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Lead In Paint (Health And Safety)

Volume 301: debated on Wednesday 19 November 1997

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4.30 pm

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require the manufacturers and retailers of paint stripping equipment and fluids to provide consumers with information about lead in paint manufactured before 1960; to require the Secretary of State to provide information to the general public about the dangers of lead in older paint; and to provide for the testing of children under the age of three years living in older housing to determine whether they are at risk from lead in older paintwork.
With all this talk of being on the winning or losing side, I trust that on this subject there will only be winners, and that hon. Members will all be on the same side. Many hon. Members are parents, and I am sure that many of us have done do-it-yourself: I do so reluctantly, and seldom have time for it. Very few members of the public are aware of the dangers of stripping older paintwork. I was not aware of them until I heard the BBC's "Face the Facts" programme.

Older paint is that used in houses in the pre-1950s, and certainly pre-1960s. High levels of lead were used in paint manufacture at that time, but have since been phased out. Such paintwork constitutes a serious hazard. We have known for some time the general hazards, which resulted in a reduction of lead in petrol some years ago.

The paintwork in up to 8 million homes that were painted in the first half of this century still contains significant amounts of lead. About 50 per cent. of the population live in older homes. The young are at particular risk, because they are more susceptible than adults to the effects of lead in their bloodstream. Pregnant women are also at risk, as are adults if they suffer lead poisoning.

A testing centre carried out random tests on 10 children and five adults over a month. Three of those children had lead poisoning, and were severely affected. Some of those tested were poisoned through exposure to paint. The adults had stripped paint using hot air strippers—I gather that blow torches are the worst possible thing to use—and the children had eaten small amounts of paint.

Low levels of lead in the population as a whole, and particularly in children, tend to skew abilities downwards, and have other side effects. People are exposed to risk in two ways: I was not aware of either of them until recently, and I am sure that many members of public have no idea about the risks either. Adults are exposed when they strip paint, and children are exposed when they eat very small flecks or specks of paint that are lying on the floor. Children may be playing on the floor with toys that pick up specks of paint. If they put those objects in their mouths, it may result in lead poisoning. A child of two or three years of age needs to put only a tiny speck in its mouth each day for about two months. Such a speck would fit on the head of a matchstick, but over time that is enough to cause serious lead poisoning.

There are also problems with milder forms of lead poisoning. Many people are not aware that the symptoms produced are exactly the same as those for all sorts of other problems that are caused by, for example, a virus. People could experience repeated and unexplained stomach ache, diarrhoea or sickness, which may show that there are rising levels of lead in the blood. The average parent, and, I fear, the average doctor, would not necessarily worry, even if such symptoms were repeated, that a child was suffering from lead poisoning.

Children who have ingested 600 or 700 microgrammes of lead per litre of blood will develop encephalopathy, which is a serious medical condition. Before the poison accumulates to that level, there is damage to the bones, nerves, bladder, kidneys, heart and brain. Lead is a serious poison.

It is possible to treat the condition by removing the causes, but that can be done only if it is known that the person is acquiring the poison. The process by which that is done is called chelation, which is the medial extraction, the clawing back, of lead in the bloodstream. I am not a medical person, but I am assured that that process is time-consuming and difficult, not least because lead remains in the bone, and as the lead is removed from the blood of people with serious blood poisoning, the lead in the bones enters the bloodstream.

That means that permanent correction of the condition is difficult and expensive. It is only by repeated and expensive medical treatment, and if the condition is caught in time, that serious damage can be prevented.

A consultant at a London hospital estimates that about one child a week is being admitted to hospital with dangerously high levels of lead in the blood. There is a terrible human cost, because the health of those children will never be the same again. Some children have died from the condition. There are also serious health risks for adults. The condition relates to health and quality of life, but as matters are currently arranged, there is also a financial cost.

Some areas of the country are more affected than others. I do not want to over-dramatise the problem, because the paintwork in older homes is safe if it is left alone, if it is not chipped and if there are no children. However, if the paint is removed by the wrong technique, it is damaging to adults and children in the vicinity. Interestingly, professional decorators are advised to take elaborate precautions when removing older paint, but at the moment there is no mandatory requirement on do-it-yourself equipment manufacturers to print on hot-air and other paint-stripping equipment advice about how it should be used. Perhaps, under such circumstances, such tools ought not to be used at all.

It is ironical that leaflets currently supplied with DIY equipment in the United States are not available with the same equipment in this country, although the leaflets are printed here and placed in the packets that are to be sold in the United States.

In 1992, the United States passed the Lead Based Paint Hazard Reduction Act, which provides a national framework for dealing with the problem. Many states have their own programmes now—for example, for testing children's blood lead levels and for ensuring that people who sell homes are advised of any known high-lead paint work. Canada, Australia, France and other countries are also taking action.

As I have said, children are especially at risk-and children of all classes and backgrounds face the risk. One small speck a day can lead to serious poisoning. Parents need to know to be watchful. They need information. They and doctors need to think about the possibility of lead poisoning at low levels if there are persistent symptoms of a type consistent with lead poisoning.

No general leaflets are available. I hope that we can have a public information campaign that will help to raise general awareness, as well as specific information aimed at DIY enthusiasts, parents and general practitioners.

Order. The hon. Lady is running out of time. Could she please bring her remarks to a conclusion?

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Young children should be tested, initially through targeting and sampling. Most of all. I want to ensure that people are aware of the risks. Lead in paint need not be a major health hazard, if we act sensibly and make information available.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Miss Melanie Johnson, Mr. Charles Clarke, Dr. Lynda Clark, Mr. John Gunnell, Mr. John Healey, Ms Oona King, Mr. Tom Levitt, Mr. Chris Pond, Dr. Phyllis Starkey, Ms Dan Taylor and Mr. Michael Wills.

Lead In Paint (Health And Safety)

Miss Melanie Johnson accordingly presented a Bill to require the manufacturers and retailers of paint stripping equipment and fluids to provide consumers with information about lead in paint manufactured before 1960; to require the Secretary of State to provide information to the general public about the dangers of lead in older paint; and to provide for the testing of children under the age of three years living in older housing to determine whether they are at risk from lead in older paintwork: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 6 February, and to be printed [Bill 85].