LEAD POISONING AWARENESS DAY 2000
By Patricia Parkinson
The 20th of October is Lead Poisoning Awareness Day, in commemoration of the date when, in1897, the first article (in the whole world) describing lead poisoning in children was published in the Australasian Medical Gazette.
The inaugural Lead Poisoning Awareness Day occurred in 1997, commemorating the centenary of this publication. Every year this day is the occasion to alert parents and carers of young children in NSW to the dangers of elevated blood lead levels, its prevalence and how to minimise the risk to their families.
Sadly, Lead Poisoning Awareness day this year may also be the occasion to commemorate the end of the Lead Advisory Service, as we know it, for lack of NSW funding from the end of November 2000. Which leads us to ask the question: has the lead issue been resolved in NSW? Is there any outstanding lead issue?
Lead is a major health hazard. Ingested, inhaled or absorbed through the skin, lead travels in the blood throughout the body before being stored in the bones and teeth. The list of the health effects of lead poisoning is long, including high blood pressure, and damage to liver, kidneys and brain. Children, including unborn children, are at particular risk as their developing body absorbs up to 50% of the lead they are exposed to, and the hand to mouth activities of children under five make them more likely to ingest lead in the form of paint or dust. Lead poisoning in children is a documented cause of learning and attention disorders, hearing loss, slowed growth and behaviour problems. It is both the most common and the most preventable paediatric environmental health problem in Australia.
Lead in paint
In Australia, up to the 1950s, paint used on houses could contain as much as 50% lead. Although the lead content of paint was limited to 0.25% by 1970 - and is currently limited to 0.1%, lead paint is still responsible for the majority of childhood and renovator lead poisoning.
Until all lead paint has been removed from houses, lead paint will be a problem and public awareness is critical to preventing our children from the devastating effects of lead poisoning. If you are planning to renovate your home, it is essential that you obtain advice on the appropriate lead safe procedures to follow.
Lead in petrol
The announcement of the phasing out of leaded petrol in Australia by the first of January 2002 was great news indeed. Lead in petrol is the most widespread source of lead in the environment. Lead emissions from cars pollute the air and contaminate garden soil and the dust in roof cavities.
Lead additives in petrol have been known for years to constitute a public health menace, in fact as early as the mid 1920s as revealed in the report by Jamie Lincoln Kitman entitled "The Secret History of Lead", a strongly recommended read. Corporate interests have ensured that despite evidence of the ill effects of lead additives in petrol and the availability of safe alternatives, leaded petrol is still manufactured and constitutes 20% of petrol sold in Australia. Australia was, with Canada, the country responsible for blocking the ban on lead at the OECD meeting of July 1995, and will be one of the last nations to phase out leaded petrol. [See box for details].
But do not assume that the problem will be over on the 1st January 2002. For as is the case with paint, the legacy of some sixty-five years of leaded petrol will linger for a long time to come in the form of dust, stored as a ticking bomb in roof cavities. The removal of ceiling dust by a competent and lead aware contractor is strongly advised prior to any work involving your ceiling, from the installation of a simple skylight to an extension.
Lead in consumer products
Being cheap and having useful properties, lead is used in a wide range of consumer products, from crystal to plastics.
One of the most recently investigated uses of lead was the lead in the core of candlewicks, causing the emission of toxic vapors when burning. A federal ban declared on the 1st September 1999 on candles fitted with a metal core wick, which contained lead, was followed by state regulation prohibiting their supply. Check the wicks of the candles you are burning at home, if you find a metal core at the centre of the wick, it most probably contains lead.
Lead in drinking water
Drinking water is rarely discussed in Australia as a source of lead poisoning. If your plumbing system dates from the 1930s, lead pipes may have been used. The concern for most homes however arises out of the common use of lead based solder on brass fittings and copper pipes up until as recently as 1989 and on the use of lead in brass and bronze fittings. As a result of corrosion, there is a potential for the lead to leach into the water after prolonged contact. It is therefore the consumption of first flush water- the first cup of tea or baby bottle in the morning which presents a hazard.
The quality of drinking water is generally well monitored by the water authorities up to the point where the water pipes reach your property. This is precisely where the problems begin in terms of lead.
Studies conducted in Sydney suburbs revealed that the lead level of first flush tap water in many cases exceeded the acceptable level set by the National Health and Medical Research Council (10 µg/L - micrograms per litre). Samples also showed excessive levels of cadmium and copper.
There is also no obligation for the manufacturers of lead based solder to label their product as unsuitable for drinking water plumbing. So beware of DIY plumbing jobs!
Water from rainwater tanks may also present a risk of lead contamination as a result of lead paint or flashing on roofs, lead paint or soldering in the guttering, soft solder or lead fallout from air pollution. A study showed that one quarter of tank-water samples tested in Victoria contained more than the acceptable level of lead.
Prevalence of lead poisoning
Lead poisoning has been referred to as the "silent epidemic because at lower levels of lead exposure, there are no or few observable symptoms, and it is also probably the most undiagnosed condition affecting children and adults.
The lack of monitoring of blood lead levels is certainly a critical factor in the public's perception of the prevalence of lead poisoning.
The rate of blood lead testing in Australia is incredibly low. According to Medicare statistics, in 1999, less than one person in every 2000 Australians was tested for lead in blood. However, based on the 1994 national survey of blood lead levels in the United States, we could reasonably expect 4.5% of the population, or 90 people in every 2000 Australians to be lead poisoned (that is, above the Australian goal of 10 µg/dL or micrograms per decilitre). The US survey was published one year before their phase-out of leaded petrol and Australia is more than a year away from our phase-out.
A referral from a general practitioner is all that is required to order a blood lead test, but many GPs to this day, not only do not advise blood lead testing, but also have been known to discourage parents from testing their children.
Statistics on blood lead level testing are scarce. In 1999 there were 700 notifications in NSW of blood lead levels above 15 µg/dL (the target was for all Australians to be below this by 1998).
A 1996 blood lead survey of Sydney children found that 25% of 1-5 year olds are lead poisoned and 7% are above 15 µg/dL within 10 kms of the CBD. This translates as 1,925 children at the notifiable level, yet in 1997, there were only 10 notifications for 1-5 year old children in Central Sydney.
For information and referrals to help detect or prevent lead poisoning or contamination, call the Lead Advisory Service Australia on 1800 686 086 before December.
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Updated 22 March 2013