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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Elizabeth and The LEAD Group twenty years on

By Anne Roberts with input from Claire O’Brien. (See also Michelle Calvert’s questions arising from Noela Whitton’s article about the first three years of The LEAD Group.)

At the time of writing, it’s almost exactly 20 years since the genesis of The LEAD Group. (The name, by the way, stands for “Lead Education and Abatement Design Group.”) She was inspired to start The LEAD Group initially because of the value she placed on intelligence and her desire to help other parents avoid the tragic loss of IQ in their children. What drives you to continue this work, twenty years on is the idea of increasing longevity through research into ways of removing lead from people who were born before the end of leaded petrol.

Elizabeth O’Brien is still the driving force, though her title has changed: she is now designated President of The LEAD Group, and Manager of the Global Lead Advice and Support Service (GLASS). It is difficult to think of who might step forward to take Elizabeth’s place, in the unlikely event of her ceasing to be passionate about ridding the world of the dangers of lead, or to take time off to write a book about lead.

The LEAD Group is a not-for-profit “charity.” It is an organisation which currently receives federal (Australian) government funding to run a “service”, which is GLASS. The Australian government does not fund the running costs of non-government organisations unless they are an umbrella group for other NGOs. They fund only projects and services. It has to do with the electoral cycle, which, for the federal government is three years. (One hopes for three years.) There is thus a degree of uncertainty and anxiety about funding. The service which is funded is to answer telephone and e-mail requests for information, and give advice about lead. The web-published LEAD Action Newsletter is also funded as part of the information service.

For one glorious period of roughly three years, in the late 1990s, there was sufficient funding for renting space in an office building, and for paying seven staff.

Nowadays, The LEAD Group and GLASS are run on a shoe-string, with no full-time staff except Elizabeth. The clerical work – data entry, etc. - is done by volunteers, most of whom are from overseas, and needing to get office experience before they can get a job here in Australia. There are about 100 volunteers and interns a year passing through the doors, this year there have been so far 126, with over a dozen languages between them. Some volunteers become trainers for the others, in data-entry and information management. University students studying for higher degrees do internships with The LEAD Group. This involves writing research papers. The interns’ fields of study have so far been in social science, health, optometry, agriculture and medical science. The common thread has to be some connection with lead. (Which just goes to show how ubiquitous lead is.) Thanks to the interns, The LEAD Group web site has information available in Chinese, Spanish, and Indonesian. Emma Xu is paid as office administrator, but for only ten hours a week. Elizabeth O’Brien has to do any extra office-management work. She says that the norm for an organisation such as The LEAD Group is a minimum of four full-time paid employees. There is a web-master, a part-time researcher, and a part-time editor (me).

Prof.Brian Gulson, Elizabeth O'Brien & Ian Smith

Elizabeth O'Brien won the United Nations Association of Australia (UNAA) WorldEnvironment Day (WED) Award for Outstanding Service to the Environment in 2004. Professor Brian Gulson (left) and Ian Smith (right) celebrated with Elizabeth on the award night in Melbourne

The fabulous web master, who began work as a volunteer in 1992, is David Ratcliffe.

The premises are now in a small house in an inner city suburb of Sydney.

The first three years of The LEAD Group, including how it came about, are described in Noela Whitton’s article in this issue of LEAD Action News.

So, what has this ‘David’ of an organisation managed to achieve in the last 17 years? The following is a summary of the highlights:

The National Health and Medical Research Council of Australia (NHMRC) changed from setting a blood lead level of 25 µg/dL (micrograms per decilitre) as the “level of concern” (meaning something should be done to lower it), down to a goal of under 10 µg/dL.

2002, January 1st: End of lead in petrol for on-road vehicles, in Australia.

2010, January 1st: End of lead as an additive, in ALL paints and inks manufactured, imported and sold in Australia.

What are the current and envisaged objectives of The LEAD Group?

The Next Big Thing is the global elimination of lead in petrol. (There are currently some 11 countries which still permit the use of lead in petrol.)

What has The LEAD Group been doing about the remaining use of lead in petrol?

If one looks at the list of countries which still permit lead in petrol, one could come to some conclusions about them: conflict, poor governance, or indifference. In other words, such countries are resistant or unable to respond to appeals to concern about the well-being of their populations, for one reason or another. (See further on for an account of recent large-scale lead poisoning – though not from petrol – in Nigeria.) The solution therefore, is to try to stop lead being put into petrol in the first place.

The LEAD Group has therefore researched the sources of the lead which is added to petrol. Elizabeth O’Brien has written letters as part of a campaign to cut off the world supply of lead in petrol. She has also written to the new Prime Minister of Britain, David Cameron; to the President of Switzerland, to President Obama and the CEO of Innospec, maker of the lead additive. (No replies at the time of writing this article.)

Here is her letter to The Guardian newspaper, UK, on July 8, 2010 (Unfortunately, not published):

“Dear Editor,

Octel (now called Innospec) need to be investigated for bribery and misinformation supplied to all the countries still using leaded petrol, not just Iraq (and previously Indonesia), but also Afghanistan, Algeria, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Burma, Egypt, Montenegro, North Korea, Serbia and Yemen. Guardian readers should tell the UK Prime Minister to ban the export of tetra ethyl lead and make Innospec pay for refinery upgrades or supply of alternative octane enhancers like ethanol to these countries. Then we can all celebrate the end of the IQ-loss, increased-crime and early-death era of leaded petrol, by Christmas.”

Elizabeth also wrote to XStrata, one of the world’s largest mining companies, in May 2010. The following is an extract:

“You are [likely to be] aware that the lead in all that leaded petrol (which contributes to the continuing lead exposure of a quarter of a billion people) comes from Mount Isa's Xstrata operations. Xstrata's Mount Isa operations ship lead ore to Britannia in the UK, Britannia smelts it and sells lead metal to Innospec in the UK, who turn the lead into alkyl lead (which when added to petrol turns unleaded petrol into leaded petrol). I'm sure you know all this - please respond instantly if I've got any of that wrong.”

XStrata replied that it is following industry sustainability policies. See their sustainability policy www.xstrata.com/sustainability/ourapproach/policy/

A letter was also sent to Peter Garrett, as the Australian Minister for the Environment, requesting his support on the issue of stewardship of the Australian lead that ends up in lead additives for petrol. Mr Garrett’s reply echoed that of XStrata. The “sustainability” to which XStrata refers is that of protecting the environment ‘to the mine gate.’ In other words, XStrata does not take any responsibility for exposure to lead contamination which might occur beyond its own activities.

The LEAD Group recommends that XStrata take responsibility for the entire supply chain of its product: the mine, the smelter, the production of whatever leaded product, the wholesaler, the retailer and the recycler. XStrata could do this by stating “Certainly, leaded petrol is a non-recyclable, dispersive use of lead, and we cannot justify selling lead which ends up in that use.”

(The ‘dispersive’ use of lead is where the lead cannot be retrieved for recycling. The opposite of this is as a ‘collectable,’ such as lead acid batteries or sheets of radiation shielding.)

Indonesia has banned the use of lead in petrol, but leaded petrol was until recently being sold anyway, illegally. The CEO of Innospec has recently been charged with having bribed officials in Indonesia to sell leaded petrol.

I haven’t described what Elizabeth O’Brien looks like – see Noela Whitton’s article for a photo taken 16 years ago and this one taken 6 years ago – nor given any direct quotes. You can skip this little confession if you like. Elizabeth is tall, and has red hair, usually worn long and loose. She dresses in what I think of as a rather exotic fashion - because I am a bird of very dull plumage - lots of mixed colours, and sometimes beads, and has no hesitation in wearing “Ugg” boots to save on energy use (do not imagine that Sydney doesn’t have cold winters). She has also been seen in “Crocs”. (A sort of very assertive sandal, for those who don’t know.) She does kung fu, and is extracted from the office once a week by a friend, Sue Gee, in order to swim many laps in a municipal pool. (I can only marvel at this: after about four strokes overarm, I forget how to breathe. This hasn’t stopped me from having visions of flinging myself into a raging torrent to rescue a drowning child, or even a grown-up…) Elizabeth has both a fine soprano and an alto voice and sings in at least one choir. I have suggested she try doing nothing from time to time. Apparently, swimming laps is the equivalent of ‘doing nothing’ because one enters something called ‘The Zone’ …*************

Elizabeth acknowledges the help and support of her family, without which she is not sure she could have managed her gruelling work load. She says it is fabulous that she can go to kung fu for five hours a week and have her two youngest sons, both of whom have black belts, as her teachers. Her eldest son is on The LEAD Group management committee, and, having worked in the office for a year, is very helpful on all administrative matters. Both her parents are “fantastically supportive” of her work, always on the watch for relevant news items, and function as a free clipping service. Her two sisters and her brother understand and uncritically support her total commitment to the cause, and help out when needed. She says that without her partner, who actually has to ring her to tell her to leave the office and come home, she would simply never stop working or take brief holidays at his farm.

Another LEAD Group campaign underway is to eliminate lead in all paint, globally. Elizabeth has joined the Global Alliance to Eliminate Lead in Paint (GAELP), and in May this year went to a GAELP-organised meeting in Geneva, paid for by the World Health Organisation (WHO), and United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), jointly known as “The Secretariat” (of GAELP).

Elizabeth spoke at the Geneva meeting on the need to research the supply chain of lead, and the need to contact the pigment and paint manufacturers who use lead in their product, to ask why they are using lead, and who supplies it. This was not accepted as a resolution from the floor.

The meeting decided that the issue of lead in paint needs “national heroes” in every country, and that paediatricians be asked to do research. This does not sound very revolutionary – more along the lines of “This is an important issue which someone else should be asked to take up.” Well, ok. Wanted: single-minded, passionate types, prepared to devote their lives to a health issue which only one country – the United States - has so far done much about. (Historically, lead was used in paint because it makes a long-lasting base for it. It is now feasible to ban lead in paint, because there are now good substitutes. Even the USA has not yet banned lead in industrial and ‘infrastructure’ paints. )

Next on the list is the removal of exposure to lead of mining and smelting communities.

The first step would be testing the blood lead levels of everyone in these communities, not just the children under five, and the mining and smelter workers, in mining and smelter towns.

This full-scale testing takes place in US mining and smelting towns, because of the US system of national blood lead level surveys at all point sources where lead can be present, including zinc, silver, copper, tin and gold mines.

Which brings one to the mention of the 2010 Nigerian incident, where at least 170 children died due to unsafe illegal mining.

“At least six villages have been contaminated with high concentrations of lead spread by dust from the open mines, and by women processing the ore in compounds where children play barefoot”, according to the Daily Nation, Kenya.

Another article, by an NGO helping with the clean-up, is at www.theworld.org/2010/06/09/lead-poisoning-disaster-in-nigeria/

A Wikipedia posting by Uche Igwe on July 6th, 2010, on illegal mining in Anka and Bukkuyum in Zamfara State reports that illegal mining “is usually done by a ‘cartel’ that just shows up in these communities and begins to cart away the minerals in collaboration with ignorant and vulnerable community members.”

“Some of the illegal mine traders are from South Asian countries, especially China, but they do not perpetrate these criminal actions without the collaboration of some locals…

“The environmental implications of illegal mining are quite diverse. The first is that it destroys farmland and distorts the livelihood of agrarian communities. The trenches dug for these mining activities are abandoned after the mining is over. They therefore become death traps and easy entry points for devastating gully erosions…many of these mines are contaminated with impurities. In this case, gold ash was intermingled with deposits of lead. In a few cases, some of the impurities are even radioactive in nature. Ignorant community members therefore go to these mines and come in contact with contaminants…

“As is usual in most communities, deaths are attributed to one spirit or another. The death toll continued to rise until the blood samples of patients were taken abroad for adequate tests.”

I’ve quoted at some length this article on illegal mining in Nigeria because it is just one example of what can and does happen in parts of the world where governance is a bit slack, or corrupt, or in too much of a hurry to bring wealth to the country. The expression “Third World” is becoming no longer appropriate, what with India and China industrializing as fast as they can, at a breathless rate and on a scale that we ‘westerners’ are staggered by. Exposure of the population to pollutants and poisons can and does accompany this development, and is made worse if officials are corrupt.

The next phase of the campaign against the ‘dispersive’ uses of lead is to end the deliberate addition of lead to drugs, food and cosmetics, which is done to add weight and colour to the product. There have been cases of lead poisoning from traditional Indian Ayurvedic medicine. (Food can also become accidentally contaminated. See, for example, LEAD Action News, vol 10, no 1.

Back to the question of lead in lead-acid batteries. Earlier in this article, these were referred to as ‘collectable’, in that the lead they contain can, in the correct conditions, be safely retrieved, and not become a potential source of lead poisoning.

Where lead batteries are not recycled correctly, they may be, and are, in most countries, crudely smashed open – for example, by blows from an axe – spreading lead-contaminated sulphuric acid on the ground in the process. The lead plates are then removed, and melted down to be used as an additive for products mentioned above and any other use that you can think of.

Another research campaign on the horizon is researching the effectiveness of chelating agents in reversing the increased risk of death from lead when it re-enters the blood stream from the bones, as occurs in people as they age.

Which is just another way of saying, there is probably no end to it. Tempus may fugit, but plumbum never.

Note: Elizabeth O’Brien has done an 18-year review of The LEAD Group’s aims and objectives, originally formulated in 1992. (See also the 2002 review of progress on the group’s original objectives: Ten Year Review of Objectives).

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