Toxic Truth: ‘We simply left the house empty and walked away’

LEFT: Jenny Power, Jacob Lydiard and Karina Power-Lydiard, who now live in Elizabeth Beach. They moved out when Jacob was found to have elevated lead levels in his blood, aged 8 months.  Picture Ryan Osland
LEFT: Jenny Power, Jacob Lydiard and Karina Power-Lydiard, who now live in Elizabeth Beach. They moved out when Jacob was found to have elevated lead levels in his blood, aged 8 months. Picture Ryan Osland

A DECADE after Pasminco’s lead and zinc smelter closed at Boolaroo and as the land is being prepared for redevelopment, the Newcastle Herald and Macquarie University collected more than 130 soil and  dust samples from homes and public spaces in surrounding suburbs. The analysis revealed alarming levels of contamination remained, despite a government-approved Lead Abatement Scheme.

JENNIFER Power had no qualms about leaving Boolaroo when her eight-month-old son was found to have elevated blood lead levels – but she has wondered ever since whether she escaped fast enough.

‘‘I was horrified when he returned readings of 24 [micrograms per decilitre] and we knew we had to get out of there to keep him safe,’’ Ms Power said. ‘‘We simply left the house empty and walked away.’’

Jacob, now 24, was diagnosed when he was in year 5 as having attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), impulsivity, oppositional defiant disorder, hearing problems and being emotionally disturbed – all believed to be related to his childhood lead exposure.

He was suspended so often at high school that Ms Power had to ask for him to be considered for in-school suspension, because she couldn’t afford to take any more time off work.

Jenny Power, Jacob Lydiard and Karina Power-Lydiard days after moving out of the Boolaroo area.

Jenny Power, Jacob Lydiard and Karina Power-Lydiard days after moving out of the Boolaroo area.

‘‘He missed so much of the core learning fundamentals,’’ she said. ‘‘It’s not that he’s naughty, he just had difficulty being at school – he couldn’t be in a normal classroom because he couldn’t concentrate.’’

When Ms Power and her former husband first moved with baby  Jacob to near Forster, she continued to commute to her job in the Hunter and stayed during the week at her parents’ Boolaroo home. She was pregnant at the time with Karina, who  has psoriatic arthritis and was recently diagnosed as having a growth on her brain.

The discovery was made after the 22-year-old began having seizures.

The family's old home in Boolaroo.

The family's old home in Boolaroo.

 Jennifer Power was  nine  when  her family moved into her  grandparents’ home in Lakeview Street.

Ms Power bought her own home seven blocks away when she was just 18 years old, before marrying  in 1988 and giving birth to Jacob in 1990.

She was working at a Kotara pathology laboratory when Hunter Area Health first tested children in the area for elevated blood lead levels in 1991.

Concerned by the findings – 84per cent of children under five years of age had blood lead levels of 10 and above – she had  Jacob tested.

Her shock when he returned a blood lead level of 24 [micrograms per decilitre] was further compounded when her soil returned an average lead level reading of 21,000 parts per million.

She demanded her house be decontaminated, but subsequent testing on Jacob’s cot revealed an average dust lead level of 9840 parts per million. So  she packed up, headed north and leased the house to university students.

Pasminco included her home in their buffer zone in 1992 and  offered $108,000 to buy her out. She sold the house 12 days before she gave birth to Karina.

‘‘Rumours spread that I had been paid $100,000 to go away quickly,’’ she said.

‘‘I had been one of the original members of No Lead and received hate mail in my letterbox saying that I was ruining the area and would make people lose their jobs.

‘‘There were always people on the news saying ‘I’ve lived here all my life and I’m fine’.

‘‘It would be funny if it wasn’t so tragic – they put the blinkers on and just didn’t want to know.’’

Ms Power went on to have two more healthy children, Maxwell, 20, and Angelina, 9, in Elizabeth Beach.

But she lives every day with the lingering legacy of lead on her two eldest children.

‘‘Too many have suffered for long enough and future generations shouldn’t have to go through this,’’ she said.

‘‘I’d like to see victims’ compensation available – even if the company can’t be made accountable, somebody should be – as well as a parliamentary inquiry.’’


Do you know more? Want to share your story? Email investigate@theherald.com.au