LEAD Action News
LEAD Action News vol 11 no 1, September 2010, ISSN 1324-6011
Incorporating Lead Aware Times (ISSN 1440-4966) & Lead Advisory Service News (ISSN 1440-0561)
The journal of The LEAD (Lead Education and Abatement Design) Group Inc.
Editor: Anne Roberts

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Tasmania’s Department of Health and Human Services’ Dr Chrissie Pickin replies to the contents of LEAD Action News volume 10 number 4

By Dr Chrissie Pickin, Deputy Director, Public Health, 
Dept of Health & Human Services (DHHS) Tasmania. Edited by Anne Roberts

[Editor’s note: The questions, as well as the answers, were written by Dr Pickin and her colleagues (with a few slight changes by the Ed.). Dr Pickin has been invited to guest edit the next issue of the newsletter and The LEAD Group President has been engaged in correspondence with Dr Pickin about some statements in this article. The LEAD Group, through LAN Editor-in-Chief, will invite further contributions in subsequent newsletters regarding claims and counter claims. There is a suggestion, in some articles in LAN vol 10 no. 4, that government-appointed experts do not have the necessary background. The LEAD Group is not in a position to adjudicate between the claim in the following article that, though some residents do appear to be sick, it’s not due to heavy metals, and the reverse claim, asserted in LAN vol 10 no. 4, that their sickness is due to heavy metals. The LEAD Group began as a community-based group established to campaign on lead and health. It quickly became an environmental health NGO, offering free advice and information on the subject. We are not connected to industry, nor do we represent any government department. Our sympathies may naturally lie with community groups, but it would be counter-productive as well as unethical to suppress the truth. Therefore we maintain, in the case of Rosebery, that what is at issue is the facts, insofar as they can be ascertained.]

Dr Pickin, who are you, what is your role, and why have you agreed to answer questions about the claims of a group of Rosebery residents?

I am the deputy director of public health in Tasmania and the executive director of the Public and Environmental Health Service which has led the investigation into claims by a group of Rosebery residents that they have been poisoned by heavy metals. I arrived in Tasmania in November 2008 and was asked to lead the investigation into these complaints. I am originally from the UK and was brought up in a small coal mining town. I wanted to be interviewed for the newsletter ,as, although I have respect for a lot of the work of the LEAD organisation, I was shocked and concerned at the misinterpretations and inaccuracies in the last edition “Heavy Metal Poisoning in an Australian Town – the View from the Trenches” I therefore felt it was important to contribute to this publication to ensure the public record is accurate.

What are the inaccuracies that concern you most?

The most important one is the repeated reference to “poisoned Rosebery Residents” and even the title containing the phrase “Heavy Metal Poisoning”. Three independent national toxicological experts from Victoria and WA have confirmed that none of the concerned residents have any clinical evidence of poisoning. In addition they all concur that there is no evidence of them having absorbed metals at any level likely to cause harm- alone or in combination. So there is no proven poisoning in Rosebery despite the previous article unfortunately stating that this is as fact. Dr_Braitbergs_report_FINAL_POST_REVIEW Frank_Daly_report_Rosebery_23022010_-_summary

But what about the diagnoses made by Dr Ernst?

I know that Dr Ernst was trying to help these residents when he made these diagnoses. The two clinical toxicologists who reviewed Dr Ernst’s diagnoses disagreed with his diagnoses and expressed concerns about his methodology including that he did not verify the reported symptoms; he used an inappropriate, unvalidated questionnaire that may have ‘prompted’ patients, he did not physically examine the patients nor did they all receive follow up with appropriate investigations.

These concerned residents do appear to be ill – so what else is causing their symptoms?

Yes, some of these people are clearly unwell and it is vital that they receive the care they need. Obviously it is not possible for me to speak about individual cases because of medical confidentiality. Contrary to what was said in the previous newsletter, four out of the five original concerned residents were fully investigated by consultant physicians with the fifth refusing medical assessment. Through the good offices of Dr Ernst, a small number of others have been referred for further assessment and in some cases other conditions – unrelated to heavy metal exposure - have been identified. It is vitally important to us that these people receive the care they need and we have continued to try to facilitate that through close liaison with their GPs and Dr Ernst.

But the newsletter showed the results of bio-monitoring tests that showed high levels of arsenic, cadmium and copper in the urine or blood of these residents. Surely that’s not normal?

I understand that results like these can appear very alarming but actually they can be completely normal. A non-toxic form of arsenic called arsenobetaine is found in the urine of people who have eaten certain foods e.g. fish or seafood; cadmium is increased in the blood of smokers and blood copper can be raised during pregnancy and if someone is taking the oral contraceptive pill or hormone replacement therapy. All the elevated bio-monitoring results from these residents have been assessed and found not to be indicators of environmental heavy metal poisoning. ( exec_summary_for_release.pdf

Surely something’s going on- what about the high levels of cancer in the area that the newsletter reported?

Actually, despite what the newsletter said there isn’t a higher rate of cancer in the Rosebery area. The latest report of the Cancer Registry shows that the standardised cancer rates for the West Coast Council (the local government area in which Rosebery sits) are exactly what would be expected for the local population.

But there are high levels of heavy metals in the area?

Yes that’s true. The Rosebery mine is one of the oldest in Tasmania and the area is naturally highly mineralised. It’s worth remembering that in the early days the ore body was only found on the surface as there wasn’t the sophisticated exploration equipment we have today. So yes, it has always been known that Rosebery has high levels of lead in the soil in some parts of the town. But the latest newsletter gave a false impression of how widespread and high these were. It indicated only the highest levels found in one spot, not the averages and not adjusted for bio-accessibility (the amount available to be absorbed by the human body). An interesting issue is that the high levels are very variable and patchy- where some areas, some backyards, some parts of backyards have elevated levels but these are side by side with areas, backyards and parts of backyards that have low levels. This probably comes from the fact that we know that in the past waste rock from this and other mines was brought in to the town and used as “fill”.

High levels mean high risk so it’s inevitable that harm will be caused by lead surely?

Certainly there is a potential lead hazard in Rosebery. But lead in the soil can only cause harm if it gets into the body and is absorbed at a level that causes damage to organs. However we have been monitoring the situation for many years and the indications are that little is entering the body or being absorbed. A recent review of all blood lead tests on Rosebery residents ( Blood_Lead_Levels_in_Rosebery_fact_sheet.pdf) has identified that in the period from 1st January 2008 to the end of April 2010, 504 adults (392 men and 112 women) and 29 children from Rosebery were tested for lead exposure. The majority of this testing obviously relates to the occupational testing of miners. The mean lead level of all adults was 7.5 µg/dL (and over half have 6µg/dL or under). The range was 1 µg/dL to 30 µg/dL. 116 had blood leads, in at least one point in time blood leads, over 10 µg/dL but 111 of these were known to be occupationally exposed. For adult females the mean was 2.9µg/dL with one above 10 µg/dL ( known to be occupationally exposed). For 29 children (age range 3 months to 15 years) the mean blood level was 3.0µg/dL. This result includes the results of two children whose property was contaminated following a concentrate spill. If we exclude the average of their results the mean is reduced to 2.6µg/dL For the 13 children under 6 the average was 2.9µg/dL. In a survey of under 6 years olds carried out in 1998 the mean blood level in children was 7.04µg/dL – meaning that average blood lead in Rosebery young children appears to have fallen by 59% in the last decade.

There are many Australian mining areas which would strive to have these levels of community results. In Rosebery the results of these tests should come as reassuring news. However there are still some people in our at risk group ( 1 child and 7 women of childbearing age) above 5 µg/dL so we want people to know that we are not content to leave this issue without further attention – we want the individual and average levels to be even lower.

What is a safe level of lead?

I guess it’s fair to say that there is no acknowledged safe level and that the lower the better. In August 2009, the NHMRC made the following RECOMMENDATIONS:

  • All Australians should have a blood lead level below 10 μg/dL (micrograms per decilitre).

  • All children’s exposure to lead should be minimised.
  • All women are advised to minimise their exposure to lead both before and during pregnancy and also while breastfeeding.

In Tasmania lead levels above 10µg/dL in those not known to be occupationally exposed to lead are notifiable by the pathology laboratory. 

The Public and Environmental Health Service thoroughly investigates anybody without known occupational exposure with a blood lead above this level. We aim to have all children and women of child bearing age at a level of 5 µg/dL or below. We appear to be well on the way to achieving that in Rosebery.

If you say any absorption isn’t safe what does that imply for the residents of Rosebery?

Our aim is to reduce exposure and absorption to an absolute minimum for everyone, but particularly pregnant women and young children. Unfortunately in this modern age we all have been exposed to lead in our lives. For most of us this has come about through our past exposure to lead in petrol, lead in old paint and lead through hobbies. For people in mining areas there is an additional potential hazard of lead ingestion through dust. Many of the strategies to reduce exposure and absorption are the same for all – public information and education on how to avoid lead, good hygiene, maintaining a diet rich in calcium, iron and vitamin C. In a mining area where the risk of exposure is potentially higher we need to make sure that these strategies are implemented comprehensively and that the momentum is maintained.

What about the two children who did have high lead levels?

Yes this occurred following a concentrate spill in 2008 and the subsequent contamination of their property. DHHS has learned from past incidents in other areas and made sure that the family were removed and the property remediated promptly. This incident was contained to this property. If we had had similar concerns about any residents during this investigation we would have acted in the same way.

So humans may be OK but what about the pets? The stories in the last newsletter were heart rending.

Yes they were and as the daughter of a vet I know how much pets mean to people. As part of the investigation we have spoken with local vets who have reported no cluster of unexplained illness in the area. It is unfortunate that the pets in the stories were not seen by a vet as their symptoms are suggestive of other illness which could have been treated or at least their pain palliated. DHHS has released fact sheets on looking after pets in mining areas which includes advice such as ensuring pets are not encouraged to roll in dirt, ensuring that dogs and cats are bathed often and that pet bedding is cleaned regularly. Lawns can be very effective in minimising pet and human exposure to soil. Also it’s important to ensure pets have access to clean drinking water and are kept well hydrated so they aren’t tempted to drink seepage water.

But what about the dolphins – it would be tragic if such beautiful creatures were being harmed by heavy metals?

Yes it would, but there isn’t any evidence that they are. Monash University in Melbourne investigated the deaths of the dolphins reported on page 24 of the last newsletter. Autopsies concluded that heavy metals are not implicated in the deaths.

You say that you want to get blood leads in children even lower. How are you going to do that?

The fall over the last decade has been achieved by an ongoing community information campaign run by the mine owners plus information from DHHS. One of the concerned residents has complained that when she first arrived in Rosebery she started to plant vegetables and her neighbours explained to her that she would need to bring in clean soil and raise the beds in which the vegetables should be grown. We see this as a good thing and a sign of the success of the community information campaign – with the community taking responsibility to inform newcomers. The recent investigations have allowed us to renew our efforts in Rosebery and recently we have increased our work with the local schools and the Community House to support and inform the community on how to protect themselves and their families when living in a mining area. In addition the mine owners MMG and the Tasmanian EPA have been working to further improve the management of dust at the mine site. This will help to reduce airborne exposure and dust deposition even more.

So some good has come of these complaints?

Yes I believe it has. Although there have been harms too – the inaccurate reports and widespread media coverage of the allegations have led to house prices dropping. Some local residents have reported being unable to access loans. It has affected tourism and thus the income of many people. The whole situation has been unnecessarily stressful to the wider community. However, with the formation of the Community Reference Group we have been able to correct misinformation and keep the broader community informed and engaged. The wider community should be assured that visiting Rosebery is a safe and rewarding thing to do. There is so much more to say about life and work in Rosebery- the new mine owners are in the process of the largest environmental survey in Australia (and possibly even internationally) and the strong inter-sectoral and community links that have been forged could serve as a model for others. As a way of continuing to keep the wider community informed about these and other important issues related to lead in Rosebery (including the issue of synergistic effects of metals) the LEAD organisation has agreed to allow us to guest edit the next newsletter to explain these in more detail.

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