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Control Of Detergent Pollution

Volume 176: debated on Wednesday 11 July 1990

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3.39 pm

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to protect the environment by amending the law relating to detergent composition and use; to control the use of phosphates and to require increased biodegradability of certain surface active agents; to require comprehensive labelling of detergents; and for connected purposes.
I am grateful for the opportunity to ask the permission of the House to introduce this Bill. I am happy to do so in the name of hon. Members on both sides of the House and in the presence of the Secretary of State for the Environment. He will recognise the importance of the matter, as do many hon. Members.

The long title of the Bill makes it clear that it has three prospective parts. As its general objective, it would have the task of protecting the environment, and would do so by amending the minimal current law relating to detergent composition and use. That would be achieved by three means: first, by controlling the use of phosphates; secondly, by requiring increased biodegradability of certain surface active agents; and, thirdly, by requiring comprehensive labelling of detergents.

Phosphates are food for the growth of plants and animals and, as such, they play a natural and normal part in our environment. However, excess phosphates in our water have had an unnatural effect. They have increasingly acted as a fertiliser for algae, which then use up the oxygen in the water as they grow rapidly. The lack of oxygen—it is almost the best possible illustration of the cycle of the ecosystem—decreases the activity of other microorganisms that are necessary to break down detergents in the water. They also have a direct effect on other plant life, and we know that they can effectively kill whole areas of water. The most famous example is Lake Erie in north America.

The release of toxins from that process is now recognised to be dangerous also to human beings. It is rightfully a matter that has come increasingly to public attention and about which there is now public concern. In particular, during the past year or so in Britain there has been a rapid increase in toxic algae growth in many British waters. Where the level of nutrients is high, especially in slow-moving waters, a rapid growth of algae most noticeably occurs.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Latham), who is a co-sponsor of the Bill. He has had the embarrassment, problem and difficulty of witnessing that phenomenon most abundantly on Rutland Water. It is a man-made lake, which I have seen, and which is environmentally important in that part of the heart of England. The hon. Gentleman secured an Adjournment debate on, and on many occasions has asked questions about, the rapid growth of blue-green algae and how that phenomenon can be explained. It has been fatal to animal life around the shores of Rutland Water: last year, 23 sheep and 15 dogs died because they had drunk at the water's edge.

More recently, it was reported in The Sunday Times on 24 June that 10 young soldiers who were canoeing on Rudyard lake in Staffordshire became ill after falling into the water. That water contained green algae. The article, by Christopher Ward and John Rowland, made it clear that there is evidence of a link between that algae and the pneumonia that two of the soldiers contracted. It could have been fatal—although, mercifully, it was not—but it could certainly be fatal for young and elderly people.

The position is now recognised by the National Rivers Authority, which is Britain's pollution watchdog. During a recent week, it had identified algae in another 33 lakes and rivers. The total is now about 132 rivers and lakes specifically identified, including 40 reservoirs supplying tap water. Some landlords, including the National Trust, have closed their water to the public. There is concern in all parts of the country, including inland on the mainland of Great Britain, at Lough Neagh in Northern Ireland, and offshore. It led to the Government issuing a warning a couple of weeks ago, when algae was forming along the east coast of Scotland and England, telling people not to eat mussels or oysters from that area as they might be affected.

The phosphate that we put into our water contributes to that environmental development. I do not pretend to be specific, but about 25 to 30 per cent. of the phosphate in our water comes from detergents. There are two other sources—human sewage and agricultural run-off—and I accept that we could also address the problem by dealing with those two sources. But detergents and washing powders are a key and easily containable source.

The Bill proposes that we should restrict to the minimum the amount of phosphate—at present not restricted—that goes into the water. Many other European countries, such as Switzerland, Italy, Germany, Holland and Austria have a total ban or a significant restriction. More recently, France has imposed a legal requirement to phase out, and parts of the United States have a similar requirement. It is therefore important that Britain should at last address the issue.

I accept that, at this late stage in the Session, the Bill is unlikely this year to become law. Nevertheless, I hope that the Government will respond positively to it. I know that they are contemplating producing a White Paper in the autumn. The sponsors of the Bill, on both sides of the House, hope that the Government will respond positively to it and that we shall be able to ensure that legislation is introduced before too long.

Those who support the Bill intend that environmentally harmful substitutes for phosphates should also be banned. We propose that these limits should be set down in legislation.

The two other proposals that I mentioned earlier are linked. The existing regulations, which date from 1978, require that detergents must be 80 per cent. biodegradable. It is now accepted that they can and should be significantly more biodegradable. We seek to increase the figure gradually over the next decade, to ensure that the products that might go into the water and cause a particular problem are biodegraded.

Petroleum-based surface agents cause the impurity that is most harmful to water. Vegetable-based surface agents are biodegradable. They are a perfectly feasible alternative and we wish them to become the most regularly used alternative. If non-biodegradable substances are put into water, a very unpleasant foaming may occur—for example, at weirs and over patches of rough water. People find that visually objectionable; and it is certainly objectionable if one is in the water.

Our third proposal concerns labelling detergents. At present the labelling required is minimal: only the name and address of the seller and the name of the product have to be displayed. We believe that part of the process of increasing environmental awareness is to educate the public. That can be done only if all the ingredients are included on the label. It is equally important to educate the public on the quantities that are required. People overuse potentially or actually harmful substances in ignorance of their effect on the water, believing, for example, that they will make it softer. If we use labelling to educate the public, the purity of our water can be substantially increased and the harm to our environment can be minimised.

I am that aware that legislation is contemplated in Europe but it does not specifically deal with the control of pollution by detergents. That is why the Bill is necessary, and I hope that the House will give me leave to introduce it.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Simon Hughes, Mr. Michael Latham, Mr. Peter L. Pike, Mr. Malcolm Bruce, Mr. Harry Cohen, Mr. Robin Squire, Mr. Andrew Welsh, Mrs. Rosie Barnes, Mr. Ieuan Wyn Jones, Sir George Young, and Mr. David Clelland.

Control Of Detergent Pollution

Mr. Simon Hughes accordingly presented a Bill to protect the environment by amending the law relating to detergent composition and use; to control the use of phosphates and to require increased biodegradability of certain surface active agents; to require comprehensive labelling of detergents; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 20 July and to be printed. [Bill 184.]