OPINION: Pushing for people power

LEGACY OF THE PAST: The Pasminco smelter in operation in 1959.
LEGACY OF THE PAST: The Pasminco smelter in operation in 1959.

“THE kids at this school are all lead poisoned. That’s why they’re all so stupid” scoffed the diminutive, ill-informed  Sydney primary school teacher. It was 1979 and  Elizabeth O’Brien was the new third grade teacher at Gardeners Road Public School in Rosebery,  one of four NSW schools where children had been tested for a NSW University blood lead study the year before. 

Twenty-five per cent of the school’s children had been found to have a blood lead level above the then “level of concern” of 30micrograms per decilitre (ug/dL) and probably all of them (and the teachers, too) had a blood lead level above the proposed National Health and Medical Research Council response level of 5 ug/dL. The lead was in the air, unavoidable, mainly from leaded petrol vehicle emissions.

This was the study that brought about the introduction of unleaded petrol in Australia in 1985 and the requirement that all new cars must run on unleaded petrol from 1986.

Lead from petrol has poisoned everyone on the planet, yet some people have had extra lead poisoning from paint and other sources, such as plants like the Boolaroo lead smelter. Australia needs legislation  so that all potential home buyers or renters are advised in writing of potential or actual lead hazards (in soil, dust, paint and water) in a home before they decide to buy or rent it.

Lead poisoning tends to lower the IQ of children affected, amongst other irreversible effects, but that doesn’t mean they become ‘‘stupid’’. That doesn’t necessarily mean they can’t function in the world as adults. There are so many variables to consider – the child might have had a very high potential IQ to begin with, they might flourish in a different way than they would have before being affected by lead. Lead poisoning is not a life sentence. Some of the children at Gardeners Road Public School were brilliant. Professor Bruce Lanphear’s animation of the downward IQ shift across the population, in the Little Things Matter video, gives an excellent view of the problem for children. The LEAD Group has been developing for two dozen years the advice for reducing the impacts of past lead exposure for people of all ages.

Still, the question remains: how do we make Boolaroo safe now for current and future residents as well as overcome the negative health and behavioural impacts for all the people who have ever lived and worked there? How do we ensure that future generations aren’t poisoned when they swim in Cockle Creek or eat the shellfish? How do we ensure that having lived at Boolaroo, you can still get your life, brain function and health back?

We have waited 20 years for the Australian government to  act on lead problems across all age groups. The opportunity to do so properly, effectively, must not be squandered.

What is needed is thorough and ongoing monitoring of blood lead levels of everyone who lives, or who has ever lived, near lead smelter sites and other lead-affected areas such as inner cities and old housing.

Blood tests for lead and other heavy metals can be ordered from your GP for free through Medicare, bulk-billed up to four times in every six months, which means these tests are accessible and easy for all. It’s so important that people get tested. And get tested again. And again.

The LEAD Group proposes an environmental health lead tests results website, the purpose of which would be to streamline the collation and analysis of environmental sample results  and the graphing of individuals’ blood lead levels over time, plus provide them with appropriate advice to lower their blood lead level. 

With all of the data in one place, the health of an individual can be tracked,  with the aid of  medical advice, further  sample analysis and the  remediation of all affected areas. The LEAD Group calls upon Pasminco/Zinifex/Nyrstar executives past and present to be the first to contribute to a remediation and health advice service fund for all Boolaroo residents.

Let’s make this  the century where all lead mistakes of the 20th century are righted.

The LEAD Group’s proposed website is about people power. It’s about gathering the data to enable holding companies like Pasminco to account. With the data in one place, it can be used as a force for change.

The LEAD Group supports local communities with free information and referrals, and specifically supports the Boolaroo Action Group’s call for remediation now.

A graph of blood heavy metal levels over time for every person who ever lived near the Boolaroo lead smelter, plus advice for doctors on how to reduce the levels, and free remediation as required, would be the best way to give healthy brains and longevity back to the community.

Elizabeth O’Brien and Sadie Grant Butler are from  The LEAD Group Inc, an environmental health charity