Toxic Truth: Health regulator halves lead exposure threshold

The former Pasminco site at Boolaroo in 2012.
The former Pasminco site at Boolaroo in 2012.

AUSTRALIA’S health regulator has halved the level at which people are considered to have too much toxic lead in their blood.

Macquarie University Professor Mark Patrick Taylor said the new guidelines were a ‘‘game changer’’ for north Lake Macquarie residents dealing with a century of industrial pollution from the former Pasminco lead smelter.

‘‘This reframes the conversation that the community and experts are having about Boolaroo,’’ he said.

‘‘There’s quite a lot of research about the relationship between soil and blood lead levels and dust and blood lead levels.

‘‘The question is now, what are the appropriate levels of lead in soil, dust, air and water?’’

Professor Taylor said a 2008 study of a small cohort of children in Sydney showed 7.5 per cent had a blood lead level of more than ten micrograms per decilitre.

‘‘Now that we are looking at five, we are going to have a different percentage of children who are going to exceed the intervention levels,’’ he said.

Boolaroo Action Group spokesman Jim Sullivan said the new guidelines would be a hard target for industrial communities.

‘‘It’s an appropriate target and now we need to do something about ensuring these levels are met,’’ he said.

‘‘Unfortunately while ever we have high lead levels in soil, there will always be a risk to children in the area.’’

Under the new guidelines announced by the National Health and Medical Research Council on Wednesday, action must be taken when a person records a blood-lead level greater than five micrograms per decilitre (ug/dL).

The previous ‘‘level of concern’’ was 10 ug/dL.

‘‘If a person has a blood-lead level greater than five micrograms per decilitre, the source of lead exposure should be investigated and reduced,’’ the regulator said.

Children and pregnant women are at greatest risk.

The new guidelines bring Australia into line with the US, Canada and Germany.

Experts say lead causes intellectual deficits, school failure and behavioural problems in children.

As childhood exposure causes permanent damage to regions of the brain governing mood regulation, lead exposure has also been linked to violent behaviour later in life.

The Newcastle Herald reported in December as part of its ongoing Toxic Truth series that an Argenton toddler had recorded a blood-lead level of six ug/dL in 2011.

The elevated level, eight years after the smelter closed, raised questions about Hunter New England Health’s view that high blood-lead levels in north Lake Macquarie children were caused by emissions from the factory.

Julie and Rick West moved to Boolaroo in about 2001 and have raised their daughter Sunnita, 14, and Maliq, 10 in the suburb.

Regular blood lead level tests when the children were younger showed them to have very low levels of around two micrograms per decilitre.

‘‘I would be concerned if my children’s levels were around five or higher,’’ she said.

‘‘But we need more than just a different number on a piece of paper.

‘‘What we needed was action to stop us ingesting the lead in the first place – we now have more dust blowing off the site than we have ever had before and there is a lot of dust in people’s pools, so our kids are swimming in it.

‘‘They’ve got to do something about that, otherwise what’s the point in cutting the levels?’’

Pasminco dropped 40 tonnes of lead on surrounding communities for decades.

The Herald’s investigation revealed dangerously high levels of lead contamination and black slag remain in soil and dust across the city.

In response, the NSW government announced free blood testing for children and pregnant women.

Lake Macquarie MP Greg Piper welcomed the health experts’ decision.

He said the new guidelines would help protect children, who are at greater risk of health problems from lead.