LEAD Action News
LEAD Action News vol 11 Number 3, June 2011, 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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Diagnosed with heavy metal poisoning

Ross Whitney's story as told to Isla MacGregor on 9th August 2010

(Ross Whitney is a former West Coast miner who lived part time in Rosebery for two years, while working on a house he’d bought there as an investment. Ross is now retired, and sadly he has been diagnosed with heavy metal poisoning and his health is slowly deteriorating. Nevertheless he is always cheerful, and living every day to its fullest.)

I worked for the hydro for twenty four years, mainly at Gowrie Park and Strathgordon on the West Coast of Tasmania. I lived in various hydro villages until 1988. After this I got a job with the Hellyer mine (lead, silver and zinc,) about 45 minutes north of Rosebery. I was working in a multi-skilled capacity driving machinery, drill rigs, blasting and working on a bogging machine.  (A bogger is a high-powered vehicle with gigantic tyres. It can deal with rocky, slippery or swampy terrains.)

Ross Whitney when in good health

While I worked at Hellyer I had regular blood lead testing, and my results were always fine.  I did not know of anyone who worked there who had an unacceptable blood lead reading.  Mates I used to work with at Hellyer still come to visit me today. Most of them worked at least another five years at Hellyer after I left in the same types of jobs that I did, and none of them have lead poisoning. In 1996 I hurt my back while working on a bogger, and I went out on worker’s comp.

I could not work again and I was put on a disability pension.

Ross Whitney showing his deformed hands

Up until leaving Rosebery  I had been a very active bushman, hiker and adventurer.  I would often go bush for a week at a time around Strathgordon, the Western Tiers or down to Pullinger along the Bird River track and beyond. I explored many other places where there is little public access. Today, my brother at 76 years of age, still does guided bush walks for tourists. 

While I was working at Hellyer I was living in and building a house at Waratah.  I had two dogs when I lived at Waratah.  When I bought a house at Rosebery in 1999 I took my golden labrador dog with me. I bought the house in Rosebery as an investment property and worked on this for four to five nights at a time and then went back to Waratah. In the first spring I was in Rosebery I put in a veggie garden in the backyard and I grew everything: lettuce, potatoes, carrots, beans and tomatoes too. The veggie garden was situated next to an open drain that drained seepage water from up above my property.

After two years I sold the property and moved up to Waratah full time.  A few months after leaving Rosebery my dog started to lose control of his legs and would shake and collapse from fits.  I had to put the dog down.  Twelve months after I left Rosebery my fingers and then hands started to go numb and I couldn't do up my shoe laces. Then my feet, backs of legs and arms started to go numb. My hands and arms would cramp up.  I started to seek medical help around 2002 in Burnie.  I was put onto various medications which were unsuccessful and I then insisted that I see a specialist. I went to see Dr Stan Siejka in Launceston who told me that I had nerve damage. He sent me to Hobart for more tests.

After several months waiting and three cancelled appointments for a nerve biopsy, which I turned up for each time in Hobart, I finally had the nerve biopsy taken from my left ankle.  The results of the nerve biopsy came back from Dr Siejka in around 2005. Dr Siejka sent them to Dr Waugh, my GP at the time, and he told me that my results showed that I was suffering from lead, cadmium and other heavy metals poisoning. I was diagnosed with neuromyopathy.

In 2006, I had to leave Waratah to stay with my brother and sister in law in Burnie. I applied for a Housing Commission Unit, and moved to my current address in 2007. By this time I could only just look after myself.

By 2009 I started to have in-home care.  Now my hands do not work at all. I can only just walk, and I have to be bathed, dressed and fed. I am on slow-release morphine all the time which occasionally I have to top up.

In November 2008 I read in the newspaper that some people living in Murchison Street Rosebery were having trouble in the area near where I had lived.  I rang and spoke to Marsha Stejskal and at this time I realised that I may have been poisoned while living in Rosebery.

Dr Roscoe Taylor [Director of Public Health, Tasmania] had discovered that I had been diagnosed with heavy metal poisoning.  He rang me in January 2009, and asked me for my medical records which I agreed to supply.  He asked to come and see me in my home which I also agreed to but he never turned up and he never spoke to me again.

A Professor from Palliative Care in the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) made an appointment with me, asked me questions and took notes. I was later contacted with a request to take photos of my symptoms which I refused.

 I had been degraded enough by a health system that didn't care and had failed.

The next time I heard from the DHHS was in January 2010 when I received a call from Dr Chrissie Pickin [Deputy Director of Public Health] asking me to provide a blood sample.  I refused, as I had already been diagnosed, and I knew there was no point in taking this blood sample as it was too late.

I have friends and family that come to visit and a very good friend who is a carer.

My main concern is that I do not want what happened to me and others to happen to anyone else.  I want the West Coast Council, the Health Department and the Mine to admit there is a problem; that something is wrong, and that things have been covered up for years.  I want the problems fixed up and I will do whatever I can to help make this happen.

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