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Poly-Chlorinated Biphenyl

Volume 20: debated on Tuesday 16 March 1982

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

2.15 am

Please forgive my eagerness to speak in the Adjournment debate, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but at this time of the morning I am sure you will accept that there is a special place in Heaven for all those called to speak in the Adjournment debate on the day that the Consolidated Fund Bill is considered. I would not have applied for an Adjournment debate if I had not thought that the arguments for airing this important matter were compelling.

I wish to detain the House for a short time to warn hon. Members of the dangers of a chemical that is in our midst and all around us but that is little known to most hon. Members and to most of the general public. I refer to a chemical compound called poly-chlorinated biphenyl. The House will know that early-day motion 331 has already been signed by a large number of Members. There would be double, if not treble, the number but for the fact that every time one tries to persuade one's colleagues to sign the motion one has to explain what poly-chlorinated biphenyl is.

PCB, to refer to it in a shortened form, is a nasty, dangerous and poisonous chemical. It is regarded by scientists and experts all over the world as being more dangerous than other chemicals because many of its poisonous effects are long term and are noticed only over a long period. In other words, the effects of PCB are not seen in terms of immediate burning to the skin, swellings or other symptons that one associates with chemical poisoning. What is known is that PCB is associated with long-term cancers, with long-term environmental pollution, with long-term effects on the growth of children and, indeed, with effects on the unborn child.

In regard to world-wide scientific and medical opinion, it is sufficient to say that many advanced industrial nations have banned the production and use of PCB. That is not the case in the United Kingdom. I hope that the House will understand that what I intend to do this morning is not to point to dramatic measures to raise a scare or to demand that the House instantly abolishes PCB. Too often the House hears chants for instant action which cannot be achieved. There lies the disillusion of the electorate and of our supporters in the polls. It is more responsible to bring to the attention of the House a chemical that is dangerous and needs to be controlled but which cannot be abolished overnight. The House has no power to wipe away the dangers in an instant sunshine manner.

The House can seek to discover where PCB is to be found in the environment in Britain and to take such steps as are necessary to control it in a civilised fashion.

I have asked questions of appropriate Departments, but it is difficult to ascertain how much PCB was manufactured in this country over the years. It was mainly manufactured by one manufacturer, who voluntarily ceased to manufacture it in 1977.

It is also important to work out how much of the chemical was destroyed. It is a very difficult poison to destroy. It can be neutralised under special conditions, at a temperature of 1, 100°C. Unless it is neutralised, if it gets into the food chain, the water supply or any other part of the cycle of our planet's life it stays there and accumulates.

Unlike more natural, simpler chemicals it does not deteriorate naturally into simpler compounds as a result of the action of sunlight and rain. It remains a poisonous chemical. It is cumulative, both in the planet and in individuals who absorb it through the skin or as a result of eating contaminated food and so on. Consequently, this nasty poison is something that all hon. Members should worry about.

Hon. Members might be more convinced if they read some of the reports of those organisations that deal with PCB spills in many parts of the world. The chemical is greatly feared for its long-term dangers to human life, vegetation and the rest of life on our planet. To eliminate those dangers the most extreme measures are taken. Anything that has come into contact with PCB must be burnt at very high temperatures.

Many PCBs form dioxin on burning. Therefore, the chemical must be treated with great respect. It is important to identify where the main concentrations of it are to be found. At certain periods during the past 30 years it has been used in television sets, neon lighting systems and—in small amounts—in a whole range of everyday manufactures, including hair sprays and dyes.

Gradually the information has spread that PCBs are extremely dangerous, and they have been withdrawn from use in the manufacture of most of those products. As I have said, the chemical itself is no longer manufactured in this country.

However, PCB is to be found in large quantities in this country at—this is a conservative estimate—20, 000 sites, in electrical transformers that convert high voltages into lower voltages. Those transformers mainly do not come under the direct control of the electricity supply industry but are in colleges, factories and office blocks in what we would normally describe as private locations. The installations are small, but they contain 200 to 300 gallons of PCB as a coolant. PCB was seen to be extremely useful as a relatively non-flammable coolant. That is one of its great properties and it was often used in electrical apparatus.

Those transformers have been dotted around he country for a long time. We can trace them back through the fifties, sixties, and seventies. The latest one that has been drawn to my attention was dated 1980, which is three years after PCB ceased to be manufactured in the country. Consequently, it should be of concern to the House and the Government that specialist firms involved in the industry have found that a high percentage of those installations are leaking. One estimate is that 90 per cent. are leaking. That is a serious matter indeed.

Many such installations are to be found on the tops of office blocks and other buildings throughout the region. I suggest, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that in your own constituency there are a number perched quite innocently on the tops of buildings. I also have information that some of them are dotted around on greenfield sites in the chain of food production.

If it is right that a high percentage of those transformers are leaking, there is a clear responsibility on the part of the Government to conform with the early-day motion which was tabled in my name and the names of Members of all parties. That called on Her Majesty's Government to take immediate action to create adequate safeguards against the health and environmental dangers of the chemical PCB. That is not a scare-mongering exercise. It is a matter for serious public concern. We should have some central body, co-ordinated by central Government, and using the resources of local authorities, and trade unions, possibly the ETU which services the installations, to track them down. A register should be created and all those on the register should be examined to see whether they are leaking or in a vulnerable position.

I draw the attention of the House to an article in The Observer of 14 March, 1982 which points out that one of those containers was blown up—I do not think intentionally—in one of the acts of terrorism in Belfast. A relatively large PCB spill occurred. The emergency services rushed in as though it was a normal emergency with all the horrendous aftermath of an explosion. They were not geared up to the fact that they would find a highly dangerous chemical on the scene, and nor would most emergency services.

The reaction of many emergency services, when they see a spillage that looks like oil, is to contain it with sand or wash it away. In Northern Ireland the reaction of many of the emergency services has been to wash that chemical down the drain. It is one of the most dangerous things one can do because we are faced with the possibility that that highly dangerous chemical will get into the sewage works or the water supply, or that there will be some other form of contamination.

I am seriously concerned that many of those called to PCB spills are not aware of the danger in which they put themselves. Often, they handle it like oil. They may come into close contact with it. I am concerned that those in the fire service, the Army and the emergency services may be at grave risk, not in the short term in the sense of an industrial injury that can be identified but in the longer term in relation to something that may affect them and their unborn children. This is a grave threat.

I have in my possession evidence of PCB spills in other parts of the country. I give one example. I wish to allow time for the Minister to give what I am sure will be a considered reply. Some of these transformers are coming to the end of the their useful life. The building in which they are situated perhaps becomes redundant. The piece of equipment is sold to the local scrap merchant who treats it as any other piece of scrap. I have details of the case of a scrap merchant, who pulled out the piece of equipment but in so doing broke the seal of the PCB tank. There was a spillage into the car park of the premises from where it was being removed. The scrap merchant took the piece of equipment on a lorry to his premise, threw it down with the rest of the oil there and set alight to it. Such action can produce a very dangerous environmental pollution problem.

I ask that the Government and the House should take note of the existence of the threat. I do want to see PCB banned. A considered view should be taken of whether it is a threat, as I believe it is, on the basis of all the international evidence, after which the large concentrations of PCB in transformers should be tracked down and dealt with over time. If my estimate of the amount of PCB in the environment is accurate, this will take a long time. Many transformers are not at immediate risk. I ask the House to call on the Government to ensure that those which are most at risk and most vulnerable either through ageing or their location in close proximity to water supply or so, should be dealt with first.

This is my clear message to the House. I believe that there are 20, 000 environmental time bombs in our country. I hope that the Government take the challenge seriously and that they act with great speed.

2.32 am

I congratulate the hon. Member for Huddersfield, East (Mr. Sheerman) on raising a matter of such importance. It may interest him to know that, in addition to myself as a Minister in the Department of the Environment, my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland (Mr. Jopling), the Government Chief Whip, has taken a substantial and knowledgeable interest in the problem and is present to lend his interested attention to what the hon. Gentleman has said.

I welcome also the manner in which the hon. Gentleman has raised the matter. All must be concerned about hazards to health and the environment, but I am grateful for the fact that the hon. Gentleman took the view that this is not, and should not be treated as, a panic move. Nor should a response, particularly from me, be one that is couched in panic action terms. There is a problem of which we are aware and about which we have taken some action and shall take further action, bearing very much in mind the remarks of the hon. Gentleman.

PCBs are a range of similar but complex compounds which do not occur naturally. They have useful properties. They are chemically inert, non-flammable under normal conditions, have good electrical insulation properties and also conduct heat well. Because of these qualities, they were, as the hon. Gentleman said, for a number of years regarded as very suitable for a number of industrially important purposes such as filler fluids for electrical transformers and capacitors. They were particularly useful as replacement for flammable oils where a risk of explosion or fire in confined spaces was especially significant, for example, in hospitals, tall office blocks and electricity sub-stations in urban areas. We have no complete record of the number of transformers still in use containing PCBs but it is extremely doubtful whether it is as high as the 20, 000 sometimes quoted. My information suggests that 3, 000 is nearer the mark. However, we have in hand an attempt to try to obtain the information that the hon. Gentleman has asked for. I take the point that we ought, through our various agencies, to be able to detect the number currently in use. Nowadays, PCBs are used only in certain closed systems, and the wider uses made of them in the past have ceased.

I should say something about the dangers of PCBs because the hon. Gentleman rightly drew substantial attention to them. They are directly of low to medium toxicity. They are dangerous in concentrations greater than 500 mg to 1 kg of body weight. This compares with the most toxic dioxin, which is dangerous at 0·0006 mg per kg, or sodium cyanide at 2·2 mg per kg. Therefore, they are 1 million times less toxic than the most toxic dioxin and 500 times less toxic than sodium cyanide. While I certainly agree that PCBs are dangerous if ingested or if taken through the skin, they are not the most dangerous poisons in the world. However, they are also carcinogens to rodents, and, although the evidence for this effect on humans is, I am told, not yet scientifically certain, it is obviously prudent to regard the threat to human beings in that light. Therefore, handling and disposal must be undertaken with great care.

When they get into water, as the hon. Gentleman said, there is a special problem that, although they are not highly soluble, they may be reconcentrated in the food chain and, of course, that gradually moves up until the highest predators—man in general—will obtain the highest dosage.

I would now like to turn to the control systems, and discuss their application to each stage of the manufacture, use and disposal of PCBs because the hon. Gentleman's main concern is arguing for action on the control of PCBs in use and their ultimate disposal. It is rather a complex picture, involving several agencies and administrative mechanisms, which have been brought into play as the situation and the risks have been made clear. We are still making improvements to it, and I will outline several further steps in a moment.

The first stage is the manufacture of PCBs and bringing them into industrial use. In 1973, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development advised its member States that the use of PCBs should be closely confined to those uses and places where they were genuinely necessary. But in fact the sole United Kingdom manufacturer had already done this two years earlier. Two directives from the European Community followed and were applied in the United Kingdom by regulation in 1980. Effectively, PCBs are now only being put into transformers and large capacitors. They are also allowed in hydraulic machinery in the mining industry, but we have no evidence of this use in practice. The total output is much reduced; perhaps more important, the uses are now being concentrated in relatively large pieces of industrial equipment, which are easier to record, maintain control and dispose of.

It is important that the user of plant containing PCBs is aware of the risk and the precautions to be observed and I entirely endorse what the hon. Gentleman said about the available information. The second stage is the identification of plant containing PCBs. Most people in charge of large pieces of industrial plant will have a good idea of what is involved. But, in addition, for about 10 years new tranformers have been labelled with information and advice. At the Government's suggestion, some manufacturers have contacted all their customers, even some who purchased units as far back as the 1940s, advising them of the need for safe disposal. Some retrospective labelling has been clone under this arrangement, and I acknowledge gratefully the co-operation of the industry in supplying information to its customers.

Many of the places where such plant is installed will be places where the Health and Safety at Work Act etc. 1974 applies and inspection becomes another important aspect of this. HSE factory inspectors have written instructions on the hazards of PCBs and the precautions to be observed, and if plant. containing PCBs is found in the course of inspection appropriate advice is given. The employer is under a legal obligation to protect his employees and others against risks of health. This obligation includes informing people entering his premises of the hazards to which they may be exposed and the precautions to be taken.

Therefore, employers have a duty to inform the emergency services of risks on their premises such as the presence of PCBs. In that connection it is common practice for the fire service, as part of its fire prevention and training duties, to pay what are known as good will visits to premises in order to become familiar with the general layout of the building and the hazards that may be encountered during an emergency.

PCBs are not in themselves a fire risk, as the hon. Gentleman said. However, the fire brigade is among the emergency services which often become involved in cases of accidents involving spillages of chemicals, and the more that they can know about the risks in their area the better, whether their own officers get it in the course of advisory visits or whether firms, perhaps stimulated by the factory inspectorate, tell them. My Department and the Health and Safety Executive are continually trying to improve information and procedures, and I have asked officials to discuss with the Home Ofice, as a result of the points made in the Early-Day Motion the various means by which the fire brigade and other emergency services can be more fully informed. If better guidance is needed on how to identify a PCB spillage, or what to do about it, we shall certainly make sure that the emergency services have that advice.

I know that the hon. Gentleman has in mind a particular firm that makes a business of emptying old transformers. That company, which is in my constituency, operates a perfectly safe process. Two members of my staff from the Department of the Environment visited the premises, and the disposal of PCBs from that company is conducted by a major international company by incineration. On that, all that I would say is that in places where PCBs are handled frequently the risks and the need for proper precautions are fully understood. It is in places where they are not so informed that the risks surely will arise.

I wish the House to see the problem in perspective. In the past three years, six cases of significant leakage of PCBs from industrial apparatus have come to the attention of the Health and Safety Executive. Five of those cases were due to external damage, and only one to external corrosion. Neither the Health and Safety Executive nor my Department has any evidence that the material degrades sufficiently during its service life to give rise to leakage from internal corrosion. That is a far cry from the statement I have seen—the hon. Gentleman referred to it again—that 90 per cent. of such installations are leaking. I do not, however, doubt that as the installations become older, the need for maintenance, repairs and replacements will continue to rise. There is certainly a continuing case for care, and we must begin with better information. But the information that matters most is that held by the people in charge of the machine or equipment. They are the people who must know what they have got, and what to do—as well as what not to do—if something goes wrong. I also accept that there is a need to build up better information among the authorities concerned, especially the emergency services. This will, for practical reasons, not happen overnight—I welcome the hon. Gentleman's understanding of that—but we can look forward to a steady increase in the amount of information that they hold.

The next stage is to monitor PCBs in the environment. They are in the main liquids, not highly volatile, and the likelihood is that PCBs on the loose, as it were, would find their way most readily into water. Regional water authorities already monitor the rivers for Which they are responsible. The intensity of water authorities' monitoring depends on their assessment of the risk of contamination. In the time available since the hon. Gentleman gave notice of his wish to raise this subject, I have not been able to carry out a thorough check, but I have asked the Department of the Environment to have discussions with water authorities about the intensity and effectiveness of their monitoring activities—though it must be, in the end, for their judgment to decide what is necessary and what is worthwhile. Nonetheless, I accept entirely the point that the hon. Gentleman raised.

The final matter is the safe and environmentally acceptable disposal of PCB waste. That is very much a responsibility of my Department. The prime responsibility of the Health and Safety Executive is for operational safety, but neither the Department of the Environment nor the Health and Safety Executive takes a narrow view of its field, and both together would be concerned with an accidental leak which, for example, contaminated soil that became waste. It is clearly better to have a duplication of interest rather than a gap. I can assure the House and the hon. Gentleman that there is no gap.

On legislation, we have the Control of Pollution Act 1974 and the complete system of licensing, under which local authorities can say what wastes, and in what sorts and quantities, may use any waste disposal route. We also have the special wastes regulations which provide additional requirements for transport and record-keeping for wastes such as PCBs. As to advice on PCBs, Waste Management Paper No. 6 of 1976 is still a valid document—

The Question having been proposed after Ten 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 at sixteen minutes to Three o'clock on Wednesday morning.