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Dioxin Escape At Bolsover, April 1968

Volume 406: debated on Friday 14 March 1980

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11.17 a.m.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what is the nature of the disability, apparently of industrial origin, suffered by workers at the Coalite and Chemical Products Company, Bolsover, since the accident in 1968.

My Lords, I am informed by the chairman of the Health and Safety Commission that, following an explosion at the Coalite and Chemical Products plant at Bolsover in April, 1968, which led to the accidental production and release of dioxin, 79 cases of the skin disease chloracne were reported, some of them severe.

My Lords, is the noble Earl aware that the Answer that he has now given contains no facts that were not given before the publication of a series of articles, or indeed before the debate which took place in this House? Is he now really trying to give an Answer which contains no reference to the suggestion that the Health and Safety Executive have not been able to obtain particulars of this extremely dangerous exothermic explosion in 1938, and of the industrial consequences, on the pretext that having ceased to make the product, the Coalite Company do not fall within the regultaions? is the noble Earl not also aware—or is it not true—that the theft of the medical documents containing the records of these diseases was reported to the police, who said that they had no idea that they were of special importance, and who made a note without carrying out an investigation?

Does the noble Earl not feel that on the whole he has been rather carelessly instructed by his advisers? Will he find out at once from the Health and Safety Executive whether they have been wilfully deceived over all this time, whether information has been wilfully withheld, against the background of a canvas of Dows Chemicals Ltd. versus humanity, on an issue which has been raised in every State in the world, which has been a matter of controversy and of publicity, and which apparently has escaped almost no one except the noble Earl?

My Lords, wholeheartedly repudiate the criticisms of myself and my advisers in that case. If the noble Lord wishes to debate this important and worrying subject, he has every facility in this House to do so, as he is well aware. My Answer simply replied factually to the point that he put to me. With regard to some of his supplementary points, following the explosion, which was in 1968, not in 1938, as the noble Lord inadvertently said, the plant was completely redesigned and was operated without incident. Nevertheless in 1967 the firm ceased production of the chemical that involved production of dioxin as its by-product.

As to the matter of powers to force a company to disclose full results on any information connected with poisonous chemicals, or the operation of a company, I am advised that the Health and Safety Commission could serve a notice under Section 27 of the Health and Safety at Work Act, with the Secretary of State's permission, to require production of the relevant papers. I am also advised that the Employment Medical Advisory Service, which is a subsection of the Health and Safety Commission, could under powers contained in the Factories Act 1961 undertake its own medical examination of the workers at Coalite if this was appropriate. But I understand, too, that EMAS expect to obtain such information as they require in due course, and that it therefore should not be necessary to consider using these powers. If it is necessary to consider using them in the light of recent events—and at the moment I do not want to comment on matters which are sub judice and in the hands of the police—and if the information is not forthcoming, then of course we will use them.

My Lords, has the Minister observed the allegations in the Sunday Times last week, not only that there were the 79 cases of chloracne which he mentioned but also that 35 former workers at this plant suffered from heart attacks over a two-year period? Has he also noted the allegation that the report by Dr. Jenny Martin on her study of 41 who were contaminated as a result of this explosion was concealed by the company, and that a version of it was published which did not contain some of the information discovered by her? Further, has the noble Earl taken into consideration the representations by the trade union which represented these men, the ASTMS, that companies should be forced to disclose all relevant information: and, therefore, could the powers of Section 27 which the noble Earl has mentioned be used to compel Coalite to disclose the report of Dr. Jenny Martin to the trade union, so that they can advise their former members?

My Lords, if I may repeat to the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, what I said to the noble Lord, Lord Hale, powers are available to force disclosure where information is sought. My advice is that this information is forthcoming, and that therefore the powers may not need to be used. If the information is not forthcoming, then the powers can of course be used.