LEAD Action News
LEAD Action News vol 11 Number 2, December 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.
Guest Editor, Dr Chrissie Pickin. Editor-in-Chief: Anne Roberts

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How Government Responded to Concerns From Rosebery

By Dr Chrissie Pickin DHHS, Tasmania

The Consultant Occupational Health Physician was concerned when he saw the result – the sample passed to him by the GP just said “water sample”. If it was a drinking water sample, then the result was most concerning. He immediately contacted the Senior Medical Advisor at the Public and Environmental Health Service. This was in early October, 2008. Around the same time, the owners of the mine - at that stage, OzMinerals - contacted the Environment Protection Authority to let them know that a group of residents had approached them, seeking compensation for contamination of their properties by groundwater seepage. The Senior Medical Advisor did a number of things straight away. He arranged for an urgent analysis of the drinking water supply from Rosebery, and phoned the local GP to discuss the expressed concerns. He then spoke with the local council to obtain some background information on the issue and also attempted to contact the residents.

The Director of the EPA contacted the Director of Public Health. Together, they agreed that a rapid assessment of the potential exposure to heavy metals was required. The EPA sent officers to Rosebery that week, to take water and soil samples at the affected residences. OzMinerals engaged a consultant to determine the source of the seepage.

The Senior Medical Adviser discovered that the residents had seen two local GPs, both of whom said they had no concerns nor saw any evidence of poisoning of the residents.

Almost immediately, the media became involved and much of the Government’s response became tied up with correcting misinformation.

The new water sample and soil sample results were received in late October. They also showed elevated levels of lead - above the Health Investigation Level or HIL*. This simply means that further investigations should be undertaken, not that there are any health impacts. Given the long mining history of Tasmania and the fact that the mine at Rosebery was one of Australia’s longest continually operating mines, finding elevated levels of heavy metals in the soil was not so unexpected. The level was unadjusted for bio-accessibility . Longer-serving colleagues advised us that the bio-accessibility of lead in the area could be as low as 20-30 percent, and so the potential hazard level suggested would likely be adjusted down significantly. On the basis of this, it was determined by the Directors of Public Health and the EPA that there was no immediate risk to the residents and, therefore, no need for immediate relocation while further investigations continued. In mid November, 2008, the Deputy Director of Public Health, Dr Chrissie Pickin, was asked to bring a multi-agency project team together, to investigate further.

*HIL Health Investigation Level. The concentration of a contaminant (arrived at using appropriate sampling, analytical and data interpretation techniques) above which further appropriate investigation and evaluation will be required. The investigation and evaluation is to ascertain: the typical and extreme concentration of contaminant(s) on the site; the horizontal and vertical distribution(s) of the contaminant(s) on the site; the physico-chemical form(s) of the contaminants; and the bioavailability of the contaminant(s). www.health.gov.au (‘Health-based soil investigation levels’)

Whenever a potential health hazard is found, there are a number of steps in determining whether this hazard is being, or could be, translated into a risk to human health. These come from the “Guidelines for assessing human health risks from environmental health hazards” produced by enHealth - a subcommittee of the Australian Health Protection Committee. (Insert REF) These steps can be usefully summarised as:

  1. Assessing the hazard. Is there a substance in the environment which potentially could cause harm to humans? How widespread is it? At what concentration? In what form? What harm could it potentially cause? Given what we know about the hazard, is there anyone in the community who is potentially more at risk of harm?
  2. Assessing the level of exposure. Are there any “exposure pathways” – ways in which this potentially hazardous material could enter the human body? Is it in the air and could it be breathed in? Is it in the drinking water and being ingested? Is it in the paint and being eaten by young children? Is it in any food being consumed? Is there any evidence of harm having been done to health? A hazard could be present in the environment (and there are many all around us most of the time) but it can’t cause harm to health unless it is absorbed by the body and travels to the “target organs” – parts of the body which can be damaged by the substance. Do any tests on humans show any evidence of absorption or harm to these target organs?
  3. Characterizing the level of risk. This process brings together all the information from the hazard assessment and the exposure assessment and provides the key information about the level of risk for individuals and the community.

Clearly, addressing these questions required the help of the Environment Protection Authority (EPA) and others. The project team commissioned one of Australia’s leading experts on Environmental Health Risk Assessment, Professor Brian Priestly, who assisted us with the process. The initial samples had been provided by the residents themselves, and the methods they used were unknown and the labs weren’t always the NATA-accredited labs we usually use. [NATA: National Association of Testing Authorities, Australia.] So the EPA took further samples from around the area where the initial complainants lived – a small cluster of houses in an older area of the town. These samples identified that there were, as expected, elevated levels of lead, arsenic and manganese in the soil and seepage water. One sample also identified elevated cadmium, but it was reported by those who took the sample that this had been taken beside an old galvanized sheet of metal and subsequent samples revealed no further elevated cadmium. At the request of the concerned residents, air from underneath the residences was also sampled, but these results did not identify any problems. Attempts were also made to obtain indoor air and dust samples, but access to the properties was denied for this.

It is clear from experience and the literature that investigations such as these work best when carried out in collaboration with the concerned individuals and community members. Unfortunately, in the initial stages, this was not possible. It seemed that every question we asked was assumed to be an attempt to “cover up” what, to them, was blatantly obvious. They were sick or experiencing symptoms and as there was evidence of elevated levels of heavy metals in the environment, it was clear to them that the latter was causing the former and there was no need for any further investigation. They demanded compensation and relocation immediately; first from the company, OzMinerals, and then from the State Government. Yet, we had only found evidence of a potential hazard; moderately elevated levels in some soil and seepage water samples, with the geometric mean below the Health Investigation Levels (HILs). In addition:

  • Interviews and home visits confirmed limited exposure pathways;
  • There were no children in any of the premises;
  • The residents obtained their drinking water from the town supply, which was found to be safe; and
  • Biomonitoring results organised by the residents and ourselves did not identify any evidence of absorption or harm. The few elevated results were found, on further investigation, to have an alternative cause or to be as a result of non- toxic exposure (e.g. fish arsenic, raised cadmium in a smoker, raised serum copper due to pregnancy or hormone replacement therapy).

In addition to this, we had made available to the concerned residents offers of medical assessments and testing to determine the causes of their signs and symptoms. These were variably taken up. In one complex case, this included the offer of a planned hospital admission with a range of specialist assessments, but this was, unfortunately, declined. Nobody disputed that they had these symptoms, but we were aware of a number of pre-existing conditions and health concerns; the nature of which we are unable to share due to medical confidentiality.

Therefore, the risk characterization was that the risk to these and all other community members was low and could readily be managed with practical control and hygiene measures, as recommended by the National Health and Medical Research Council for all residents, including those of mining communities. This information had already been made available to the concerned residents and had been available in the community over a number of years, through the community education activities of the mine.

Unfortunately, this approach was not accepted by these residents and they formed the Toxic Heavy Metals Taskforce (THMT) and a media campaign was waged to discredit the investigations. There was no reason for the Government to reopen the investigation until November, 2009, when the Public and Environmental Health Service received a call from a private medical specialist, saying he believed that these residents and others had a pattern of symptoms consistent with acute and chronic poisoning by a range of metals. The range of metals reportedly causing the poisoning was wider than those found in the environment, which was intriguing. In discussions, he accepted that the available bio-monitoring results did not show evidence of harm. However, he still concluded poisoning on the basis of “symptomatic taxonomy” and postulated a synergistic effect of the interaction of low levels of metals.

Although much of this sounded, on the face of it, to be implausible, clearly this opinion warranted further investigation. There were some urgent questions which needed to be answered:

  • Had new evidence emerged which identified evidence of absorption and harm from the heavy metals? If yes, what was that evidence? If not, on what basis were the diagnoses being made?
  • What were the exposure pathways? Were they specific to these residents or were we now looking at a wider public health risk to the whole community?
  • Were there any other metals which needed to be tested for that could contribute to this synergism.? The THMT claimed that thallium was a contributor. However, the ore and concentrates contained extremely minute concentrations of thallium, all well below any target levels where they would have any impacts on health or the environment. Any thallium would have been further diluted if they were contained in any dusts leaving the site. Thallium was clearly not a health risk.

To help us answer these questions, we commissioned two national clinical toxicology experts. (See ‘The Role of Toxicologists in the Rosebery Investigation’, in this newsletter.) If there was evidence of poisoning, this clearly had implications for the wider community. If synergistic effects could lead to harm from low-level exposures of several metals, even in the absence of abnormal bio-monitoring results from each metal, then this would have implications for environmental health risk assessment methods across the world, not just Rosebery. (See ‘Synergism at Low Levels of Exposure?’in this newsletter.) The two toxicologists were provided with background findings from the environmental studies, as well as all the clinical information provided by the specialist, the residents’ GPs and from past hospital records. They were then asked independently to provide comments and advice on the following specific questions:

  1. Based on the clinical information provided, is there evidence of exposure to heavy metals at levels sufficient to cause the symptoms, signs or illnesses, as reported by the specialist, in any of these cases?
  2. In relation to each specific case, can you make comment on the adequacy of the clinical data to support a conclusion of heavy metal poisoning? Are there other diagnoses that you would recommend which should be considered, and what further investigations would you recommend in each case?
  3. Is there a clinical toxicological basis for the claim that there is a public health risk among residents at Rosebery, arising from exposure to multiple heavy metals at low levels, interacting with one another sufficiently to cause synergistic effects and overt disease or pathological processes?
  4. Is there a basis for an assertion that pathology testing for exposure to these metals is of no value in assessing human health risk when there are multiple heavy metals involved?
  5. If, in your opinion, further investigations are required to determine the answers to the above questions, what investigations would you advise?
  6. If you feel that additional expertise is required to answer the above questions, can you define the specific aspects still requiring clarification and recommend additional experts?

The reports of the two clinical toxicologists confirmed that there was no evidence of heavy metal poisoning, nor of absorption of any metals at levels sufficient to cause harm. They did identify a number of possible other causes for the residents’ symptoms and the full reports were shared with the residents, their GPs and with the medical specialist who had first made the claims, to ensure that further appropriate follow-up and treatment occurred.

It was around this time that the Public and Environmental Health Service was approached by the new mine owners, MMG Ltd. MMG said it wanted to obtain more “facts” about the wider situation in Rosebery, even though it accepted the findings of our first investigation. The company informed us that it had commissioned environmental and engineering consultants, Gutteridge, Haskings and Davey (GHD), to undertake a much broader environmental survey, as well as a wide-ranging bio-monitoring program with its mining staff and their families. DHHS and the EPA agreed to meet regularly with GHD, its toxicologist and the mine staff, to ensure that the work met national quality standards and best practice requirements. The mine agreed to share (verbally) its results with us at an early stage so that we could assess any further public health risk.

We all knew that it was important to involve the whole community in this process, so we discussed this with West Coast Council, which had just discussed setting up a Community Reference Group (CRG). The Council agreed to use this forum to keep the community involved in the new investigation. At the first meeting of this group, it was decided that a sub-group should be established, to hear and advise on the methodology of the survey and provide advice back to the CRG on the integration of technical aspects of the work by GHD, as well as the EPA and DHHS. Yossi Berger from the Australian Workers Union (AWU) was an incredibly valuable member of the CRG and had already been trying to mediate between the Toxic Heavy Metals Taskforce and the other stakeholders, so it was agreed that he should chair this new sub-group, known as the Technical Advisory Group. (See ‘Union concerns about Rosebery heavy metals –interview with Yossi Berger) Despite the threat of legal action, it was agreed to offer places on both groups to the Toxic Heavy Metals Taskforce. This offer was refused. Following each CRG meeting, a broader public meeting was held to share information and receive feedback.

So how did the CRG shape the agenda? The community members asked that we explain the discrepancy between what they’d read about in the media and our apparent feeling that there wasn’t a significant health risk. We did this at a public meeting, where we explained how it was possible to have raised results on blood and urine testing and yet not have absorbed metals from the environment in any significant amount. We explained what the clinical toxicologists had been asked to do and what their general findings were. The CRG discussed the findings of the environmental survey and the results showing that the elevated levels of lead, arsenic and manganese in soil were very randomly distributed. They agreed that a “whole of community approach” was the most appropriate response, because it was not possible to predict which property or area of property may have low or high levels. They noted that other information such as children’s blood lead surveys in Rosebery had previously demonstrated that the most at-risk groups were not being adversely impacted. To ensure the ongoing protection of children, they requested that we work with the local schools and child care centre to foster children as “hygiene champions”. They raised concerns about dust issues, arising from trucks coming to and from Rosebery and other mines in the area. Also discussed was the fact that, unlike Port Pirie and Mount Isa, Rosebery is not a “smelter town”, and, therefore, the exposure pathways of airborne emissions is much less. Dust control measures relate to localised fugitive emissions sources, such as the crusher. The EPA agreed to undertake a spatial analysis of dust monitoring data from around Rosebery, to determine where in residential areas possible impacts may arise from metals in dust deposition from the mine. This identified an area of marginal concern (which was not the area in which the original residents lived).

As a result of the investigation results and informed by the deliberations of the CRG, the agencies involved developed and implemented the following plan of action:

The EPA has:

  • Discussed the analysis of dust results with MMG to determine where more appropriate dust monitoring should be undertaken;
  • Identified more appropriate dust background monitoring locations; and
  • Is in the process of incorporating tighter and more extensive dust monitoring and dust management requirements into the mine’s operating conditions.

The new EPA operating conditions and the commitments and actions already undertaken by MMG should help to significantly reduce any dust from the mine affecting local residents.

DHHS has:

  • Facilitated a meeting between MMG and the local high school and primary school, at which a range of measures were agreed to, aimed at improving children’s diets (see “Seventy-Five Years of Mining in Rosebery, which includes a reference to the program ‘Eat Well Tasmania’), raising awareness of the importance of good hygiene and inspiring the children;
  • Met with the manager of the child care centre who was well aware of the issues and who ran a very clean establishment. We agreed to conduct further indoor testing which showed very low levels of dust and even lower levels of metals in it, even after the children had traipsed in mud from playing outdoors;
  • Began discussions with the local area health service to commence a community health plan for Rosebery;
  • Met with the manager of the Rosebery Community House and agreed to provide more information for the public on why good hygiene was important when living in a mining area (particularly one with heavy rainfall). In addition, DHHS made available HEPA filtered vacuum cleaners for use by community members;
  • Continued discussions with stakeholders about supporting ongoing monitoring and surveillance of blood leads in children in Rosebery; and
  • Responded to inaccurate media and other reporting of the situation in Rosebery, including guest editing this newsletter.

The operator of the mine, MMG, has:

  • Completed works in the rail yard loading area, to minimise the amount of dust leaving the site. This was an area where, previously, dust had the potential to leave the site. This has included installing dust curtains and water sprays; and
  • Is undertaking works on the ore stockpile areas to reduce dust emissions.

Mr Roy Ormerod, General Manager, Workplace Standards Tasmania, was also a member of the Rosebery Community Reference Group. As the regulator of workplace health and safety laws he was keen to ensure that the interests of workers were considered. ‘I am impressed with the level of rigour that has been applied’, Mr Ormerod said. ‘There is no doubt that everyone is taking the monitoring and testing process very seriously’, he added.

Mr Ormerod concluded that evidence collected so far clearly indicates that Rosebery is a safe town in which to live and work. ‘However, this does not mean people should become complacent. Safe work practices needs to remain foremost in the minds of workers and managers alike’ Mr Ormerod said.

What still needs to be done?

DHHS is continuing to work with the local area health service to develop a community health plan for the area which will address many of the health issues in Rosebery. We are hopeful that this will contribute to improved diets among the children of the town. We are contacting and, on occasion, visiting other mining towns to explore whether there are further ways in which we can protect children.  The Technical Advisory Group is preparing a final report to go to the Community Reference Group. MMG is preparing to open a new centre to support residents in understanding the potential hazard of heavy metals in the town and how they can continue to avoid being harmed. The vigilance and the collaboration continues.

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