of Dundee?

The ability to tackle the problem exists already. Is the Minister aware of any other research group with such expertise? If so, has the problem been studied in depth over a period? I am anxious that those with expertise should tackle the problem and produce solutions. The means of solving the remaining parts of the medical jigsaw puzzle are there. Is the Minister aware that the problem has been investigated in Tayside for two and a half years? Will he not use the existing expertise and knowledge urgently? I ask him to introduce immediately a two-pronged attack on the problem, with the funding of research into new, non-allergic strains of oil seed rape which would ensure that agriculture will not awaken in a few years to find the health risk totally proven and a major financial crisis on its hands. That can be avoided by action now to investigate and eliminate the problem. Failure to do so will represent serious neglect by the Government.

The second line of attack must be to discover through medical research the exact nature and cause of the allergies which would lead to their elimination and to the end of the suffering of large numbers of people whose only crime is to live near or pass by fields of flowering oil seed rape.

I pay tribute to Les Cameron, the director of environmental health, to the convener of the committee, who happens to be my wife, Councillor Sheena Welsh, and to the councillors of Angus district who have supported the work done by Dr. Parratt of Ninewells hospital and Bill McFarlane Smith of the Scottish Crop Reserach Institute, all of whom have done a public service in providing scientific evidence to track down the source and cause of this major health problem. We do not know the exact nature of the problem, although the symptoms and the human misery attached to it are clear and obvious.

The Angus district study shows that 40 per cent. of persons living in one rural environment become sensitive to the pollen of oil seed rape during the flowering season and many have hay fever symptoms as a result. Conventional grass fever affects at most, only 15 per cent. of the population. Oil seed rape is a major environmental hazard during the months of April to July. That period may well be extended because of the extra growth in the new types of crops.

The position deserves closer attention to seek out the truth and remedy the problems. The Government must act now, rather than awakening later, in a year's time or so, to find a major crisis in one of the nation's leading crops. If oil seed rape is poisoning the general population. we must find out why and cure the problem. Inaction will only inflict greater misery on the population and unnecessarily endanger the livelihoods of farmers. The Government should act now.