LEAD Action News
LEAD Action News vol 10 no 4, June 2010, ISSN 1324-6011
Incorporating Lead Aware Times ( ISSN 1440-4966) and Lead Advisory Service News (ISSN 1440-0561)
The Journal of The LEAD (Lead Education and Abatement Design) Group Inc.
Editor-in-Chief: Anne Roberts

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Government response to residents' claims of contamination and poisoning

Photo: Kay Seltitzas and Marsha Stejskal outside the Tasmanian Department of Health and Human Services.

In October 2008 three residents of Rosebery contacted the Rosebery mine owner Oz Minerals after they had received results from testing for heavy metals of ground water and soil by a Government laboratory. The residents asked Oz Minerals to relocate them away from Rosebery to similar standard homes in a safe environment. After Oz Minerals refused to relocate or compensate them the residents were contacted by the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).

[Ed’s note: Later articles in this newsletter refer to MMG as the owner of the Rosebery Mine. This is explained by the following news item from the Sydney Morning Herald June 16, 2010 AAP, entitled:

“China Minmetals Corporation's Australian arm, MMG, says it is on the hunt for acquisitions: The unlisted Melbourne-based MMG was formed after its parent company bought all but one of OZ Minerals Ltd's assets for $US1.386 billion ($A1.6 billion) a year ago.”]

Subsequently the DHHS and Environment Protection Authority (EPA) commenced an investigation into five Rosebery residents' claims of heavy metal contamination of their properties with arsenic, lead, cadmium, copper and manganese etc., and of their numerous chronic health problems. High levels of various metals were found in soil on three properties. These results included Lead, 4,590 mg/kg – 16 times the Health Investigation Levels (HILs), and Arsenic, 646 mg/kg – over 6 times the HILs. In ground water samples, Manganese levels were as high as 15,100 µg/L; all Manganese measurements over 3 times the HILs. Three more Rosebery residents who were ill applied to the DHHS to be included in the investigation. The DHHS rejected them. By this stage the blood and urine tests of nine residents (only five of whom were in the investigation), showed various high levels of heavy metals.

The DHHS appointed Professor Brian Priestley from Monash University as the toxicologist to provide expert advice concerning the investigation.  Professor Priestley's PhD is in Pharmacology.  The residents were very angry that the Government had appointed an expert in pharmacology only and who was not a medical doctor. The investigation was somewhat complicated by the DHHS appointment of a Specialist Physician (Internal Medicine), who only examined two of the residents from a medical point of view. For some reason, this doctor did not release his reports on these two patients nor was he named in the Final Report.

On 2nd April 2009, the Confidential Public and Environmental Health Service and Environment Protection Authority Final Report: “Investigation into Concerns Regarding Seepage Water in a Rosebery locality 2008-2009” was released. In essence, the recommendations from the Final Report can be summarised:

  • The three residents' properties involved were not contaminated
  • The chronic health problems of five residents could not be attributed to heavy metal poisoning
  • That no further medical examinations, biological testing or environmental testing relating to heavy metals was required

Professor Brian Priestly stated in his Final Report:

“Recommendation 1. My recommendation is that any further environmental sampling around the properties in question is not warranted…that further biological monitoring would not necessarily be helpful to resolve the issue of whether significant exposure to heavy metals has occurred from sources related to soil and water on these properties”.

Recommendation 2. My recommendation is that these health concerns be pursued by appropriate consultation with medical practitioners and that DHHS do whatever it can to facilitate this health follow-up.  However, this follow-up should be based on the premise that the strongly held beliefs of the residents that their health problems are related to heavy metal exposure is not supported by the empirical evidence gathered in this investigation”.

The residents were appalled with this prejudicial recommendation. In effect, Prof Priestley appeared to be giving advice about the psychological status of the patients to any medical practitioner treating them.

Residents' response

The five residents involved in the investigation categorically rejected the findings in the DHHS/EPA Final Report, and called on the Health Minister, Lara Giddings, to establish an independent population-based public and environmental health survey into heavy metals in Rosebery. The Minister rejected this call. Several of the affected Rosebery residents joined forces with other concerned Tasmanians and medical and environmental professionals to form the Toxic Heavy Metals Taskforce Tasmania (THMTT – the 'Taskforce'). With the assistance from an expert on contaminated sites, the Taskforce released the Critique of the ‘Investigation into Concerns Regarding Seepage Water in a Rosebery locality - Final Report from the Project Team’ (DHHS, EPA 2009), which outlined serious flaws in the DHHS/EPA methodology, analysis and conclusions.

Qualified medical specialist

Several people, including the original five, sought further medical advice from the most appropriate and qualified specialist in Tasmania: Dr Andreas Ernst, an Occupational Health and Musculoskeletal specialist with many years of experience in the mining industry both in Tasmania and elsewhere. Dr Ernst formally assessed ten patients in detail and made a diagnosis of heavy metal poisoning. He subsequently provided a confidential medical/'occupational health' report to Dr Roscoe Taylor, Director of Health.

Since the release of the DHHS/EPA Final Report in April 2009, the revised recommendations for residents on reducing their risks of heavy metal exposure in Rosebery were not made publicly available. Taskforce members could not find any copies of these recommendations from a number of community facilities in Rosebery, including the library and the hospital. In November the Taskforce produced a pamphlet “Reducing Your Exposure to Heavy Metals in Rosebery – Health Risks and Heavy Metals - Your Right To Know”, which included the sixteen precautionary measures outlined in the Final Report. This pamphlet provided nine additional precautionary measures to those outlined in the Oz Mineral's pamphlet “What you should know about Lead”. The Taskforce letterboxed all residences in Rosebery, as well as a broad distribution in other towns on the West Coast.

Legal action flagged and further investigations commence

The residents sought the advice of law firm Slater and Gordon. By late December 2009 Slater and Gordon announced that they were representing several residents from Rosebery. At the same time the DHHS announced it would conduct an assessment of the diagnosis by Dr Andreas Ernst. Additionally, Minerals and Metal Group (MMG), the new mine owner, announced that Gutteridge Haskins and Davey (GHD), their environmental consultants, would conduct another environmental sampling program in Rosebery, and that MMG would also conduct a biological testing program for mine workers and their families.

In early January 2010 the Rosebery Community Reference Group Committee was established. Represented in this group are government departments, the mine, local council, unions and selected members of the community. The Committee was established to act in an advisory capacity and provide input for the environmental and biological investigations underway. As the design and planning phase for these investigations had already been decided upon by MMG and the DHHS, and because of the condition of confidentiality, the Taskforce declined to participate on the Committee. Later in February, the Taskforce was contacted by a representative of the Rosebery Technical Advisory Group (TAG), an additional body established to advise the reference group. The Taskforce was invited to join this Committee, but again declined, because of the confidentiality requirement. Nevertheless, the Taskforce did provide the TAG with a detailed submission on “Proposals for Action on Heavy Metal Contamination and Health Risks in Rosebery.” The Taskforce was very concerned about the independence of the DHHS and GHD investigations and the testing and assessment methodologies being used. In late February the Taskforce publicly released proposed “Terms of Reference” for an “Integrity Commission Inquiry into the DHHS, EPA and EPA Rosebery Investigation 2008/2009/2010.”

At the first Community Reference Group Meeting held in Rosebery, the Taskforce circulated information updates for Rosebery residents including the THMTT Rosebery heavy metals Table 2008 which included the data from biological tests from 8 residents and and environmental test results from 4 properties. Also included was an information sheet on “The Need for Expert Clinical Assessments in Diagnosis of Heavy Metal Poisoning.”

DHHS appoints toxicologists

In February 2010 the DHHS appointed two clinical toxicologists, Professor Frank Daly and Professor George Braitberg. Significantly, the DHHS did not require them to conduct patient consultations and clinical examinations of any of the people diagnosed by Dr Ernst. Based on the information provided only by the DHHS, Professors Daly and Braitberg concluded that the ten patients health problems could not be caused by heavy metal poisoning.

In collaboration with eight patients diagnosed by Dr Ernst, the Taskforce produced a “Critique of Toxicology Reports from Professor Frank Daly and Professor George Braitberg”,dealing with each patients' assessment by Professors Daly and Braitberg. On the 14th April 2010, before Professors Daly and Braitberg’s “Summary Findings” were released by the DHHS, the Taskforce publicly rejected the conclusions of Prof's Daly and Braitberg.

Failure to provide previous environmental test results

Previous Rosebery mine owner Oz Minerals, and the current owner MMG, have not released any data from their tests of soil, water or dust from their environmental sampling programs since 2007/08. Numerous properties tested for heavy metals in Rosebery from several investigations over a period of years have returned very high levels of heavy metals (especially lead and arsenic). Despite this, MMG are conducting more tests.

Slater and Gordon have been conducting their own investigations into the presence of heavy metals in the environment and their effect upon the residents. The law firm believes that it will be in a position to commence legal proceedings in the near future.

The need for urgent change

Several residents have felt it necessary to evacuate from their heavily contaminated homes in Rosebery but continue to suffer from serious chronic health problems. Those people diagnosed with heavy metal poisoning by Dr Ernst who remain in Rosebery have steadily deteriorating health problems. Tragically, for economic reasons, they are unable to leave their homes.

The Rosebery case highlights the need for urgent reform of State-based legislation relating to Health Department regulations on blood/urine metal levels and Contaminated Sites. In addition, there is an urgent need for updating and reviewing national guidelines for Health Investigation and Remediation Levels, especially for arsenic, lead and levels of metal mixtures. There needs to be a shift within the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) and State Health Departments' attitudes concerning the issue of synergism and chronic health effects from low levels of complex chemical or heavy metal mixtures. This concept of the synergistic effect of more than one toxic agent is now well accepted in scientific literature. Many of the heavy metals in question are linked to cancer. The President's Cancer Panel's recent statements about the need to act on environmental causes of cancer needs to be acted on in Australia as a matter of urgency. Rosebery is an example where thinking and action on preventative health strategies needs an immediate response.

A Note about the NHMRC

“The National Health and Medical Research Council was first constituted in September 1936. The current legislative basis of the Council is the National Health and Medical Research Council Act 1992 (NHMRC Act). The NHMRC is responsible to the Commonwealth Minister for Health and Ageing.

NHMRC's functions come from the statutory obligations conferred by the NHMRC Act. The Act provides for the NHMRC to pursue activities designed to:

  • raise the standard of individual and public health throughout Australia;
  • foster the development of consistent health standards between the various States and Territories;
  • foster medical research and training and public health research and training throughout Australia ; and foster consideration of ethical issues relating to health.

It is hoped that the outcome of future legal action by Slater and Gordon will lead to establishment of an independent, population-based public and environmental health survey in Rosebery and for just compensation to those people whose health has been so severely affected. None of the people diagnosed with heavy metal poisoning knew about the potential health risks of living in Rosebery when they first purchased their homes through real estate agents.

Serious issues concerning children’s health

Considering the history of high lead levels reported in children since 1992, and the severe health consequences for health and learning ability, it is vital that effective preventative measures are taken to minimise potential harm to children in the future. Information on public health risks from heavy metals in Rosebery needs to be made available to potential new residents of Rosebery, so that people will have the right to choose to live or work in Rosebery based on a right to know the real facts available.

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