Dáil Éireann - Volume 481 - 08 October, 1997

Adjournment Debate. - Dangers of Shampoo.

[400] Dr. Upton: Thank you, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle, for the opportunity to raise this matter and I thank the Minister for coming to the House to respond.

I raise this matter in response to reports from the United Kingdom which point to serious and worrying dangers posed by the use of a shampoo for the treatment of head lice containing Malathion, an active ingredient in it, and an organophosphate. I raise this issue in an attempt to highlight the concerns, particularly of parents, about these reports. Malathion, like all organophosphates, is a poisonous and dangerous pesticide, and since children are the main users of these products it is vital that the British reports are studied closely and their implications acted upon.

I raise this matter on foot of a report on the British television programme “World in Action” last Monday, which referred to a scientific study carried out in the UK indicating that users of these shampoos can absorb between five and ten times what are considered to be safe levels of malathion when used to treat head lice. I do not have to tell you, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle, or the Minister, Deputy Moffatt, that organophosphates are toxic and act on the nervous system. The concerns attaching to them are rather wider than their effects in shampoo — a number of farmers in the UK have shown symptoms associated with the use of products containing these chemicals. Three head lice shampoos which are licensed for use and available in Ireland contain organophosphates.

There are a number of aspects of this matter. A certain level of information is now available on the dangers associated with these products. Science is developing all the time and it is important that we be up to date with what is happening. There is a risk of improper use of these products by consumers, if an inadequate level of attention is given to the dangers associated with them if they are not used in accordance with the manufacturers' instructions. Are the Minister's Department and the health promotion agencies conducting research into the implications of the British studies as reported this week? Do they have a coherent plan to ensure consumers are fully aware of the dangers which may be attached to the use of these products and how they should cope with them?

It is vital that the Minister should respond to the worrying results found this week by British scientists. Head lice shampoo and malathion are mostly used on a vulnerable section of the community, that is, children. We must make every effort to research the full implications of the use of organophosphates and thoroughly investigate any hint of harmful effects. We must also take this opportunity to engage in an active campaign to inform parents of the dangers or overuse or improper use of these products. In this context I ask the Minister to request the Department's [401] health promotion unit to develop an action programme to inform parents and other users of the safe ways in which these products can be used, any risks which might be attached to their improper use, and the broader question of whether the use of these products should be discontinued.

Dr. Moffatt: I thank Deputy Upton for raising this matter. I am aware of recent reports in the media concerning the possible dangers which may arise from the use of certain shampoos which may contain the organophosphate malathion and which are intended for the treatment of infestation by head lice. The position at present is that a number of such products are available on the market in Ireland. Because of the nature of the products, they are restricted for sale only through pharmacies. The products in question have been licensed in Ireland for some years and are the subject of product authorisations in accordance with the requirements of the Medical Preparations (Licensing and Sale) Regulations, 1996. Such authorisations would only have been granted after full assessment by the former National Drugs Advisory Board, including the relative safety of the products. The products are intended only for extremely limited use to deal with head lice and should not be used on a regular basis.

Following the media reports, the matter was referred to the Irish Medicines Board which has advised me that, to date, it has received only isolated reports of suspected adverse reactions associated with their use. Although the board has not received any scientifically validated data which would warrant any regulatory action in relation to the products at this stage, nonetheless, it is seeking clarification of the media reports and has assured me it will take any appropriate action which may be considered necessary in the light of any information or evidence which might become available that would alter the risk-benefit ratio of the treatment.

Both the Minister for Health and Children and I are most concerned to ensure that all medicinal products should be subject to the most rigorous scrutiny from a public health point of view and to establish, as far as possible, the relative safety of the products in accordance with acceptable risk-benefit ratios. I stress, however, in relation not only to these products but to all medicines, that such products should only be used as and when absolutely necessary and strictly in accordance with the information provided. If any symptoms persist or if the users need any further advice, they should always consult their doctor or pharmacist.