Toxic Truth: Claims blood-lead tests use children as pollution monitors

Boolaroo Action Group  spokesman Jim Sullivan with  black slag at Eleebana.  Picture: Phil Hearne
Boolaroo Action Group spokesman Jim Sullivan with black slag at Eleebana. Picture: Phil Hearne

 THE state government has been accused of using children as ‘‘guinea pigs’’ to avoid removing lead pollution in north Lake Macquarie.

The Boolaroo Action Group made the claim, amid concern at blood-lead testing planned on children this year.

‘‘They’re going to leave these contaminants in the ground, continue to expose people to them, let people become sick with lead poisoning and only take action based on blood test results,’’  action group spokesman Jim Sullivan said. ‘‘This is not the way it should work.’’

A Hunter New England Health spokesman said all blood-lead testing it conducted was done ‘‘in the best interests of children and their families’’.

Mr Sullivan wrote to the government calling for the establishment of a future fund to remove contaminated soil from 2500 residential properties in Boolaroo, Argenton and Speers Point.

The government confirmed in a letter to Mr Sullivan that any action to deal with lead contamination would be ‘‘informed by new blood testing results’’.

As previously reported, children under five years of age will be eligible to take part in a free government program to test for elevated blood-lead levels.

This blood testing was announced last year in response to a joint Newcastle Herald-Macquarie University investigation that exposed the failure of authorities to ensure the Pasminco pollution was cleaned up.

The investigation revealed dangerously high levels of lead contamination and black slag remain across the city.

The Herald reported in February that north Lake Macquarie children would be able to have their blood-lead levels tested with a new finger-prick device.

If a high result was returned, another more invasive test would be done with a traditional blood sample to confirm the result.

‘‘They’re going to use children as guinea pigs,’’ Mr Sullivan said. ‘‘The toxic effects of lead on human health is widely known, especially on children.

‘‘These experts need to take a good look at themselves and their ethics.’’ 

Mr Sullivan questioned whether they would ‘‘allow their own children to be exposed to this risk or be used in this way’’.

‘‘Mums and dads should protest this approach,’’ he said. ‘‘The use of children as pollution monitors is a hideous idea.’’

The LEAD Group – a not-for-profit community organisation which advises on lead poisoning and lead contamination – does support blood-lead testing. It believes results should be published online, along with advice about how to reduce blood-lead levels.

‘‘With all of the data in one place, the health of an individual can be tracked,’’ it said recently, adding this could lead to ‘‘remediation of affected areas’’.

A study, published in the American Journal of Public Health in 2011, found the use of blood-lead levels as a ‘‘remedial action objective’’ was ‘‘ethically problematic and failed to protect the health of the community, particularly those most vulnerable – children’’. 

It said childhood lead screening was ‘‘an important public health tool’’, but it ‘‘promotes reactive rather than preventive public health responses’’. It said action was taken ‘‘only after children are found to have unacceptable, biologically internalised levels of lead’’.

‘‘In the case of lead, preventing exposure is the only method known to be effective in reducing the risk of adverse health outcomes,’’ it said.

The National Health and Medical Research Council released a draft report last year showing there was no safe level of exposure to lead and children’s exposure to even very small amounts was associated with reduced average academic achievement and IQ.

Mr Sullivan said the government knew lead-contaminated soil affected human health, particularly children. This soil should be removed, regardless of blood test results, he said.

‘‘If they leave the contaminated soil there, this generation and future generations will be exposed to it,’’ he said.

He believed the Environment Protection Authority (EPA) was trying to ‘‘offload the issue to the Department of Health’’.

A NSW EPA spokeswoman said ‘‘lead contamination in Lake Macquarie is a concern  for the EPA’’.

‘‘We are continuing to work closely with the local council, community, business representatives and health experts to ensure the issue is resolved as quickly and effectively as possible,’’she said. 

Mr Sullivan wrote to the government after a meeting held in Argenton in February about the Pasminco pollution problem. 

His letter called for an independent public inquiry to determine how government agencies failed to protect the health of residents from ‘‘systematic lead pollution’’.

EPA chief executive Barry Buffier responded with a letter saying the government had established a ‘‘lead expert working group’’ to ‘‘evaluate the effectiveness’’ of the state-sanctioned lead abatement strategy. The strategy – which Macquarie University Professor Mark Patrick Taylor found to be a failure – was meant to deal with pollution in Boolaroo, Speers Point and Argenton.

Mr Buffier’s letter said the working group’s purpose was to ‘‘understand the actions to date’’ and determine if any actions were required in future.

‘‘The EPA is committed to developing sustainable solutions for managing lead contamination in the area,’’ it said. ‘‘The EPA will pursue a range of potential funding sources for any actions determined necessary and reasonable to address health and environmental concerns into the future.’’


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