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Column 1364depression, memory loss, vomiting, sore eyes, urticaria--raised red areas on the body--oedema, which is an abnormal accumulation of fluid in body tissues that causes swelling, diarrhoea, and loss of appetite. Lindane also probably contributes to anorexia and irritable bowel syndrome. It clearly aggravates respiratory diseases and can cause nasal inflammation, sores and breathing problems. Long-term tiredness, which is sometimes diagnosed as myalgic encephalomyelitis, is also attributed to lindane exposure. The final disease on that list is epilepsy.
The constituent to whom I referred earlier subsequently gave birth to a child who suffers from CHARGE, which is a particularly sad and painful handicap. In such children, only part of the retina functions and in some cases, there are problems with the iris. The children also suffer from heart defects and blockage of the nasal passages due to bone material or a membrane and their growth is retarded. In male infants, the genitals are not properly formed and do not develop. They also suffer from ear abnormalities.
The Department of Health has been furnished with a considerable body of evidence and I believe that it shows that CHARGE is, at least in part, caused by the exposure of the mother between 35 and 45 days from conception to lindane or other chemicals of the same family, such as permethrin.
Lindane has been banned or is severely restricted in some countries, including New Zealand, Sweden and Finland. Forty years ago, doctors in the United States drew attention to the association of lindane with the bone marrow disease aplastic anaemia, in which the bone marrow stops producing blood cells that fight infection and the platelets that stop bleeding. As I said, that can be a fatal condition. Subsequently, the United States, which has vigorous environmental laws and agencies, banned the use of lindane as a wood preservative and pesticide for domestic use.
The hon. Member for Holland with Boston has also drawn attention to the link between breast cancer and lindane and I think that the evidence is compelling. Sixty-five per cent. of the milk that we buy contains small quantities of lindane and it has even shown up in human breast milk. British and American scientists now point to lindane as a factor in the high incidence of breast cancer in the United Kingdom. When lindane was banned in Israel in 1978 it was reported that the death rate from breast cancer among women under 35 fell by a third. I do not believe that that is a coincidence. In Britain, however, we are told by the various agencies-- and hitherto by Ministers--that the amount of lindane in our food is within acceptable safety guidelines. Experts who were interviewed for the "Dispatches" programme believe that even the minutest amounts of lindane are unsafe in the human body and that, ingested over long periods, the pesticide has a cumulative and extremely damaging effect on the body. Part of that programme focused on the county of Lincolnshire, which includes the constituency of the hon. Member for Holland with Boston and has one of the highest rates of the disease in the country. It is also an area where lindane is widely used for sugar beet production, which dominates that county.
On wood treatment--which was the subject of the earlier Adjournment debate in 1989--the Minister must bear in mind the fact that many contractors do not advise or counsel their customers to vacate treated rooms for up to 48 hours.
Column 1365That is the industry's guideline on the appropriate period for a room treated with lindane to be in quarantine. I think that 48 hours is woefully inadequate, but ample evidence shows that, for a variety of reasons, be they selfish and commercial or sheer ignorance, contractors do not advise their customers about the prudence of vacating rooms treated with the product even for that period. The London Hazard Centre believes that rooms should be vacated for not days but weeks, and the Building Research Establishment has shown that lindane can build up in the air for a month or more after treatment. Many public and commercial buildings, to which we are all exposed, are treated, but no warnings are given about whether we should enter. Clearly, pregnant women are particularly, although not exclusively, vulnerable and, where lindane has been applied or sprayed, warnings should be given by regulation. The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 1988 are being flouted and ignored on a widespread scale. Many contractors, employers and customers are not advised of the hazards and risks, or the need for protective clothing when lindane is being applied.
The veterinary medicine directorate and the pesticides safety directorate, which are supposed to advise and counsel the Government, are letting us down. I do not doubt the Government's good will in this matter. However, they should pause, take a step back and set up an inquiry that is independent of their existing advisers. Although those two directorates are not puppets of Government, they have been extremely weak, if not craven, inasmuch as they probably must follow the wider Government policy of not sending "the wrong signals to industry". The problem is that they are, to a large extent, both licensing and surveillance authorities so they have a vested interest in not proving that they have previously made a mistake in authorising licensing of an unsafe product.
The United Kingdom does not appear to have a duty of care with regard to regulations covering pharmaceutical and chemical products, as exists under common and civil law. We have no freedom of information Act, so companies can claim commercial confidentiality and refuse to release their research data. That is unacceptable. We need full disclosure of research data from producers and marketers of such products. Another problem is inappropriate and inadequately applied regulations. Testing by the producers of those products provides for safety clearance to start at the point of a product first being sold. Surveillance and evaluation frequently stop thereafter, whereas monitoring and examination should continue throughout the period of public use.
Extensive public concern exists about lindane and similar chemicals used in agriculture, manufacturing and the home. People have no confidence in the existing regulatory procedure. Public confidence is extremely important, so I hope that the Minister will make a name for himself and make one of the briefest speeches in an Adjournment debate by simply saying that he will examine not only the matter that I have raised but the evidence from all interested parties and individuals. He should examine evidence particularly from those who, although they may have suffered illness or even death, are not included in the statistics because many producers and manufacturers of those products have settled with them out of court. As a consequence of those settlements, cases of death and serious illness are not being fully examined or reported to Government.
Column 1366A line should be drawn, and the Government should give some expedition to independent re-examination of the matter.
I cannot help feeling and anticipating, although I hope that it will not be the case, that the Minister will use more or less the same brief as his colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Employment, the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls), used in 1989. If he does, may I draw attention to the fact that on that occasion the Employment Under-Secretary said:
"are taking place within the European Community, and the Government"--
that is the United Kingdom Government--
"have proposed across the board controls on the use of wood preservatives throughout the European Community."--[ Official Report , 28 February 1989; Vol. 148, c. 258.]
What has happened to that initiative? Years have passed, and now is the time for a line to be drawn. Now is the time for the Minister to make a name for himself in Brussels, and to say that the United Kingdom will not tolerate this any longer. It is time for him to say that we shall severely restrict the use of lindane and comparable chemicals and ban its use in the home, as have Finland and Sweden. This is not another "food scare". It is not a party issue, as I have demonstrated. It is a matter that causes widespread anxiety throughout the communities in the United Kingdom. I should like the Minister to respond accordingly.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Mr. Tom Sackville): I congratulate the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) on obtaining the debate, and on his courageous attempt to spell out ME in full. After two and a half years, I continue to have difficulty.
The hon. Member for Thurrock is right that there is widespread anxiety about pesticides and about many medicines and other substances, but I have to tell him one or two things in opening. First, we have probably the best regulatory system in the world. When the hon. Gentleman says that there is no confidence in it, I reply that, if there is no confidence in the system, it is because certain people who have an interest in shaking confidence in it, through often ill-researched and fairly irresponsible television programmes and so on, have gone out of their way to do so. The members of the committees that regulate medicines, pesticides and similar matters include some of the leading experts in the world, with enormous international and national reputations to maintain. I defy the hon. Gentleman to give me evidence that there is any covering up of facts.
Secondly, if some of the material that I shall give the hon. Gentleman today is the same as that which has been used before, it is because the facts have not changed. I can only state the facts as we understand them.
Lindane, sometimes known as gamma HCH, is an organochlorine pesticide, as the hon. Gentleman knows, which has been used to treat animals with external parasites. It continues to have an important role in killing pests on crops and treating wood to prevent pest infestation.
Column 1367The media have stated, and it has been stated elsewhere, that in some countries lindane has been banned. I understand that it has even been claimed that the United Kingdom is the only country that continues to use it. That is absolutely not so. Figures from every country in the world are not available, but in most developed countries, including the UK, lindane continues to be accepted for limited use, as an agricultural pesticide and for wood treatment. Lindane has been withdrawn from use as a pesticide in seven countries--Indonesia, Kuwait, Morocco, New Zealand and St. Lucia and two European countries, Sweden and Finland. The House will note that the list does not include Israel. That is because lindane continues to be accepted for use there, and the high levels of lindane reported to be found in Israeli food were due to its use as a cattle louse treatment whereby it was directly applied to the cattle. That use has, indeed, ceased.
Such use is not permitted in the United Kingdom. The use of lindane as a veterinary medicine was licensed under the Medicines Act 1968 by Ministers acting on the advice of the Veterinary Products Committee. Licences for sheep dips were revoked in 1984, and the last licence for other veterinary uses lapsed in 1991.
In this country, the advertisement, sale, supply, storage, and use of pesticides is subject to the Control of Pesticides Regulations 1986. Ministers approve pesticides under those regulations and those approvals set out the crops on which the pesticide may be used and the conditions of use. The statutory conditions of use are displayed on the label on the pesticide packaging. The agricultural inspectorate of the Health and Safety Executive monitors the application of those regulations and can prosecute those who fail to comply. The penalty on conviction in a magistrates court is a fine of up to £5,000 or an unlimited fine on conviction in a Crown court. Further control is exercised through the Pesticides (Maximum Residue Levels in Crops, Food and Feeding Stuffs) Regulations 1994. Anyone putting into circulation any product listed in the regulations which contains pesticide residues above the limits specified in those regulations can, on conviction, be fined on the same basis as the fines set for a conviction under the control of pesticides regulations. Both those controls are intended to protect the health of people using pesticides or who are exposed to them in any other way.
In the United Kingdom, the Government are advised on pesticide approvals and revocations by the Advisory Committee on Pesticides, a statutory body consisting of independent medical and scientific experts representing all the relevant specialisms related to human toxicology, environmental safety, agricultural, horticultural and other uses of pesticides. They have the necessary qualifications and experience to understand the research and interpret its findings on the safety and efficacy of pesticide use. Ministers must take the advice of that committee before they approve or revoke the use of any pesticide. I assure the House that the Government pay careful attention to the committee's advice and have always acted on it. Before any new pesticide is approved or when the approval for any existing pesticide is reviewed, the potential exposure of the users and people eating food that might contain residues is carefully assessed. Approval is not given if those exposures are likely to cause harmful
Column 1368health effects. As well as the evidence of exposure and of food residues that companies must provide when seeking approval of their products, the Government have established a residues monitoring system under which food is regularly surveyed. Similar considerations apply before the statutory Veterinary Products Committee advises Ministers as to whether a product should be licensed.
Of course, as I have explained, lindane is no longer licensed for use in this country as a veterinary medicine. The evidence is that lindane residues in cows milk, which are primarily due to traces of lindane in their feeds, are falling. Indeed, when found, they are around the limit of detection. Such levels are well below the internationally agreed acceptable daily intake, a level that would not be expected to cause harm to health even over a lifetime of exposure.
While the effect on human health is of paramount importance when considering the approval of a product for use, other considerations must be taken into account as well. The fact that it is withdrawn in one country may have no bearing on its use in others. Countries have different pest problems, different climates and different environmental and agricultural considerations. A product appropriate for one country may simply have no use in another. Breast cancer rates alone, in countries in which lindane is no longer used, give no indication of whether or not there might be a causal relationship. Some concern of late, mentioned in the programme "Dispatches" and elsewhere--the hon. Member also referred to it--has arisen because more women without a family history of breast cancer are developing the disease.
The Government are concerned about the high incidence of breast cancer and that is why we have established the breast screening programme and made the reduction in mortality from breast cancer a major target of our "Health of the Nation" initiative. Certainly a family history is one of the known risk factors, but there are others, for example, late childbearing, not having children, early menarche, late menopause, obesity and repeated exposure to ionising radiation. The reason for its high incidence in developed countries, however, remains unknown. There is a wide geographical variation in both incidence and mortality and the populations with the highest risk of developing breast cancer are those in western Europe and North America.
Much has been made of the high rates of breast cancer in Israel in the early 1970s and of the dramatic increase in breast cancer mortality rates from 1976 onwards. If lindane had a causal relationship with breast cancer, however, mortality rates would be expected to remain high for several years after the withdrawal of its use. That is because breast cancer takes several years to develop. What actually happened in Israel is a rather different story. First, the so-called dramatic decrease in mortality rates for breast cancer began shortly before the drop in pesticide exposure. The Israeli researchers, Westin and Richter, noted that phenomenon. Lindane was withdrawn from use as a louse treatment in 1978. Secondly, and more tellingly, it was only the deaths from breast cancer that declined at that time, not the incidence. There is no evidence of a sharp decrease in the number of women in Israel who developed the disease; on the contrary, in the 25 to 34 age group, the relatively small number of cases
Column 1369stayed much the same, but in the age group 35 to 44, there was a steady rise in breast cancer incidence in the period 1976 to 1986. In most developed countries, including Israel, the statistics follow a familiar pattern--an increasing number of women developing this dreadful disease, but also a decrease in the number of deaths. The most likely reason for the rise in incidence and drop in death rates is the improvement in treatment and public awareness--for example, earlier detection.
I emphasis that if there were any reason to think that the use of lindane or, indeed, any other manufactured product was the cause of such a widespread and serious disease, we would have no hesitation in withdrawing it. But there are, unfortunately, only a very few cancers where we can say with any certainty that they have a particular extraneous cause.
Unfortunately, in the time available I cannot deal with all the points raised about lindane. I want to reiterate that
Column 1370in this country we have an excellent system for approving pesticides and for licensing veterinary medicines. Under both systems, the Government are advised by independent statutory committees which, I have to tell the hon. Gentleman, are respected around the world as being the best. We listen to those expert committees and if they tell us that a product is likely to harm people, we do not let it get on to the market.
Lindane has been carefully considered, certain uses have been reviewed and the agricultural pesticide use is presently under review. We can rest assured--
The motion having been made after half-past Two o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. Deputy Speaker-- adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.
Adjourned accordingly at two minutes past Three o'clock.
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