Exposed: worst polluters in Britain

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MORE THAN 12,000 tons of cancer-causing chemicals were discharged by Britain's most heavily polluting factories in 1996, the last year for which figures are available, according to the environmental pressure group Friends of the Earth.

Today the group publishes a league table of the firms it says are the worst offenders, claiming that one plant - Associated Octel at Ellesmere Port, Merseyside, which produces lead additives for motor fuel - was alone responsible for emitting over 5,000 tons of carcinogens, nearly half the total.

The nearby ICI plant at Runcorn, which produces chlorine and related chemicals, was the second worst emitter of carcinogens, with over 2,000 tons, the group says. Glaxo Wellcome's drugs plant at Ulverston in Cumbria was the third worst, with over 800 tons.

In each case, the group refers to the international scientific literature to categorise the discharged chemicals concerned as carcinogenic.

All three companies yesterday disputed the allegations, which emerge from a remarkable attempt by FoE to draw up, using government figures, the first comprehensive and fully detailed guide to chemical discharges from British industrial plants. Entitled Factory Watch,the report is a Domesday Book of Britain's factory pollution, though it is a web site rather than a parchment volume.

It gives full particulars of all the declared chemical emissions from all the 1,387 large factories in England and Wales which are regulated by the Environment Agency. There is no information for Scotland and Northern Ireland.

It also gives a summary, available as an instant cross-reference, of the known health effects of all the 440 chemical substances and groups of substances involved, which include threats to people's respiratory and hormonal systems as well as the threat of cancer.

And it also lists the plants by postcode - so anyone can find out which factories in their own neighbourhood are emitting potentially dangerous chemicals, what the health effects are thought to be, and exactly how much, according to the Government's own figures, is being discharged.

The group lists the 97 factories, from Exeter in Devon to Cramlington in Northumberland, which, according to government figures, each emitted more than a ton of known cancer-causing chemicals in 1996. FoE says the full total of emissions was 12,300 tons.

It grades all 97 in a league table, with some of the British chemical industry's best-known names near the top, including Albright and Wilson, Shell, Dow Chemical, Courtaulds and ICI, which alone has four plants in the top 20.

"If league tables can help schools and hospitals get better, they should help industry get better as well," said FoE's pollution campaigner, Mike Childs. "The worst are being allowed to release a quite appalling amount of health-threatening pollution and the Government must take tougher enforcement action. It must now deliver on its election pledge, and publish comprehensive pollution inventories.

"Then we can all find which pollution sources are threatening our health."

The figures for the amounts of substances released are not disputed by the companies - they are the figures they have themselves reported to the Environment Agency. But they disagree that some of the chemicals are carcinogenic.

Associated Octel accepts that in 1996 its plant at Ellesmere Port emitted to the air 66 tons of lead, 5,218 tons of chloroethane and 8 tons of vinyl bromide.

But it said at the weekend: "According to the World Health Organisation's International Agency for Research on Cancer, the carcinogenic status of these substances is as follows: lead and chloroethane - no adequate evidence of a carcinogenic effect in humans; vinyl bromide - limited evidence of a carcinogenic effect in humans.

"These classifications, from a global authority on cancer, reveal the inaccurate nature of the claims."

However, Friends of the Earth quotes the US Environmental Protection Agency's assessments of lead and chloroethane. On lead, the EPA says: "Human studies are inconclusive regarding lead exposure and cancer while animal studies have seen an increase in kidney cancer from lead exposure by the oral route. EPA has classified lead as aprobable human carcinogen." On chloroethane, the EPA says: "There are no human cancer data available for chloroethane, but animal studies have shown [it] to be carcinogenic."

Mr Childs said: "For may of these chemicals, the work to see whether they cause cancer in humans has not been carried out. The easiest way to test this would be to experiment on humans, which is, of course, completely out of the question. Therefore we have to rely on data that does exist, often data on animal tests. Where a chemical has been shown to cause cancer in animals, then the prudent thing to do is to treat it as though it could cause cancers in humans."

FoE's move was welcomed yesterday by the Environment Agency, but it pointed out that since 1996 several of the plants named had made significant reductions in their emissions. Those of Associated Octel fell by 29 per cent in 1997 "and further reductions are expected in the near future". The agency said improvements were in hand at the ICI Runcorn plant which were expected to bring "substantial improvements".

The FoE web site address is

5,000-ton Fallout Puts Factory in a League of its Own

This is the Associated Octel plant at Ellesmere Port, Merseyside, which tops Friends of the Earth's list of polluting factories in Britain.

It is a factory manufacturing tertraethyl lead, the petrol additive that is now being phased out in Europe because of health risks, but is still in use in many countries, especially in the developing world.

According to Friends of the Earth's analysis, in 1996 - the last year for which figures are available - this one site alone emitted nearly half the total of potentially cancer-causing chemicals discharged by large British factories. The group says that, according to the Chemical Releases Inventory maintained by the Environment Agency, the factory emitted a "terrifying" 5,339 tons of recognised carcinogens.

These consisted of 5,213 tons of chloroethane; 66 tons of lead compounds; 51 tons of lead; 8 tons of vinyl bromide; and 1.2 tons of 1,2-dibromoethane.

The company said yesterday: "The claim is false. The company's emissions standards are subject to rigorous supervision by the Environment Agency. All the processes on site are covered by licences issued by the Environment Agency and the company operates in compliance with those licences."

The company claimed the World Health Organisation had found little evidence to prove that lead vinyl bromide and chloroethane were carcinogenic in humans.

The company added: "Friends of the Earth should have made it clear that the concentrations of the substances emitted are so low as to present no health hazard either to the workforce or the local population, based on standards set by the Health and Safety Commission."

Technical improvements and other changes will mean that emissions in 1999 will fall to a level of less than half their 1996 levels, the company said.