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Home > Travelogues > 2017 Travelogues Index > Lead contamination in Broken Hill, New South Wales

Broken Hill, New South Wales - Lead contamination

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North Mine, Broken Hill, a silver, lead and zinc mine dating back to 1883.

Like Mount Isa, Broken Hill has been contaminated by lead dust.  Rainwater collected from roofs is not considered safe to drink. 

 

The first mining deaths in Broken Hill were attributed to lead poisoning. But the effect was far greater than just the fatalities.  

 

The incidence of lead poisoning in Broken Hill was estimated to be as high as two per cent of miners in 1895. The effects of lead on health were not limited to the workforce.  A committee convened by the New South Wales Government in 1892 heard that the high infant mortality rate in Broken Hill might have been attributable to lead poisoning.

 

Lead contamination remains a big issue for many regional towns, but there is no nationally consistent approach on how to deal with it.  New stricter national health guidelines mean that even in towns where there have been successful campaigns to reduce residents' exposure to lead, very young children still have worrying lead levels in their blood.

 

Can a clean up be effective?  Esperance, a port in Western Australia used for exporting lead has done a thorough clean up. The warning literally fell from the sky, when nearly 10,000 birds were killed after drinking contaminated water, or being exposed to plants with lead dust.

 

A State Government inquiry in 2008 found the Magellan Metals mine responsible, and it agreed to pay $9 million toward decontamination and was banned from exporting lead from the Port of Esperance.

 

ABC Rural Journalist Tara de Landgrafft said the clean up was a concerted effort. "Trucks rolling into towns, looked like cement mixers, they had big vacuum cleaner type hoses," she said.  "They'd vacuum inside roofs and houses, they'd clean inside rainwater tanks.

Extracts from ABC Rural 2015

 

The adequacy of information given out to people living in lead contaminate towns of Broken Hill, Port Pirie and Mount Isa is hotly debated.  Read the reasons:

 

Parents in three Australian states are being given misleading information about the dangers of lead exposure for babies and small children – including failing to warn pregnant women about the risks of miscarriage. So what exactly are parents in Broken Hill, Mount Isa and Port Pirie being told? And what risks are pregnant women and families in the United States being clearly warned about that parents in Australia are not?

Extracts from The Conversation 2016

 

Health authorities reject study arguing Broken Hill locals not adequately warned about lead

From ABC News 2016 

 

New research has found campaigns to raise awareness of lead contamination in some Australian towns aren't effectively communicating the dangers.

From ABC News 2016 

 

The Living with Lead Alliance response to ‘Misled about lead: assessment of online public health education material from Australia’s lead mining and smelting towns’, by Donna Green and Marianne Sullivan

Extracts from Living with Lead Alliance 2016 

 

Misled about lead: an assessment of online public health education material

from Australia's lead mining and smelting towns.  Health education materials need to clearly state health risks from lead across developmental stages and for sensitive populations, integrate a primary prevention perspective, and provide comprehensive evidence-based recommendations for reducing lead exposure in and around the home. Families who rely on information provided by these online public education materials are likely to be inadequately informed about the importance of protecting their children from exposure to lead and strategies for doing so.

Extract from US National Library of Medicine 2016

 

Children are the most at risk.

 

Children are much more vulnerable to lead poisoning than adults. This is partly because they absorb four times more lead than adults and are more likely to be exposed to lead from crawling around floors and hand-to-mouth activity. Typically, children's blood lead levels peak at about 1.5–2 years of age. The growing child's brain also has a much greater sensitivity to lead than the adult brain and exposure to lead can have significant permanent effects on the developing brain. The main effects are a reduction in intelligence and behavioural disturbances such as attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Elevated lead levels have also been shown to be associated with a higher rate of criminality, including violent crime.

 

Lead exposure - Implications for general practice:

This article explores the effects that lead can have on children’s health and draws on two recent pollution episodes to highlight the need for continued community and medical vigilance.

Extracts from Australian Family Physician.  

 

Children in Broken Hill are regularly tested for lead levels.  The average blood lead level dropped from 18.4 mg/dL (0.88 pmo]JL) in 1991 to 10.8 pg/dL (0.52 pinollL) in 1996. At this time, the number of children

exceeding the 10 j.igldL guideline for blood lead in Australians determined by the National Health and

Medical Research Council was 44 per cent.

Extract from CSIRO  

 

Blood lead levels in Broken Hill children aged between one and four from 1991 to 2014

Health Stats NSW

 

Contaminated playgrounds. A Macquarie University study discovered dust containing high levels of metals such as arsenic, lead, silver and zinc in playgrounds in Broken Hill. The study, published in the journal Environmental Research, found more than twenty per cent of Broken Hill children under five had levels of lead in their blood higher than the national standard of 10 micrograms per decilitre.

From ABC News 2014

 

Health authorities have officially lowered the acceptable threshold for blood lead levels, meaning more than fifty per cent of Broken Hill children are over the limit.

From ABC News 2014

Although lead exposure among miners is no longer a major health issue, lead toxicity in children has emerged as a major public health issue over the past decade. In 1991 the first comprehensive testing undertaken on children under five years of age revealed that more than eighty per cent had blood lead levels over the current guideline level of 10 pg/dL.

 

Current environmental exposure to lead appears to be related more to historical mining and mine management practice than current activities.

Environmental health in Broken Hill, Broken Hill Environmental Lead Centre. The mining city of Broken Hill is in the far west of NSW. Since the early 1880s silver, lead and zinc have been extracted from what was one of the world's richest ore bodies of its type. Broken Hill has had a major role in developing the nation's prosperity.

Extract from CSIRO  

 

Lead Action news – currently unavailable

 

Community Responses to Chronic Environmental Lead Contamination in Broken Hill, NSW by Dr Tara McGee, Associate Lecturer, School of Aquatic Science and Natural, 2012

 

Broken Hill community's response to lead contamination and reduction of mining operations, 2014

At Port Pirie, where a lead smelter is situated, the contamination has been even greater than at Broken Hill and Mount Isa. It is shocking to discover that more than 3000 children have been lead poisoned in the South Australian town of Port Pirie during the last decade.

Extracts from The Conversation 2012

 

See Mount Isa case histories of lead contamination in children.   

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Follow our visit to Broken Hill and Far Western New South Wales on the following pages