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Detergents (Pollution)

Volume 180: debated on Wednesday 7 November 1990

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

10 pm

I am struck by the fact that the first Adjournment debate of the new Session is on an environmental issue and that the last full debate of the previous Session was on the subject of noise. That fact underlines the continuing importance of the environment. In that context I am pleased to welcome to the debate the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, my hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory), who I know to be an especially active Minister who travels throughout the country seeking to rectify various environmental ills with great success.

I wish to talk tonight about the problems of pollution from household detergents. I believe that the public are beginning slowly to realise that many of the cleaning products in daily use cause unnecessary problems to our environment. Phosphates in detergents have been much in the news for the past year or so in relation to the toxic algal blooms seen in a number of British waters. Last summer a spate of toxic blooms occurred, notably at Rutland water. The issue was raised effectively by my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Latham). In that incident, 23 sheep and 15 dogs died as a result of drinking at the water's edge. Perhaps even more seriously, 10 young soldiers who were canoeing on Rudyard lake in Staffordshire became ill after falling into the water. which contained blue-green algae. Subsequent detailed studies showed that two of the soldiers developed pneumonia as a result of cyanobacteria, a toxin produced by blue-green algae.

As early as March this year there were signs of a recurrence of toxic blooms, and on 10 October the National Rivers Authority confirmed that 440 British waters were on alert to protect the general public. Sixteen days later, on 26 October, it confirmed that 501 British waters were on alert. I submit that this is alarming. We have also seen algal blooms along vast stretches of the east coast which have contaminated shell fish. These blooms must have affected many hon. Members' constituencies.

Phospates, along with nitrates, act as a nutrient to small water plants. Where the level of nutrients is high, and especially in slow-moving waters, rapid growth of algae can occur, and often this is the so-called blue-green algae which release toxins into the water. These toxic algal blooms also use up the oxygen in the water, lowering the amount available for other water life.

It is accepted by the soap powder and detergent industry that about 30 per cent. of the phospate load to British waters comes from detergents, the rest coming from human sewage and agricultural run-off. The NRA has recently stated that
"only a very small increase in phosphate levels is required to encourage algal growth."
Accordingly, it would be prudent to remove this cause of phosphates at source as the other two main sources require more complex and expensive solutions. This would not be unusual in Europe. Bans or tight restrictions on phosphates exist in several countries, including Switzerland, Italy, Germany, Holland and, most recently, France, which introduced a phasing out of the substance in detergents. Those are the sort of countries with which this House compares Britain, time and again, in many ways. Parts of the United States of America have had bans for almost 20 years.

The industry directorate at the Commission in Brussels—DG3—has said that there would be no problem if individual countries wanted to impose restrictions. The prohibition of phosphates in detergents is feasible and would not run counter to any European treaties that Britain has signed. In countries where bans or restrictions already exist, the major detergent companies successfully market phosphate-free products. Indeed, a number of brands of washing powders in the United Kingdom do not contain phosphates, and they now represent almost 20 per cent. of the market. I am not calling for new technology because the alternatives are available and being sold.

The manufacturing process for phosphates releases cadmium and sometimes even radioactive substances from certain types of phosphate ore. Both substances are usually discharged directly into rivers and seas. Albright and Wilson in Cumbria, one of our leading and respected chemical manufacturers, is also one of Britain's largest phosphate manufacturers. It is currently the subject of a private prosecution for the excessive release of heavy metals into the Irish sea. Some manufacturers have used substitutes for phosphates that can also have an adverse effect on the environment.

On the continent, NTA—nitrilo triacetic acid—has been used, but it has been found to combine with heavy metals and reintroduce them to the water supply. The use of that chemical, as well as the use of polycarboxylates—another water-softening agent derived from petroleum—should also be restricted. The biodegradability of the surface active agents used in detergents is governed by 1978 regulations, which lay down a minimum figure of 80 per cent. biodegradability to be achieved under the laboratory conditions of a prescribed test—the so-called OECD test. Although many modern surface active agents pass that level and may reach 90 per cent. or more, we must be concerned about the remaining percentage.

Although most vegetable-based detergents will biodegrade fully in the test due to their purity, many petroleum-based surface active agents, such as the commonly used linear alkylbenzene sulphonate, contain impurities that come from their petroleum base and therefore take much longer to biodegrade. They can be found unbiodegraded in some sewage sludge and even in sediments in the sea near sewage outfalls some years after discharge. A higher level of biodegradability would also reduce the likelihood of foaming in rivers, a phenomenon currently under investigation by the water research centre.

Last July, the Control of Detergent Pollution Bill was introduced by the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes), with all-party support from, among others, myself, my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton and, while he was still a free agent, my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young), together with several hon. Members from both sides of the House. The Bill contained a number of measures designed to provide environmental protection by removing the problems at source and by educating the consumer to use products more carefully and economically. It would have amended the 1978 detergents composition regulations.

The Bill would have raised the level of biodegradability to 99·9 per cent. in three stages over the next 10 years. It would have encouraged the use of vegetable-based surfactants, which are derived from renewable resources, adding to the long-term sustainability of the industry. The labelling of the agents under current regulations is limited to requiring the name of the product and, believe it or not, the name and address of the seller. The Bill sought to improve consumer information with the inclusion of a full listing of ingredients. It would also have provided consumers with clear instructions for accurate dosing according to water hardness. That, coupled with a caution to use the product carefully, would have ensured minimum wastage with consequent benefits both to consumers' pockets and to the environment.

It is clear that this measure, or equivalent Government action, could be of great benefit to the environment. For instance, at present the manufacturers of some major brands of washing powder recommend the use of quantities of powder that will not even fit in the dispenser of a washing machine; others require only a quarter of that amount.

Let me deal with some of the counter-attacks launched on phosphate-free detergents. A document was produced in February this year entitled "Phosphate-free detergents: better for the environment—or worse?". It was written by the Scientific Committee on Phosphates in Europe—which provides us with the convenient mnemonic "SCOPE". It is perhaps relevant to mention that SCOPE includes manufacturers of phosphates with an inevitable interest in their continued production.

Unsurprisingly, SCOPE concluded that
"phosphate limitations … are not of any real benefit in resolving algal growth problems."
SCOPE claims that, because modern sewerage treatment plants permit the removal of most phosphates from all sources of sewage, the need to restrict their entry into the water cycle is removed. I submit that that is a misconceived argument. The logical option is presumably to seek both—not least to reduce the cost of phosphate-stripping to all of us, as well as substantially reducing the total phosphate load entering the environment.

The attack on phosphate-free detergents, which are already sold here and in many other countries, continued with other misleading claims. SCOPE said:
"They increase concentration of enzymes."
However, some leading phosphate-free detergents contain no enzymes at all.

Most astonishingly, SCOPE claims that
"such detergents wash less efficiently."
However, Procter and Gamble has introduced Ariel Ultra, a phosphate-free detergent that is claimed to provide the best wash available on the market. So much for the allegation that phosphate-free detergents cannot wash as well.

I submit that the quality of British water is a matter of public concern—perhaps growing public concern—and will be for as long as knowledge of the growth in algal blooms spreads. The measures proposed in the Bill in July—highlighted by me tonight—are all now technically feasible. They would be simple to introduce, and would remove an unnecessary source of pollution. I stress—if I need to—that I am not suggesting that phosphates in detergents are the only problem that we face in water pollution; nor, as I hope I have made clear, do I allege that they are the main cause of phosphates in the water cycle. However, I do say that the control, reduction and elimination of this aspect of phosphate use—in accordance with the already adopted practice of so many other European countries—is simple and desirable, and would improve our environment within a short time.

I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to consider the matter carefully. I do not expect him to announce what might be interpreted as a revolution tonight; however, I ask him to consider whether Britain needs this extra phosphate load, which—for no practical good—is certainly contributing to the pollution of our environment.

10.13 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment
(Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire) on securing this Adjournment debate, and on choosing a topic that is of great interest and considerable concern to many people. As I expected, he spoke with knowledge and authority; he certainly gave me some ideas to consider after the response that I shall be making this evening.

My hon. Friend will know that the subject of phosphates in the water environment has been of interest to successive Governments for some years. In 1954, a standing technical committee was established to keep under review the consequences of the use of increasing quantities of synthetic detergents. It was through the efforts of that committee and the people serving on it that the biodegradability of detergents of the order of 95 per cent. was achieved in Britain when the requirement of the EC directive was only 80 per cent.

In 1978 the committee reported that it was satisfied then that there was no necessity to replace phosphate with substitutes in detergent formulations. In its 20th and final report, the committee reviewed detergent phosphate and eutrophication and reported that there were no instances of difficulties arising in sewage treatment works, natural waters and water supply as a result of detergents and associated products. Since 1980, an industry liaison group has assumed the task of advising the Government about the impact of detergents on the environment.

My hon. Friend has brought us up to date, and drawn our attention to some of the problems associated with the use of phosphate in detergent. We should not, however, overlook the positive qualities which have led to its use in detergents. It prevents scum formation and the greying of clothes, and allows the soil particles to be rinsed safely out into the wash water. It also prevents lump formation in packages, which in turn minimises wastage. To maintain washing efficiency, the removal of one ingredient, such as phosphate, must be accompanied by the substitution of another, or even more than one. It may also require the increased use of surface-active agents. If the product is judged less effective by the consumer, greater quantities will be used in an effort to achieve a satisfactory wash. All those factors, too, must be taken into account in assessing the overall impact on the environment.

However, I agree with my hon. Friend that consumers should be able to make informed choices in this area. The soap and detergent industry has voluntarily introduced a labelling scheme to show the main ingredients. This is in line with EC recommendations. We need to give that scheme an opportunity to prove effective, but if it turns out that the consumer is not satisfied, and my hon. Friend said that in his opinion the labelling requirements were insufficient, we will consider further requirements. My hon. Friend may know that we hope to introduce a wider environmental labelling scheme in association with our EC partners next year. One of the product categories that will be addressed may be detergents and washing powders.

My hon. Friend has drawn attention to his concern about possible environmental problems associated with inputs of phosphorus into rivers. Strictly speaking, eutrophication, about which he spoke, means rich in nutrients, but the term is more often used to describe problems that can occur in eutrophic waters.. Those problems generally stem from excessive growth of algae. As my hon. Friend knows, algae are minute aquatic plants that grow naturally in all surface waters. They are essential to the well-being of the aquatic environment, although if their growth becomes excessive, that causes problems. Their growth is determined by combinations of environmental factors such as sunlight, the length of day, temperature, nutrients, and so on. I should also point out that, although an adequate supply of phosphorus is essential for the growth of algae, it is only one of many factors required. Nitrogen, silicon and vitamin B12 are other nutrients necessary for algal growth. However, in fresh waters, phosphorus can be the limiting factor, and therefore control can sometimes be achieved by reducing phosphorus levels.

As the House knows, and as my hon. Friend certainly knows, the National Rivers Authority has recently completed an extensive study of the incidence and causes of blue-green algal blooms in inland waters. Its report was published on 1 October this year. It concluded that the high incidence of algal blooms in 1989 was not a unique event either in Britain or abroad. It attributed this to the stable environmental conditions during that summer preceded by a mild winter. Those conditions allowed the algae to exploit more completely the available nutrients.

The NRA concluded that control of eutrophication must be considered on a case-by-case basis in order to determine the best means of dealing with the problem. It set out in the report the various options for the management of algal growth in the form of a decision tree. They include phosphate stripping of sewage effluent as an option in certain circumstances, but in view of the low levels of phosphate required to prevent algal blooms, other measures may be more appropriate.

A separate independent report published this year by Professor Lund and Professor Moss reached broadly similar conclusions. Two of the main findings were that phosphate stripping at sewage treatment plants is an effective tool that should be used where problems exist; and that the broad scale removal of phosphorus from detergents would not be an effective way of solving local problems.

As my hon. Friend will know, some other countries have more extensive problems of eutrophication in inland and coastal waters than we have in the United Kingdom, and have, therefore, taken steps to reduce the level of phosphorus in rivers. Some countries—notably Norway, Switzerland and Italy—have imposed a total ban on phosphate in detergents. Others, such as France and Germany, have imposed limits on the use of phosphate in detergents. But many other countries, including Belgium, Denmark, Sweden and Spain, have no such restrictions.

More commonly, steps have been taken to reduce the levels in sewage effluent by chemical stripping at sewage works feeding the affected waters. Examples of that approach in the United Kingdom are at the Norfolk broads and, more recently, at Lake Windermere. That approach was recommended by the United Kingdom standing technical committee on synthetic detergents in 1980, and is also a requirement of the draft EC directive, which would set minimum standards of treatment for municipal waste water.

An advantage of that system is that it reduces phosphorus from all sources, including the 25 to 30 per cent. contribution from detergents. A further advantage is that the phosphorus stripped out may be used again, either as a fertiliser or as a raw material for industrial processes. The replacement of phosphorus in detergents would not remove the need for phosphate stripping of sewage effluents discharging into eutrophic waters.

The Government's current view is that, in considering detergent, one needs to look at the whole formulation and its environmental impact rather than the impact of individual components. There is a wide choice of substitutes, as my hon. Friend mentioned, but there are uncertainties about the environmental impact of their use. One of the first substitutes was nitrilo triacetic acid, to which he drew attention, and which is now banned in some countries because of its adverse environmental effect. Another substitute, zeolites, can cause scale formation and increased sludges at sewage works, and may lead to the release of metallic ions, such as aluminium, to rivers, and so on. We must be careful that in attempting to solve one environmental problem we do not create another.

The current position is that we are not contemplating a ban on the use of phosphates because there remain so many uncertainties about substitutes. That is in addition to the point I made earlier that where phosphate is a local problem it is generally more effective to strip out phosphate at the nearby sewage treatment works. Phosphate stripping also has the advantage that it removes all phosphates and not merely the 25 to 30 per cent. which are contributed by detergents.

However, considerable uncertainties remain. Therefore, I think that my hon. Friend will be pleased to note that we have commissioned a study into the problems which may be caused by pollutants in cleaning and conditioning agents. Professor Roger Perry of Imperial college—who will certainly be known to my hon. Friend through his membership of the Select Committee—started work on the study in May this year. It examines the effect of these chemicals on aquatic life. It also examines the effects on water and sewage treatment plant operations and on sludge disposal, and will look for adverse effects on human health by contact or by influence of the quality of drinking water.

The results of this study will be available next year and will enable us to take a more comprehensive view of the consequences of phosphorus restrictions. I think that this is the only rational approach to the problems to which my hon. Friend has rightly drawn attention. I shall certainly ensure that the director of that study is made aware of the valuable comments which my hon. Friend made in this evening's debate.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-six minutes past Ten o'clock.