Skip to main content

Anti-freeze Products (Protection of Animals)

Volume 589: debated on Tuesday 2 December 2014

When MPs stand up to speak, it is traditional for them to say that they are delighted to give a particular speech, but I can honestly say that on this occasion I am not delighted to be here. I would rather not be discussing this issue at all.

We have had a traumatic summer in Sherwood. Calverton, a village in my constituency in Nottinghamshire, has to our knowledge suffered the loss of at least 22 cats due to poisoning with anti-freeze. Most of those losses were in the month of August, and people tend not to use anti- freeze in the middle of a heat wave; it is something they consider using at this time of year, when their car could become frozen. However, anyone malicious who wants to cause harm to animals—wildlife or cats—can use anti-freeze intentionally to cause an enormous amount of devastation. The product can also cause that devastation accidentally.

I am grateful for the support of Nottinghamshire police and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in trying to catch the perceived perpetrator of those poisonings. At this moment in time we are no closer to catching an individual who may be acting maliciously in that way, but we are working hard to educate the public in and around Nottinghamshire and to make sure that people are on the lookout for anybody doing something suspicious or inappropriate.

I will outline the issue. Anti-freeze contains a product called ethylene glycol. It tastes quite sweet to small animals, and to mammals in particular, but it is extremely toxic when consumed even in small doses. Once EG has been consumed it is difficult to prevent the animal from dying because it is so toxic. It forms very small crystals in the kidneys, leading rapidly to kidney failure, then death. The moments between consumption and death are very traumatic for the animal, and owners of pets—cats or dogs—see unpleasant symptoms, such as vomiting, diarrhoea and extreme stomach cramps. Indeed, it is one of the worst ways in which a pet can lose its life. The trauma that that causes families and individuals, particularly families with small children who have become attached to the family pet, cannot be overstated.

We might think that such poisoning is a rare occurrence and that Calverton’s loss of 22 cats is a one-off—some individual in the village is causing trouble, but it does not happen anywhere else. Well, to my surprise that is not true. After putting our issue on social media and in the local press, I was inundated on Facebook and Twitter with messages from people all over the country who are experiencing similar issues and are concerned that their pets have been injured in that way. Cats Protection told me that it has been monitoring the media since November 2012 and is aware of 1,197 reports of such poisoning elsewhere in the country. That equates to 50 deaths a month, or more than a cat and a half—if we could have a cat and a half—a day suffering that terrible trauma. That sends a simple message to us as a Government: we have to do something to help and to try to prevent that from happening.

A lot of the debate on forums and on social media is about a product called Bitrex, which makes products such as anti-freeze very bitter and unpalatable. Bitrex makes anti-freeze so unpalatable that one very small taste or sniff would prevent an animal—and we are not just talking about cats and dogs; it could be hedgehogs or other small mammals in our countryside—from consuming it at all. If someone was malicious enough to try to mix such a product with chicken or tuna, the bitter taste would remain in the anti-freeze and, we hope, would prevent a pet from consuming it.

I ask the Minister and his Department for four specific things. First, will he explore the mandatory inclusion of Bitrex in anti-freeze for purchase in the UK? It is possible to buy anti-freeze and other products that already contain Bitrex, and some reputable retailers sell only those anti-freeze products that contain it. However, other retailers sell the quality products but also a cheaper version, at 50p less per bottle, next to them on the shelf. We should look seriously at making manufacturers include Bitrex in all anti-freeze products available in the UK.

I also urge the Minister to talk to his colleagues in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills who can ask the manufacturers of such products—anti-freeze screenwash and also anti-freeze for radiators—to look at manufacturing alternatives that do not contain ethylene glycol. There are products out there available for purchase that do the same job but do not contain that toxic chemical. Of course, they are more expensive, which can mean retailers are not over-enthusiastic about stocking them, but that price is worth paying if we can prevent animals from suffering in the way that they currently do.

Thirdly, we should encourage better labelling on bottles, so that members of the public are aware of how toxic anti-freeze can be to small mammals. If someone is draining their radiator, or it springs a leak, and it is filled with an anti-freeze product, they should be informed about how toxic the product is to animals. I have been told by professionals that if a cat were to walk through a spillage of neat anti-freeze, get it on its paws, then go home and lick its paws clean, that would unfortunately be enough to lead to its death. Fourthly, and just as importantly, we should educate the general public so that we are all aware of the issue.

I do not intend to detain hon. Members much longer. The message is very simple: this is an enormous problem that leads to a great deal of trauma, not only for the animal but for those people who lose their pet in this way. I implore the Minister to encourage his Department to look at the issue seriously. I pay tribute to Blue Cross for Pets, Cats Protection and the RSPCA for their support on this issue. I am sure that this will not be the last occasion on which the Minister hears about the topic but I hope that in the near future we will be able to save pet cats, dogs and small mammals from suffering this most traumatic of deaths.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr Spencer) on raising awareness of the problems that can arise from the misuse of anti-freeze products, especially at this time of year. As he said, he takes no joy in having to come to this Chamber to raise the issue. I completely understand that the death by poisoning of such a large number of cats in Calverton has caused immense stress to the families involved. Every one of those 22 cats would have been a loved family pet. The situation is made all the worse by knowing that, as he pointed out, death by poisoning by this particular product is quite painful—that will have caused a great deal of stress to the families concerned.

I understand that the RSPCA is investigating the case and that a meeting was held recently with police and villagers to discuss the issue. The cause and circumstances, as my hon. Friend pointed out, are not clear at this stage, but the high number of deaths in one village during the summer suggests something more sinister than a simple accident.

It is important to recognise that deliberate poisoning is an offence under the Animal Welfare Act 2006 and is punishable by a fine of up to £20,000 and/or six months’ imprisonment. I do not know why anyone would want to poison cats deliberately by using anti-freeze, but there have been such instances in the recent past and they have been dealt with using the full force of the law. For example, in July a man was convicted of using anti-freeze to poison five cats and was fined £1,600. In April, another man received a 12-week suspended prison sentence for poisoning a cat with anti-freeze. As my hon. Friend said, it is too early to know whether the poisoning in Calverton was intentional or accidental.

Constituents have come to me when their cats have been the victims of anti-freeze poisoning, and I have met representatives of groups such as International Cat Care. I have also met Marc Abraham, the television vet who ran the successful Pup Aid campaign. They all say that this is a problem and that many cats that die of this poisoning are not identified as such.

I have tabled written questions about this issue. The Government say that the fact that alternatives are on the market that would not kill cats and that there is a focus on better labelling is enough to stop people from accidentally poisoning cats. However, as the Minister just said, some people are poisoning cats deliberately and those things will not stop them.

The hon. Lady makes a good point and I will come back to it. Ultimately, if anti-freeze included a bittering agent and if that deterred animals from taking anti-freeze in any circumstances, that still would not deal with the problem of people deliberately setting out to poison cats and other animals. They would simply find a different weapon of choice. We must recognise that and be very clear first and foremost that when deliberate poisoning takes place, that is a clear breach of the Animal Welfare Act 2006 and we should prosecute accordingly.

I am pleased to hear of the £20,000 fine and the six months’ imprisonment, although I am not sure that they are high enough. There are products on the market to deter cats; some squirt jets of water or emit a sound wave that distracts cats. There is no excuse in any way, shape or form for causing an animal harm when there are products that move them on or send them to a different property.

I could not agree more. The deliberate poisoning of cats is indefensible. It is a crime and should be punished as such.

It is too early to tell whether the poisoning was intentional in the case in my hon. Friend’s constituency. To avoid accidental poisoning, it is vital that people are careful when handling and storing poisonous products, particularly around children and animals. They should be especially careful when pouring poisonous liquids, which can spill easily. As my hon. Friend said, it does not take much anti-freeze to get on the paws of a cat and become hazardous. Anyone using products labelled as hazardous or poisonous should read the manufacturer’s instructions before using them and take note of the warning labels.

Anti-freeze and windscreen de-icer are a necessary part of our everyday lives, particularly at this time of year, but people must take great care when handling and disposing of them. Poisonous liquids that have spilt on the ground may seem innocuous, but animals, whether domestic or wild, may find them attractive, or at least be curious to try them.

A third phenomenon that I have been made aware of and which has the potential to cause poisoning—my hon. Friend did not touch on this—is that some people may be using anti-freeze in their garden water features to stop them freezing up in winter. There are reports of that and internet chat forums discussing whether that is sensible. It could result in animals, whether pets or wildlife, being inadvertently poisoned. We do not know for sure whether that is a cause of poisoning, but it could be; that caused me some concern when investigating the matter ahead of the debate.

Anyone in doubt about whether a household product is particularly toxic to animals should consult their vet or ask the RSPCA or groups such as Cats Protection. Many organisations provide helpful advice on their websites about animals and anti-freeze, and that is to be applauded. Their role in raising public awareness is important.

In common with most chemical products supplied for domestic use, anti-freeze is covered by the Chemicals (Hazard Information and Packaging for Supply) Regulations 2009—the CHIP regulations. They are being replaced from the beginning of January 2015 by the EU classification, labelling and packaging of substances and mixtures regulation. The CHIP and CLP regulations require suppliers of dangerous chemicals and products containing those chemicals to give information about the potential hazards to their customers. That is usually provided on the packaging.

Ethylene glycol, which is the chemical causing the problem, is the main ingredient of most anti-freeze. Manufacturers must label the product as a health hazard, which means placing the exclamation mark pictogram, which is replacing the current black “X” on an orange background, on the label. They must also include the following risk and safety phrases: “Harmful if swallowed” and “Keep out of the reach of children”. The regulations are enforced by local authority trading standards and are the responsibility of the Health and Safety Executive, an agency of the Department for Work and Pensions. The product is clearly labelled “Harmful if swallowed” so there is no excuse for people who use it inappropriately. They should take great care in how they handle it.

The classification of ethylene glycol, and hence the legally required hazard warning, is determined by its toxicity to humans, so it would not be appropriate to impose a stricter warning. However, the regulations allow manufacturers of anti-freeze to add supplementary information on the label as long as it does not contradict the legally required phrases and is placed separately from them. It would be possible for the labels on anti-freeze to warn about the particular risk to pets, for example, and to make it clear that it would not be right to use it in garden water features. That might be a step forward. Many domestic products for use around the home can be harmful to animals and measures to control them must be proportionate and targeted.

My hon. Friend called for manufacturers to be required to add bittering agents, such as Bitrex, but some people who have followed the debate closely have asked whether that would be effective. Cats Protection, which he cited, wrote to the Government earlier this year pointing out that although some people have called for the addition of a bittering agent to anti-freeze, research in the United States has cast doubt on whether it would be entirely effective and suggested that it would not necessarily deter children from ingesting it.

Cats Protection also said that the same research had shown that ingestion of ethylene glycol by dogs and rats tended to be influenced more by a motivational state, such as hunger, rather than by its sweetness. Adding a bittering agent is not necessarily a solution in itself, but it is an interesting suggestion and my hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight it.

I would encourage manufacturers to consider the case for adding bittering agents on a voluntary basis. I am aware that at least one high-street retailer—Halfords—already includes Bitrex in all its branded products. However, I understand that adding ingredients could cause problems related to, for example, the effectiveness of the product and it may have some impacts on the vehicle. The debate is not straightforward, but I would nevertheless encourage manufacturers to consider what my hon. Friend has said today.

Finally, to come back to a point made earlier, we have to bear in mind that if the case that my hon. Friend mentioned involved deliberate poisoning, no amount of bittering agents or caution by people using anti-freeze would get away from that fact. If that happened in the Calverton case, it is very important that we have a rigorous investigation and that the perpetrators are brought to justice.

We have had an interesting discussion. I will draw this debate to the attention of my noble Friend Lord de Mauley, who is the portfolio holder for these issues, because my hon. Friend has raised some important points and made some very interesting suggestions.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.