Toxic Truth: Free lead testing 'too little too late'

Nadine Mackay: "The test doesn't measure the lead in our bones and organs that's going to leach out." Picture: Max Mason-Hubers
Nadine Mackay: "The test doesn't measure the lead in our bones and organs that's going to leach out." Picture: Max Mason-Hubers

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EDITORIAL: Questions over blood lead tests

Free testing for the most vulnerable

NADINE Mackay believes the  free blood-lead level testing program is ‘‘too little, too late’’ for most North Lake Macquarie adults, who she said may have already developed hidden health problems related to long-term exposure to the toxic metal.

‘‘It’s already in our bones and our major organs,’’ Ms Mackay said.

‘‘Looking at the big picture, the long-term outlook – I’m really worried about our future health.

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Pregnant women and children, aged between six months and five years, from Boolaroo, Speers Point and Argenton can be tested from June 29 at 51 Main Road, Boolaroo. Appointments can be made on Mondays from 1pm to 7pm and other weekdays from 9am to 1pm. To book, call 49246477 or visit leadscreen.info.

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‘‘We can’t change it, we can’t fix it and Pasminco is no longer around so we can’t sue for negligence.’’

Hunter New England Health’s upcoming community testing is open to children aged between six months and five years and pregnant women in Boolaroo, Argenton and Speers Point.

The National Health and Medical Research Council Information Paper: Evidence on the Effects of Lead on Human Health, released in May this year, found that the main way people absorb lead into the body is by breathing lead-contaminated air or swallowing lead-contaminated particles.

‘‘The proportion of lead that is absorbed depends on several factors, including the solubility of the lead contaminant, the size of the lead particles and the person’s age, sex, and diet,’’ the paper said.

‘‘Once in the lungs or gut, lead is absorbed into the bloodstream and is distributed to the liver, kidneys, lungs, brain, spleen, muscles, and heart, and can be stored in bones and teeth.

‘‘Lead that has been stored in bones and teeth can be released many years after exposure. 

‘‘This tends to occur during times of calcium stress, which includes pregnancy, breastfeeding, menopause, growth spurts, prolonged bed rest or in osteoporosis.’’

The World Health Organisation said lead causes long-term harm in adults, including increased risk of high blood pressure and kidney damage.

Ms Mackay and her younger brother grew up in Argenton and played in the mud and the aqua-blue dams behind Pasminco.

In all her time attending Argenton Public School from 1980 and then Glendale High, her cohort of classmates never had their blood-lead levels tested, unlike students in the 1990s.

‘‘I think it’s terrible that we were never tested,’’ she said.

‘‘Our parents had no idea about what was going on and Pasminco just swept it all under the carpet.’’

Ms Mackay and her two young sons had their blood-lead levels tested for the first time in recent months and were told the results were ‘‘not something to be concerned about’’.

‘‘But the problem is it only measures the level of lead in our blood now and that can change,’’ she said.

‘‘Everyone has heard of the Pasminco workers who had high readings and were sent home for it to drop.

‘‘The test doesn’t measure the lead in our bones and organs that’s going to leach out.

‘‘We should be looking at what can be done to get that out of the bodies of adults and older children who have been exposed over the long term.’’

Hunter New England Health public health physician Craig Dalton said there were methods to quantify the level of lead in bones and organs, but the tests weren’t accurately predictive at an individual level.

‘‘Most of the impacts would be subtle and hard to detect and differentiate from normal ageing, such as high blood pressure,’’ Dr Dalton said.

‘‘For the typical person with lead exposure from 40 to 50 years ago there’s not going to be any intervention, apart from maintaining good calcium intake to try and maintain your bone status.’’

Ms Mackay encouraged parents to have their children tested ‘‘to see where they stand’’.

But she said weaknesses in the voluntary program included the relatively low number of residents in the area with small children and also ensuring the families took part.

Education Department enrolment data reveals Speers Point Public has 117 students enrolled this year, Boolaroo has 40 and Argenton just 23 students.

‘‘It’s a cop-out,’’ Ms Mackay said. ‘‘Why are we even using humans as an indicator of the problem?

‘‘We know lead is still in the landscape and we need more independent testing of our homes and our land.

‘‘Testing the kids doesn’t take that lead away, it doesn’t fix the problem [in the soil and dust].

‘‘It’s not a true indicator of the safety of our suburbs.’’

WORLD ENVIRONMENT DAY AWARDS: WINNER 2015

Newcastle Herald journalists Donna Page, Damon Cronshaw, Helen Gregory and Matthew Kelly, working in conjunction with Professor Mark Patrick Taylor from Macquarie University,  have been recognised by the United Nations Association of Australia for their continuing investigation into the health and environmental fallout from the former Pasminco lead smelter at Boolaroo.

The team won the  World Environment Day Award for best  reporting.

The judges said  ‘‘Toxic Truth’’  was an outstanding example of investigative journalism on a major environmental problem