Lead in their lives leaves bitter legacy

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FROM her front verandah, Jane* can see the huge patch of dirt that was the Pasminco lead and zinc smelter.

“It’s good to see it gone,” she said. “But in many ways it’ll be with us forever.”

Inside, her son, in his 20s, is making lunch. “We’re just talking about the lead,” said Jane. “I have no doubt it’s had a big impact on him.

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“He might have struggled a bit, but the lead has certainly made things worse. The whole thing and how the smelter had such an impact on the health of the kids is just not right.”

On the table in front of her are scrapbooks and files bulging with evidence: medical records, specialist appointments, hospital visits, school reports and each year marked with a new blood-lead level.

Her son's history, never shown publicly before, runs the gauntlet of physical and intellectual problems, from uncontrollable seizures and speech difficulties to an incorrect autism diagnosis.

The meticulous record-keeping reveals it took more than 10 years to get his blood-lead level under the current Australian guideline of 10 micrograms per decilitre - a guideline that is expected to be dropped next year to less than five after the National Health and Medical Research Council found there was no safe level of lead in blood.

Lead can cause sickness, brain damage, behavioural problems and retardation in children.

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There were 200 children in north Lake Macquarie who had their blood tested in 1991, and 84 per cent of them had dangerous lead levels.

On July 17, 1991, Jane's family results came back.

Her son had a blood-lead level of 38 and one of their other children's was 29. Today, Jane still has not forgotten the panic that result sparked more than 20 years ago.

"His result was one of the worst and he was only 18 months old," she said.

"It was disastrous. My level was high and I'd been breastfeeding him, which they told me made it all the worse.

"Even now he still struggles, it's a terrible, terrible thing what they got away with."

Her husband John* had bought a single-storey house set on the hill in Boolaroo in 1983 and Jane moved in two years later.

The houses were affordable, there was bush nearby and there was no talk of lead making children sick.

The couple were obviously aware the smelter was close, but had no idea about the extent of it.

Just weeks before getting their son's blood test results he was rushed to hospital following a seizure.

He struggled constantly at school and in year 6 was working at year 3 level.

"We tried everything," Jane said.

"They said give him more milk because the lead would attach to the milk and take it out of his body.

"He was like a zombie on some of the medication they tried."

When the smelter agreed in 1992 to buy up houses in the three streets closest to the plant, the family missed out by metres.

For those left behind in homes no one wanted to buy, the smelter was a constant reminder of feeling "completely trapped".

LEGACY: Seizures and learning difficulties became part of this baby’s life.

LEGACY: Seizures and learning difficulties became part of this baby’s life.

"We would have left, but no one was going to buy our house," Jane said.

"We were stuck and had no choice but to make the best of it with what we could."

The family of six said a major part of the problem was the public relations job the smelter did on the town.

It's the reason why they have never spoken publicly before.

"It was a case of divide and conquer," John said. "The whole thing split the town in two and it got pretty ugly at times. They were just a multinational company and they didn't care one bit about us."

The family's children were never allowed to play in the dirt and, like so many other mothers, Jane spent much of her time cleaning and washing hands and toys.

"They never paid for any medical bills, there was no way they were doing that because then they'd have to admit they were the cause of the problem," John said.

"They came in and ripped up the carpets, but the lead just came back in a matter of months. Pasminco had a big out with this house, they just kept blaming everything on the old lead paint. But the truth was we had no way out and no chance of winning, they were just too big."

* The family's names have been changed to protect their identity.

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