Lead in petrol issue stole debate from Lake Macquarie health crisis

THE issue of lead in petrol in the early 1990s ‘‘stole the debate’’ from the public health disaster of excessive blood lead levels in children at Lake Macquarie, Hunter public health officials warned in 1993.

‘‘While reducing lead in petrol should remain a high priority, communities near sources of lead contamination should not be overlooked,’’ wrote Hunter Area Health Service public health unit scientists Dr Judy Galvin and Dr John Stephenson.

But the lead in petrol issue dominated both state and federal studies in the 1990s, while Broken Hill’s problems with high blood lead levels in children tended to overshadow Boolaroo and Argenton’s pollution problems caused by Pasminco lead smelter.

Boolaroo and Argenton received ‘‘scant attention’’ in the Environment Protection Authority and NSW Health Department report, NSW Government lead issues paper, published in 1993, Dr Galvin and Dr Stephenson noted in their report, Living near a lead smelter: an environmental health risk assessment in Boolaroo and Argenton.

Dr Galvin and Dr Stephenson were critical of the Environment Protection Authority’s handling of Pasminco’s proposal to increase production at the Pasminco smelter.

While an environmental impact statement addressed the issue of lowering lead emissions from the smelter, it did not address the issue of existing soil contamination which was the result of decades of lead production from the site.

If the environmental impact statement had been required to include a health-risk assessment, existing contamination ‘‘would have been examined in relation to health risk, and environmental remediation would be at the forefront of the environmental impact statement agenda’’, Dr Galvin and Dr Stephenson said.

Briefing documents to NSW parliament in the early 1990s made clear the extent of the contaminated land problem in NSW.

‘‘There are no reliable statistics on the extent of contaminated land across NSW. Some estimate that NSW has approximately 60,000 contaminated sites, with some 7000 possibly requiring remediation at a cost of $2 billion,’’ said a briefing document as the NSW Government’s Report of the Interdepartmental Lead Taskforce was being finalised in 1995.

The report noted that Broken Hill and Boolaroo were sites affected by ‘‘significant lead contamination’’, but listed emissions from leaded petrol as the leading contributor to soil and dust lead.

The taskforce recommended a remediation strategy, but noted the lack of research on the best way of remediating lead-affected land.

The strategy included providing grass cover for land where soil lead levels were between 300 and 1500ppm; a top dress with 50mm of clean soil and grass where levels were between 1500-5000ppm, and soil replacement to a depth of 200mm where levels were above 5000ppm.