Toxic Truth: 'Cap and cover' failed to protect

IN 1991 the NSW Government had a blueprint for protecting the communities of Boolaroo and Argenton – and most importantly the children – from decades of lead production at Pasminco’s Boolaroo smelter.

By 1993 the blueprint’s authors, Dr Judy Galvin and Dr John Stephenson, were sounding grim warnings of a future that is being exposed in Boolaroo and Argenton today.

Without remediation to remove decades of lead-loaded soil and dust from Boolaroo and Argenton, the blood lead levels experienced by most other Australians ‘‘will remain, for these communities, unattainable’’, they warned in a public health journal in late 1993.

But remediation required resources and co-operation from the ‘‘players’’ involved, Dr Galvin and Dr Stephenson said in a paper presented at a public health conference at that time.

And by 1993 the ‘‘economic, political and legal stakes’’ were too high for some of the ‘‘players’’ in government and industry to co-operate in the best interests of Boolaroo and Argenton, they warned.

Dr Galvin contacted the Newcastle Herald this week after the newspaper launched a joint investigation with Macquarie University which found alarming levels of lead and other heavy metals remain in homes and public places today.

The investigation has revealed the legacy of decades of inaction by government and industry, and the failure of the controversial ‘‘cap and cover’’ strategy secretly approved by government in 2008, after it allowed Pasminco to surrender a 1995 legal requirement to remediate homes.

It was not supposed to happen that way.

Dr Galvin has made public her 1991 Hunter Area Health Service study with the late Dr Stephenson, including recommendations for research that covered the health impacts of slag, remediation strategies, and evidence from blood, soil and dust levels that showed urgent and long-term action was needed to protect public health.

She provided the 1993 follow-up report, sounding the alarm about the lack of a ‘‘single body whose role it is to plan, provide for, and manage the remediation process’’, and the clear warning that failure to respond increased the health risk, ‘‘particularly to young children’’.

‘‘For communities where the issue of lead begins to permeate and to dislocate community life, the effects are highly damaging in the wider public health sense,’’ Dr Galvin and Dr Stephenson warned in 1993.

‘‘Remediation to remove the principal source of lead exposure, the environmental soil and dust, must take priority, or the national goal that all Australians should have a blood lead level of less than 10ug/dl will remain, for these communities, unattainable.’’

Dr Galvin pointed this week to the grimmest warning of all from more than 20 years ago, when the communities of Boolaroo and Argenton were devastated and divided by the news they were living with high levels of lead: ‘‘If resources are not provided, then the study may not have been worth the social and human cost.’’

Dr Galvin, who still lives in the Hunter, is retired and is now a voice for people living with Alzheimer’s disease.

Her 1991 and 1993 reports make clear that the health of Lake Macquarie residents in the 1990s was lost in the lead in petrol debate, and by government responses to Pasminco’s plans to expand its Boolaroo smelter.

Lake Macquarie was also disadvantaged by having the first wave of preschool blood lead level tests under an old ‘‘level of concern’’ standard of 25ug/dl, rather than a 10ug/dl standard less than two years later.

There was a ‘‘massive understatement of the seriousness of the issue’’ at the point where pressure on the NSW Government may have achieved better outcomes for the area, Dr Galvin said.

Her 1991 study described the cleaning offered by Pasminco for lead-affected homes as ‘‘a non solution’’. The verandah of a a First Street house at Boolaroo had a dust lead level of 18,000ppm the day after it was cleaned.

The study called for a comprehensive survey of the level and extent of lead in ceiling cavities throughout the general area of Boolaroo and Argenton, after fine dust from ceilings showed some of the highest lead readings. The highest was 30,764ppm, but it was a matter of concern that the ceiling of a house two kilometres from the smelter showed a reading of 4468ppm, the study noted.    

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