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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Lead levels- are they fatal?

Interviews on ABC Radio South Australia North and West Region program: Mornings with Kieran Weir, aired 9:00am - 11:00am Friday 4th June 2010 – you can listen to the interviews at http://blogs.abc.net.au/sa/2010/06/lead-levels-are-they-fatal.html?site=
  which states: Kieran Weir spoke to a number of guests about lead levels in Port Pirie and the possibility of illness or death from increased lead levels.

  • * Elizabeth O'Brien from the not-for-profit LEAD Group

  • * Professor Baghurst from Adelaide University and also leader of the initial lead cohort study

  • * Kevin Buckett- the Director of Public Health- SA Health

  • * Councillor Debbie Devlin who moved her children away from Port Pirie because of lead concerns.

Transcript of Interviews

Transcribed by Anne Roberts and proof-read by Elizabeth O’Brien, The LEAD Group

[Ed’s note: we have only transcribed words of hesitation (such as “um”, “uh”) where the hesitation was deemed especially significant]

KIERAN WEIR: Somebody who is the president of The (Not-for-Profit) LEAD Group – they’re a federally-funded group looking at this issue - is Elizabeth O’Brien. Elizabeth, good morning.

ELIZABETH O’BRIEN: Good morning Kieran.

KIERAN WEIR: You’ve come out just recently, in the last 24-48 hours, [Elizabeth was briefly interviewed for local South Australian ABC Radio morning news – not found online – and called for blood lead testing of adults in Port Pirie] having a look at some of the recent stats, to say that we shouldn’t just be looking at children and measuring their blood levels, that it is potentially, that it could have impacts on all adults. What evidence do you have that there is potentially any sort of build-up in any of the adult populations in Port Pirie or Broken Hill, for example?

ELIZABETH O’BRIEN: well, none, it’s a simple, logical conclusion that if children have high blood lead levels, then adults probably do, and unfortunately our Federal Government has never listened to me when I’ve requested over and over a national blood lead survey so that we could actually know what national blood lead levels are for all ages of people in Australia; those studies have been done in the United States on a regular basis – so they’ve been able to track what adult and child blood lead levels have done over at least 20 years, and we can only assume that our trends have been similar, due to us following the United States in getting rid of leaded petrol, for instance – seven years later, but nevertheless, doing it – and also more recently, this year, actually controlling the level of lead in paints – almost to the level of the Americans from 1978. So, all we can say, is that there is probably a group of adults alive today – anyone, in fact, above the age of 6,who’s been affected by the use of lead in petrol, because everybody breathes, and practically everyone in Australia is close to traffic, and that therefore we have a huge population with elevated lead levels from the era of leaded petrol, from the time when there was more lead in petrol , we have higher blood lead levels in people, but the actual figures haven’t been researched; so, that’s the basis of saying that there is a huge population in Australia of people who’ve been affected by lead, and that we would expect that there’s an even larger population in Port Pirie, or at least a population with higher blood lead levels because of children’s blood lead levels there.

KIERAN WEIR : Now, Elizabeth, is there any empirical evidence to suggest that if you had any amount of lead, even a small amount in your body, that that can cause any medical complications, or could some people construabley have a bit of lead dust that they’ve absorbed over many years and not be affected by it?

ELIZABETH O’BRIEN: I would think that it was virtually impossible to not be affected – it’s true that different people will be affected differently by even the same blood lead level, and all you can really know is what are the results of research on populations of people – there’s no way of actually knowing when an individual has this or that health outcome or academic outcome, whether the lead in their body was influential on that outcome. All you can say is that when you take, you know, hundreds or thousands of people and you compare their blood lead levels and then you look at their health outcomes or their academic outcomes - you can find relationships. And that’s the relationship that I’m talking about when I say that adults have an increased risk of early death from heart attack or stroke – even from quite low blood lead levels. So it is a serious problem for adults because of this early death factor due to hypertension - that is the reason that we are calling for blood lead testing of adults, not only in Port Pirie but actually across Australia.

KIERAN WEIR: You’ve been calling on health authorities and environmental authorities to take up this cause – why do you think that those pleas are falling on deaf ears – is it because of the lack of evidence or perhaps your qualifications? Can you tell us about those?

ELIZABETH O’BRIEN: Well, yes, I only have a science degree and post graduate work in health education, that’s true, but the 20 years that I’ve spent researching lead and nothing else, have to count for something. The evidence is massive, which would, I think, indicate that there should be a reduction in the acceptable blood lead level. I hear often on radio and television and in newspaper stories that the level of 10 micrograms per decilitre [µg/dL] is regarded as “safe” – that is just simply not true, it could not be called safe when it does lead to increased risk of early death and certainly to loss of many IQ points – between 7 and 11 IQ points are thought to be lost, even when you only have a blood lead level of 10 µg/dL. So yes, there is overwhelming evidence to say that the acceptable blood lead level should be brought down, and I believe it’s falling on deaf ears for purely economic reasons. If the blood lead level was brought down, then a place like Port Pirie would need a hell of a lot more investment in people’s health, in prevention of lead exposures in Port Pirie, and perhaps that’s too much to enable profitable smelting to be continuing.

KIERAN WEIR: Ah, well, would you advocate closing the smelter altogether?

ELIZABETH O’BRIEN: The matter is really a money matter – if you throw enough money at a problem you can typically solve it, so when Nyrstar claims that they’ve had some problems with their processors, I mean, I have to ask the question, well, how much money did they spend on solving those problems, and in fact, preventing them? That would be the better way to go. So, it’s all about money. I would…

KIERAN WEIR: There’s been a $36 million dollars spend already, they’ve enclosed the actual smelter furnace, they’ve really dampened down a lot of the dust heaps, and had a lot of remediation projects, but, just in terms of measurement of blood lead levels Elizabeth, there is something called dclu [sic] [he meant µg/dL], and we’re talking about micrograms per decilitre, and the world standard for lead in adult workers is around 50 dclu [sic]; the Port Pirie smelter works on 30. What more can they do if they’re saying that their workers have pretty good blood lead levels compared with the world standard?

ELIZABETH O’BRIEN: The, yes, the world standard is most definitely in need of review, and there’s been very good evidence from the United States that in fact an accessible level of lead in blood for workers would be much more like ten micrograms per decilitre, so yes, it’s laudable that Nyrstar has gone to 30 µg/dL, quite a number of other companies in Australia have also gone to around that level; the occupational health and safety level is ridiculous at 50u/dL, in fact, it’s criminal, and in fact in Western Australia I’m told it’s even higher than that, which is even more criminal, so..

KIERAN WEIR: Is it true, is it proven, in fact, that lead is in fact fatal, that it will lead to complications, medical problems, that it can cause death, and what levels would you need to see to be able to identify those sorts of medical complications?

ELIZABETH O’BRIEN: The way the lead poisoning works is that basically you take on lead in place of calcium and iron in your body, and then, after many years of the calcium and iron functions of your body not working properly due to the lead, you end up with a higher risk of hypertension - and heart attack and stroke therefore, but also the brain architecture is affected, because there’s a lot of calcium in the brain, and, the, you know, the risk of Alzheimer's goes up. Also in the bones, when you have lead in place of calcium in the bones, you suffer a greater risk of osteoporosis, which can be fatal. So there are a number of ways that lead can affect the body, but / and the only answer really is prevention.

KIERAN WEIR: Elizabeth, we thank you for your time, one more quick question before you go – do you want to see compulsory testing for all residents who live in a lead town?

ELIZABETH O’BRIEN: Well, I mean, of course, I won’t be popular by suggesting that, and there’s never ever been compulsory testing of anyone except a worker; basically our legislation is set up so that you can’t force anyone to have a test, unless they are being paid to do the work, so that’s not going to happen - that blood lead testing for adults would be compulsory. It would be the same as it is for children, where: it is offered, and it’s free, and it’s easily obtainable – that would be the best outcome, and…

KIERAN WEIR: Speaking of which – sorry just to jump in there – speaking about paying to do the work - your federal funding runs out at the end of the month… have you heard anything from the Government about whether they’ll be funding your work again next year?

ELIZABETH O’BRIEN: Yes, we have - only verbally, not in writing - so yes, we constantly have this problem going on from year to year.

KIERAN WEIR: Elizabeth, thanks for joining us on the program this morning.


KIERAN WEIR: President of The (Not-for-Profit) LEAD Group. We go now to Professor Peter Baghurst – he has been having a look at the lead-in-blood issue for many many years now, in something called the Cohort Study. Professor Peter Baghurst, welcome to our program this morning.


KIERAN WEIR: The Cohort Study – tell us a little about its history – how long has it been looking at this issue?

PROFESSOR PETER BAGHURST: Oh, well, actually, that particular study that you mentioned – we finished following that cohort in the middle of the 1990’s, so that was a group of 700 or 600-odd children that were born in Port Pirie way back in the years 1978 to 1982. And we followed those children until they were 11 or 13 years old, really. So, and we measured their blood lead many times throughout those 11 to 13 years really, and we also tested them with respect to their cognitive ability, using IQ tests and we also got their parents and teachers to assess their behaviour because there are suggestions that lead exposure may be linked to emotional and behavioural problems as well. And at the end of all that, of course we obviously looked for links between lead exposure and decreased cognitive ability, and increased emotional and behaviour problems, and we were able to find some relationships there, but, somewhat controversially, although everybody else sees this as well, we did find that, to a large extent, many of the apparent effects of lead were actually attributable to other things – other things such as the genetic inheritance that we all get from our parents , so, for example, a child who did really well on an IQ test was likely to have parents who would do extremely well on an IQ test; children who had higher IQ and less emotional behavioural problems tended to be ones that came from stable households, with both parents still living together, who provided them, their child with a warm and an affectionate upbringing; and so when we took all those sorts of things into account, the effects of lead were really fairly modest; but, nevertheless, given that they were something that was potentially preventable, was kind of strong evidence for – a strong reason, at least - to do the utmost to make sure that lead exposures were minimised.

KIERAN WEIR: The Ten by 10 [“The tenby10 goal is to have at least 95% of children in Port Pirie with a blood lead level of less than 10 micrograms per decilitre (µg/dL) by the end of 2010.” Ref: www.tenby10.com/about_tenby10/tenby10_goals/Content ] has been a very expensive project for the smelter, and it seems like there’s been a recent spike in some of the figures. Would you, as a researcher, be able to give us any reason that that may have happened, and the implications for those kids who’ve been tested?

PROFESSOR PETER BAGHURST: Oh look, my colleagues in SA Health [South Australia’s Dept of Health], ah, ah, who’ve shared data with me – it’s clear that from what they find, that there has been um, a little, a blip, if you like, in both in air leads, and in, subsequently in children’s blood leads, over the past few months. So um, there’s no doubt that something’s been happening, and it sounds as if the management of Nyrstar are acknowledging that. So I don’t think there’s any sort of argument about the fact that there has been an increase in the last few months. Now the impact on the children’s blood leads is clearly regrettable, but the information that I have would suggest that, um, ar, those increases would have no really perceptible effect on children’s health, so, um, whilst it’s a regrettable state of affairs, and everybody seems to be agreeing that it’s something that needs to be fixed, so that we get back on track… where the Ten by 10 project is actually looking remarkably successful over the long term, so this is something that’s just happened in the last few months. So, you know, I just think we need to put this all in context, and my, sort of heart goes out to residents of Port Pirie who might be sort of spooked by, um, somewhat overstated health claims around the consequences of what’s happening there at the moment.

KIERAN WEIR: Would you advise adults in the Port Pirie region to be tested for lead in blood, or do you think that that is just a step too far?

PROFESSOR PETER BAGHURST: Oh, um, look, um – people ought to be able to get it done if they want to, but my own knowledge tells me that a lot of adults in Port Pirie have remarkably similar blood lead levels to those in Adelaide. So, it’s probably the children that we need to monitor most closely, because children are more capable of absorbing the lead they’re exposed to, and of course their much smaller bodies – they’ve got much smaller bodies, so a dose is potentially more important there, so um, but of course, there’s a huge testing program going on then in Port Pirie, and it’s very easy for people to get their children tested there, in fact, and they’re the ones that we really need to keep a very close eye on.

KIERAN WEIR: Professor Peter Baghurst, we really appreciate you joining the program this morning.


KIERAN WEIR: And the Director of Public Health, SA [the State of South Australia] is Dr Kevin Bucket, and he joins us on the program this morning, to get a response. Kevin Bucket, a very good morning to you.

DR KEVIN BUCKETT: Good morning.

KIERAN WEIR: The latest calls to have adults tested in Port Pirie: is it a bridge too far?

DR KEVIN BUCKETT: Yes, I think it is a bridge too far. In fact, it’s really quite irresponsible to make the claims, and raise the fear, that is being raised here, based on very little evidence. We do monitor virtually all children in Port Pirie. [Elizabeth O’Brien’s note: he probably meant all children aged up to four years ie the age-range in the report that the interview is about.] We do monitor pregnant women in Port Pirie, and probably we understand about the blood lead level of about 80 to 85% of women who become pregnant during their time in Port Pirie. We know from that data that women – the average blood lead level tends to be around 3 µg/dL – which is about the same as you’d see in Adelaide - so, the fact that there is a smelter in Port Pirie does not seem to impact particularly on the adults of Port Pirie – if they’re working in the smelter, then they are required to have a blood lead test as a part of their employment, and Nyrstar do monitor that. For the rest of the community, the problem is with children. It’s the fact that they are more easily exposed to lead, they’ve got hand-to-mouth activity. The very sensitive years in fact are the first two years of life. That’s the area where we need to focus, and that’s why we have the Ten by 10 program to actually get the lead out of the air, stop the emissions, and then do all sorts of things in the community as well, to reduce childhood exposure.

KIERAN WEIR: I’m speaking with the Director of Public Health, SA, Dr Kevin Bucket. The statistics, in the way that they’re released, the way that populations are tested – particularly young children’s statistics - we’re talking about here of course – we’ve focussed on the young people of Port Pirie in these studies - how long did your Department actually…when do you get the stats – do you get them as they’re released by the company and by the EPA [SA Environment Protection Authority]?

DR KEVIN BUCKETT: We’ve been monitoring the blood lead level of children since way back in the mid-80s. The way that we do it currently at the moment is that all of the - virtually all of the children do have their blood lead tested [Elizabeth: again, he probably means virtually all of the children up to the age of four.] You can’t make people do this – this is not a Stalinist or Nazi regime, this is a medical intervention, and people have a right to say Yes or No to taking part in it, but the community of Port Pirie are very much behind the program, so we do get most children. Their blood is taken through a pin prick, a needle prick process, so it’s a much less invasive process than the usual venipuncture, and that’s taken once a year, every year… every year we take a child’s blood lead level.

KIERAN WEIR: So, how long have you had these most recent stats?

DR KEVIN BUCKETT: Well, the data that’s just been reported, for the first quarter of 2010, was, from the blood taken in the period from the 1st of January to the 31st of March.

KIERAN WEIR : So why the three-month delay in releasing those stats?

DR KEVIN BUCKETT: Well, it’s not a three months’ delay in releasing those stats, that’s when the blood is taken – the blood then has to go to a laboratory, has to be analysed, we have to do quality control, we have to do the analysis of what the numbers mean then, and then we have to release a report. Then we have to discuss it through the Ten by 10 program and those discussions happened late in May.

KIERAN WEIR: So how long would the Minister have had those figures – just late May?

DR KEVIN BUCKETT: Late May. Right towards the end of May.

KIERAN WEIR: Right, OK, What, uh, let’s, well, how much delay are we talking about, between the time that that testing happens, and the time that you actually get them on your desk?

DR KEVIN BUCKETT: Ah, well, it’s …the first-run report, as I recall, was finished on the 30th of April.

KIERAN WEIR: OK, is, the public being kept up…

DR KEVIN BUCKETT: Sorry, I’ve, it’s the 20th of April.

KIERAN WEIR: Is the public being kept up-to-date with these figures as soon as they’re available – should they not be on a web site immediately when you, the health authorities know about them, or when the company knows about them? Why the process that you have to go through after that?

DR KEVIN BUCKETT: Well, it’s an extremely difficult issue - in terms of taking the samples themselves, and doing the analysis. We release information every three months; previously, up until the start of the Ten by 10 program we only used to do it annually, because we needed to have the whole population sample before we could do the analysis. Now we do an analysis for the first three months of the year, then the first six months of the year, then the first nine months of the year, and then the final, full year. The numbers of children involved in each three month period are very variable – it depends when people’s birthday is, having their annual blood lead test, so it’s not a simple, straight-forward matter. What we do, though, is try and have the information as quickly as possible, so that we can monitor that trend, so that we can make sure that we’re heading in the right direction. And, from the inception of the Ten by 10 program, until this last set of data, we have been heading in the right direction. It’s very disappointing that the last three months’ data show that the blood leads have risen, following increased emissions from the smelter in the second half of last year.

KIERAN WEIR: And, as far as you know, is there any evidence to suggest that adults, even with low blood levels can be experiencing medical complications that could even lead to fatalities? Really serious medical issues that we’re simply missing, and not studying?

DR KEVIN BUCKETT: There is quite a deal of controversy about this. There are some studies that have showed effects such as Elizabeth on your program was saying earlier, at low level, but there really is no medical consensus about this, it’s an area that’s still being actively researched, and it’s very hard to say that having lead in the blood is going to be um, ah, a problem of the nature that Elizabeth says.

What we can say, though, is that, from what we know, the people, the adults of Port Pirie are not at any greater risk than other Australians – in particular, living in the urban environment. We know that the pregnant women’s blood level in Port Pirie is about 3 µg/dL, and that’s not too dissimilar from what you’d find in Adelaide itself. So, it’s not really an issue, and I think – and it would be very rare, we’ve got no evidence that there’s higher mortality rates in Port Pirie, than anywhere else, so it really is quite irresponsible, I think, to claim that and to put fear in people that these sorts of things are happening. We just don’t have the evidence that it is happening.

KIERAN WEIR: Dr Kevin Bucket, we understand that both Nyrstar and the Port Pirie Regional Council wrote to the Public Health Department seeking additional help with the problem. What do they want? What sort of help do they want?

DR KEVIN BUCKETT: Well, I haven’t seen those letters at the moment, I have to say, but I think that it’s important to note that we have been running a program in Port Pirie since the mid 80’s, entirely focussed on reducing blood lead levels. We – the first ten years of the program –there was an assumption that it was historical exposure to lead, because of a hundred years’ of operation of the smelter and the railway bringing lead ore through the town and so on. We cleaned up over two thousand houses, including the roof space, demolished some houses, put green space in its place, started monitoring children, and so on, and after ten years we managed to get the blood leads down quite remarkably, but we weren’t getting them down far enough. Then we understood that it was actually the major problem was current emissions from the smelter, and that’s changed our focus of course. We have spent a considerable amount of money and effort and a great deal of dedication by a large number of very dedicated staff trying to tackle this problem for over twenty years, twenty five years or so, and we’re very happy that in 2005, when the Ten by 10 program started, which actually shared the burden a little bit, and involved, more centrally involved the smelter, and who took strong leadership on it, I have to say, and the local council and other government agencies, so you know, and we were having considerably more success than we’d achieved in the previous few years.

KIERAN WEIR: The Director of Public Health in South Australia, Dr Kevin Buckett, thank you for your time on the program.


KIERAN WEIR: It’s coming up to twenty-seven and a half minutes to ten, we are talking heavy metal on the program today – no, not the music, the substance, and we’ve had a caller, and wanted to follow up whether cereal crops grown in the Port Pirie hinterland are segregated after harvest: “As an on-farm apprentice many years ago, we were told that heavy metals’ fall-out, lead and cadmium, on crops in the Wirrabara area, would become an issue.” That was a caller this morning. We’re going back to Professor Peter Baghurst, who has led a lead study, bad use of the word “lead/led” there twice in the one sentence – Professor Peter Baghurst, welcome back.


KIERAN WEIR: You’ve been listening in, there – final question: is it possible that there are people dying of medical complications and that lead could be leading to serious health issues or fatalities?

PROFESSOR PETER BAGHURST: Ah, look, I have to agree with Kevin Bucket on this – that the evidence is unbelievably weak… I have the utmost admiration for Elizabeth O’Brien’s advocacy work in reducing exposure – and while there’s any doubt about the health effects of lead – clearly, the best thing we can do is minimise exposure, but I really have to say, with due respect to her, that some of the claims she was making were enormously alarmist and really not properly supported by higher level evidence, such as those levels proposed by the National Health and Medical Research Council. So, for example, there’ve been countless studies over the years, looking at the relationship between blood lead levels and blood pressure, and really, ah, the overall effect that was detectable, um, would have been so small that it would never be actually detectable in a doctor’s office, really. So, um, while we still need to be prudent and to minimise exposure, I really do think that we have to be a little bit more rigid about the evidence that – on which we base some of these health claims. And I suppose – the one other thing that I think might really be useful to your listeners around the Port Pirie area, is that – help them understand that a lot of our understanding of the health effects of lead was actually based on dosages that are much higher than we’re experiencing at the moment, and really, I don’t see that coming out in much of this discussion over the last few days. So, if we look at exposures in the population in Port Pirie at the moment – in adults, in fact they’re pretty much the same as they are in Adelaide here, so one of my – my project manager in Port Pirie has a blood lead level of around 2 or 3 µg/dL. I have one. I live in Adelaide, and I live up in the hills, in a fairly nice, clean environment, I myself have a blood lead of around about 3 µg/dL. So, we’ll never get those values down to zero, because there’s sort of naturally-occurring lead in the environment as well, and we’re possibly seeing the um, ah, some tail-off in the lead that we used to be exposed to from petrol, and that brings me to the last point that I really think your listeners might be interested to know about, is that, the kind of exposures that we’re seeing in Port Pirie now are certainly no worse, perhaps a bit better than we were seeing in big capital cities around Australia in the 1980s, like Melbourne, particularly, there’s a lot of work being done, and Sydney, so, before we started to take the lead out of petrol, you’d actually be hard pressed to find any child with a blood lead level below 10 µg/dL. Now, of course, we’re terribly anxious that there’s been a hiccup in the trend in Port Pirie, where numbers, up until recently, were looking like 70% of children achieving less than 10 µg/dL. So, back in the 1980s, in Melbourne, you would have been hard-pressed to find any child less than 10. So, we need to appreciate that any health effects – and there may still be some – at this level of exposure, are bound to be incredibly modest. So, people shouldn’t be spooked into thinking that these recent events, regrettable though they may be – will lead to some really nasty health consequence down the track for all the kids living in Port Pirie.

KIERAN WEIR: Professor Peter Baghurst, from the Public Health Unit at Adelaide University, we thank you for sharing your knowledge with us on the program this morning.


KIERAN WEIR: Now, just briefly back to Elizabeth O’Brien – she’s the President of The LEAD Group - and we will then hear from a resident, who decided to move her children out of the city because of raised blood lead levels. But just very quickly, back to Elizabeth…Elizabeth, thanks for hanging in with us this morning.


KIERAN WEIR: You’ve been vindicated there by other experts working in the area. Any final comment, any words about people who may be worried about their own blood lead levels?

ELIZABETH O’BRIEN: Yes, the way to know whether you have an increased risk of anything that I’ve been talking about is to have a blood lead test. I would definitely encourage anybody in the whole of the world, actually, to have a blood lead test, but especially people in Port Pirie and any capital city. I agree that people in capital cities can have elevated blood lead levels. I myself have a level of 4 µg/dL right now. It’s going up, because I’m peri-menopausal – I turn 54 today, and you know, this is something that I’m going to be tracking for the rest of my life, because it is expected that blood lead levels will rise as everybody ages, and that’s because the lead in our bone stores is coming out. What I would like to see happen in Port Pirie is the studies which would actually find the data to compare Port Pirie fatalities and what people die of, to those of Australia, to see – and to compare their blood lead levels at the same time to the rest of Australia, to see whether it is reasonable to say that my claims are, “over the top.”

KIERAN WEIR: Elizabeth, thank you again.


KIERAN WEIR: The President of The LEAD Group, there. And now, finally to somebody who’s been very patient: Debbie Devlin is a resident of the Port Pirie region; she’s also a councillor on the regional council, and she joins our program. Debbie, thank you for being so patient this morning.

DEBBIE DEVLIN: My pleasure. It’s been very interesting.

KIERAN WEIR: Oh, good. You have been an advocate of keeping this issue front-and-centre in people’s consciousness in the city of Port Pirie, and a few years’ ago now, you discovered your children had elevated blood levels and you moved out of the city. What happened to their blood levels after that move? [Ed’s note: For more detail about Debbie’s history with this issue, see the transcript of another ABC radio interview on 10/2/06 at www.abc.net.au/stateline/sa/content/2006/s1568236.htm ]

DEBBIE DEVLIN: We’re talking nearly 30 years’ ago, and in the context of blood lead levels were not known about and 30 µg/dL was the “level of concern”, and when I was concerned about my child’s health actually when she was about four, took her along to a doctor, asked to have lead levels tested, and they weren’t really sure why I would even ask for that as a parent; and their levels fluctuated over a three-month period between 34 and 43. So, it was in a climate where Council, the smelter at the time, and the government didn’t really want to know, wanted to blame the victims, not really look at doing anything about the problem, so in that context I decided that the only thing I could do would be to move my children away from the point-source of pollution. And it took 18 months of natural chelation, living in a very lovely rural area down near Koolunga for their lead levels to drop below 20.

KIERAN WEIR: I know that lead, as a toxin, is absorbed into the bones, and has all sorts of toxic multiplier effects – did your children – were their blood lead levels then, after that 18 months or first two year period – did you see those levels drop significantly, to the point of being able to say, “It’s ok now, I don’t have to worry”?

DEBBIE DEVLIN: Well, in those days, anything below 20 was an “it’s OK – I don’t have to worry any more” – it was a different level of knowledge and different understanding of the impact on children of blood lead levels, so after 18 months we didn’t retest and we’ve continued to live… they’re in different states now and young adults. But certainly I believe that there were significant impacts, on particularly one child seemed more affected than the other: [inaudible], poor coordination, you know, just a whole range of general not-healthy things that made us concerned.

KIERAN WEIR: You still work in the city, and we had a letter from a listener yesterday: Mary lives in the Port Pirie region, but not in the city, and she says “The latest blood levels make me wonder whether the fall-out that can be seen from the city from the rural areas is causing problems by covering equipment in the lovely playground in the main street,” and she says, “this area”, as far as she knows, “isn’t washed down – there aren’t wash basins or signs provided at the gate for visitors to wash hands, as in the Ten by 10 Ads” – is that something that we should be looking at immediately?

DEBBIE DEVLIN: Certainly, I’m concerned that that is happening, that the playground is cleaned regularly, but you’d need to talk to the Council directly about that, but my understanding as an elected member is that that is happening.

KIERAN WEIR: Debbie, thank you for your time this morning. I know it was brief but your story is one that is personal, you’ve personalised this story for us, your kids are obviously doing very very well now, no harmful or ill effects?

DEBBIE DEVLIN: No, yes normal young adults.

KIERAN WEIR: Debbie, thank you for your time.


[The following links provide good context for these interviews:

  1. Model National Public Health Policy on the Prevention of Lead Poisoning by The LEAD Group. 
  2. Dangers of a blood lead level above 2 µg/dL [two micrograms per decilitre] and below 10 µg/dL to both adults and children by The LEAD Group [Transcribed below by Elizabeth O’Brien]

Worries over blood lead rise: Port Pirie's smelter operator is asked to explain why children's blood lead levels are again rising in the SA city – ABC TV news telecast aired 7pm, 2nd June 2010, South Australia ABC: www.abc.net.au/adelaide/archives/?date=2010/06/02 7PM SA ABC TV Newsreader: the state government has ordered the operators of the Port Pirie smelter to explain why there’s been a rise in blood lead levels in local children. The health department says recent tests show that 43% of young children have lead in their blood above the level deemed safe by the World Health Organisation. That’s up from 31% last year. Higher than normal lead emissions have forced the smelter to close twice this year.

Greg Poynter, Managing Director, Nyrstar: it really relates to the way our process is operating on the site and when we have unstable operations, that leads to more emissions.

John Hill, South Australian Health Minister: Higher concentrations of lead level in the brain of a child can lead to delayed intellectual development so it really can be profoundly affecting.

7PM ABC TV Newsreader: the government is demanding to know how the smelter’s operator, Nyrstar, is addressing the problem.

  1. Rise in children's blood lead worries authorities: An explanation has been demanded from a smelter operator on why blood lead levels have risen in children at Port Pirie in South Australia, 2nd June 2010, ABC News online, www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2010/06/02/2915889.htm?section=justin
  2. Blood lead fight must continue: Unfortunately for Port Pirie, the deadline on its goal to reduce lead levels in the community is fast approaching and it doesn't look like the ambitious target will be met, 9th February 2010, Loukas Founten, ABC News online, www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2010/02/09/2814644.htm]

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