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Lead In Petrol

Volume 961: debated on Tuesday 23 January 1979

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4.25 p.m.

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to reduce the permitted lead content of petrol; and for connected purposes.
Every day in our cities and on our roads, every hour of every day, uncounted thousands of our children, with every breath they take, are being silently and furtively poisoned by minute particles of lead. These particles are tasteless, odourless and invisible. This atmospheric lead comes almost entirely as to 90 per cent. from exhaust gases of petrol engines in motor cars and other vehicles.

I am satisfied, and I hope to satisfy the House today, that there is now overwhelming evidence that the amount of lead ingested by certain of our children can cause subtle and permanent damage to their brains. There is also some evidence that at slightly higher levels it can cause damage to the health of adults.

The Government have it in their power drastically to reduce the lead content of the atmosphere in Britain at one stroke by about 60 per cent., but, astonishingly, they refuse to do so, despite repeated urgings from distinguished hon. Members.

No doubt the Government will say that they are doing a great deal and that they are conducting consultations, and setting up committees. In other words, they will give us all the usual complacent nonsense. However, nothing effective is being done.

Other countries have already legislated. In 1976 the West Germans reduced the level of their lead additives in petrol to 0·15 grammes per litre; the Swedes plan to do so by 1980. The Japanese have had a maximum level of 0·06 grammes since 1975 and the Americans are removing lead from petrol altogether. All we in Britain have managed to do is to order a reduction from 0·45g per litre to 0·40g per litre by 1981. We have taken that action only because we have been directed to do so by the EEC.

The House debated this subject on 12 December last. I pay tribute to the admirable work carried out by the hon. Members for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker), Wood Green (Mrs. Butler) and Coventry, South-West (Mrs. Wise) and by my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, South (Dr. Vaughan), who have all concerned themselves with this problem for many years.

Before I deal with the arguments, I propose that we should ask ourselves a question. Do the levels of lead particles in our atmosphere give rise to reasonable doubt for the safety of the health of children in this country, particularly those who live in inner cities or close to motorway junctions? We must ask ourselves that question because, if there is a reasonable doubt, I am clear that it is the duty of the House to act immediately.

There is now a growing body of evidence showing a direct relationship between lead intake and brain and other neurological damage to children. The latest research of which I am aware, conducted by the University of Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, and recently published, concluded that low levels of exposure to lead, although not causing any apparent and obvious damage to the health of infants, interfere with a child's ability to learn complex tasks. Equally disturbing, it appears that if a mother is exposed to lead during pregnancy the child is born with similar levels of lead in its blood. This takes a very long time to disappear, even in a lead-free environment.

The evidence also shows that impairment of complex learning abilities can lead to abnormal social behaviour. Thus, not only do individuals suffer but the community suffers.

Other work has been done in various countries and it has been brought to the attention of the House. The message is clear. All the research leads us to the conclusion that we have reasonable grounds to fear for the safety of children who are exposed to the levels of lead in the atmosphere in the cities and on the roads of Britain.

Indeed, in Small Heath, Birmingham, the constituency of the Minister responsible for these matters, the level of lead in window dirt, when analysed by Birmingham university chemists, was found to be about 20 times higher than recommended levels of lead in dust. That information emerged from an excellent television programme transmitted on 29 June by Thames Television. The Minister refused to answer any questions submitted to him in writing by the producer. He refused to appear or to contribute in any way. I find that disturbing.

I turn to the position of the motor manufacturers. In the past few years we have heard much about the fears for engine life if lead additives are reduced. I have made inquiries of the two largest car producers in the country. Both confirm that for them the proposed reduction would present no problems. Indeed, all Ford cars manufactured in England can run on petrol which complies with the West German lead additives limit—the limit which I advocate in the Bill.

Ford further informs me that the threshold lowest limit of lead content at which wear is likely to increase is 0·05g per litre—two-thirds less than the level that I wish to see in the United Kingdom.

What of the oil companies? I believe that Government interference should be kept to a minimum and that society is best served by free enterprise. However, a free society must also accept its responsibilities. I should be only too happy if the oil companies had voluntarily reduced the level of lead additives already. But they have not. It is now necessary for Parliament to act.

Each oil company that I have contacted has said that it will conform to whatever standards the Government set, but I received the overwhelming impression that not only do they not want a reduction in the levels of lead additives in petrol but that they are putting pressure on the Government to persuade them to do nothing. Alas, that is a pressure to which this Government seem willing to succumb.

The only manufacturer of lead additives in Britain belongs in part to the major oil companies. The oil companies have a vested interest. Their views, therefore, must be examined with care. Of course, the oil companies have problems. They might have to invest in new refinery equipment. They might require more crude oil to obtain the same amount of high octane petrol. How much is entirely dependent upon the technology of the refinery. I understand that estimates provided by the oil companies to the West German Government were four times higher than the actual cost.

I return with no pleasure to the Government's attitude. They have informed us that the quantity of lead entering the atmosphere each year is 10,000 tons and that it has remained at that level since 1971. How can anyone regard that as satisfactory?

As with cigarettes and lung cancer, and like most Governments, this Government are not prepared to do anything until the pressure is overwhelming. Soon it might be too late. The effects of our poisoning our children today might not be seen for many years, until somebody notices that the standards of numeracy and literacy have fallen even further. Perhaps the increase in lead in the atmosphere, occasioned by the enormous increase in the number of motor cars and other vehicles, is partly responsible for the disquieting fall in our national education standards.

It is the duty of the House to protect our children from dangers to their health as soon as there are reasonable grounds for suspecting a substance or substances to be harmful. We have no right to gamble with children's health.

The purpose of the proposed Bill is to reduce lead additives in petrol to 0·15g per litre by 1 January 1982. That will give the oil companies three years, and I have heard that they are prepared to accept that. The Government have the opportunity and means to provide time for this reasonable Bill. I urge the House to give me leave to introduce it without further delay.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Archie Hamilton, Mrs. Joyce Butler, Mr. Tony Durant, Mr. Geoffrey Finsberg, Mr. Robin Hodgson, Mrs. Jill Knight, Mr. Andrew MacKay, Mr. David Penhaligon, Mr. George Robertson and Mr. J. W. Rooker.

Lead In Petrol

Mr. Archie Hamilton accordingly presented a Bill to reduce the permitted lead content of petrol; and for connected purposes. And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday next and to be printed. [Bill 52.]