LEAD Action News
LEAD Action News Volume 14 Number 2, December  2013, ISSN 1324-6011
Incorporating Lead Aware Times ( ISSN 1440-4966) and Lead Advisory Service News (ISSN 1440-0561)
The Journal of The LEAD (Lead Education and Abatement Design) Group Inc.
Editor-in-Chief: Elizabeth O'Brien, Editorial Team: Hitesh Lohani, Anne Roberts and David Ratcliffe

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BOOK EXTRACT FROM: Local Heroes - Australian crusades from the environmental frontline

  Local Heroes, Australian crusades from the environmental frontlineEdited by Kathleen McPhillips,
Published by Pluto Press, Annandale, NSW Australia, 2002.

Table of contents

Acknowledgments                               vii

Lynette Thorstensen                             ix

Introduction Kathleen McPhillips            xi

1. The LEAD Group: Responding to the Problem of Lead Contamination Elizabeth O¡¦Brien ¡K¡K¡K¡K¡K¡K¡K¡K¡K¡K¡K¡K¡K                1

2. Smogbusters in Queensland James Whelan                                                20

3. Dust storm: Lead Contamination in Lake Macquarie Theresa Gordon                  41

4. Port Kembla and the Fight Against the State Helen Hamilton                           65

5. Not Just a City Problem: The Saga of Contaminated Cattle Tick Dipsites on the NSW North Coast Mariann Lloyd-Smith                                                                         90

6. The Ratbag of Botany: Activism and Community Participation Around Industrial Sites in South-eastern Sydney Paul Brown                                                                     110

7. Dealing with Chemical Sensitivity: One Family¡¦s Story Ann and Don Want         129

8. Tropical Exposures: Chemical Poisoning in Far North Queensland Joan Mom    151

9. The Coode Island Disaster and HAZMAG Colleen Hartland                               172

10. The Contaminated Sites Alliance in Western Australia Richard Eddy               182

Endnotes                                                                                                          195

Where to Go from Here: Information and Organisations                                        207

Biographies of Contributors                                                                                 213

Chapter 1 - The LEAD Group: Responding to the Problem of Lead Contamination

By Elizabeth O¡¦Brien

¡¥Every use of lead hurts someone, somewhere, some time.¡¦

Elizabeth O¡¦ Brien, Coordinator The LEAD Group, Sydney, May Day 1997

Page 1

I am the parent of a lead-poisoned child. Historically, it is quite probable that, since the Industrial Revolution, the majority of young children have been lead poisoned. That is, the average blood lead level of children may well have exceeded 10 micrograms per deciliter (μg/dL) - the definition of lead poisoning in the United States. When my youngest child was one year old and had a high level in his blood, we campaigned for the study1 that found that 50% of the pre-schoolers who lived near the old Thomas Thoms plant in the inner-city suburb of Summer Hill, in Sydney, were also lead poisoned. In 1991, a group of us were so concerned about government inaction over lead contamination in inner Sydney that we formed The LEAD Group and set its aims; to eliminate childhood lead poisoning in Australia by the Year 2002, and to protect the environment from lead. This is the story of how I came to help establish The LEAD Group and of what it has been like to go from a concerned mother of a lead-affected child to a national activist and manager of a service aimed at solving lead problems.

What¡¦s Wrong with Lead?

Page 2

The problem with lead is that in its most toxic forms - fumes and dust - it is mostly invisible. It contaminates every environmental medium - air, surface dust, soil, sediment, water and food; and every plant, animal and human on the planet is contaminated due to the use of lead in petrol. The average person walks around with about 10% of the lethal dose of lead in their body. By comparison, most people walk around with 1-2% of the lethal dose of DDT. Children are more likely to get lead poisoned than adults, because children put their fingers in their mouth and fingers carry minuscule particles of lead from dust or soil.

Very young children learn by putting their fingers in their mouth: it is part of healthy childhood development - and you would have to bind their hands to stop them from doing it. Young children and unborn babies are particularly susceptible to the effects of lead, as are the developing sperms and eggs in couples prior to conception. But anyone can be lead poisoned and millions of workers throughout the world are poisoned daily by the lead that is so cheap and readily available that its use can always be justified by industry. As many as 30% of the lead poisoned children in the United States today are thought to be poisoned by their parents working with lead and bringing home lead dust on their skin, hair, clothing, boots and kitbags. Even people who are not paid to work with lead and lead products get poisoned by lead, and we all buy leaded products and use, reuse, recycle, repair and dispose of them. During the mining, smelting and, to a lesser extent, secondary smelting (that is, recycling) of lead, people and the environment are poisoned and lead contaminated.2

So, which consumer products contain lead? The main lead products, for which worldwide consumption is increasing annually, are ammunition (shot and bullets) and lead acid batteries, Batteries take up 64% of world production of lead, and this figure is expected to rise to 70% with the introduction of electric vehicles, which require three times the lead of a normal car battery. Nuclear power plants and uranium mines require tonnes of lead to function. Other leaded products, and some of the pathways for poisoning from them, include: automobile paint; industrial and marine paints, which can still contain lead today; solder used in the electronics industry and for plumbing (although the Australian Drinking Water Guidelines advise against this); lead copper alloys used in all modern plumbing; lead-stabilised PVC (and other) plastics used in many products (from mini-blinds, to stationery, to cladding for homes and in interiors of cars); cable sheathing; soldering of food cans (still 5% of the canned food market in Australia); leaded steel used in all modern car petrol tanks; many rolled or extruded products (from roof flashings to lead light); plus lead in chemicals, pigments, glass making and ceramics, and the contacts in light bulbs. When cars are ¡¥recycled¡¦ for their metal content, the entire non-metal components go up in smoke and the resultant metal is simply reused as one product, not separated into its components.

Page 3

Zinc and copper smelting also give off emissions of lead and other heavy metals (for example, cadmium and arsenic) into the air, land and water. So, every zinc product (for example, galvanized iron) or copper product (for example, telephone cabling) you buy has contributed to someone¡¦s lead poisoning. Some toxic substances are synergistic - that is, the effect of the two metals together is greater than the sum of the effects of the two metals on their own. Mercury and lead are thought to be synergistic, so don¡¦t get or keep your mercury amalgam teeth fillings if you have ever been lead poisoned or likely to be so. We are surrounded by lead-poisoned people. The symptoms of lead poisoning are extremely common, and in most cases the cause goes unrecognized.

At the ¡¥low¡¦ blood lead levels experienced in the general population in any industrialised, motorised society, lead contributes to reduced intelligence, learning difficulties such as attention deficit disorder (ADD), behavior problems, hearing impairment, infertility, minor birth defects, and raised blood pressure, which leads to a higher number of fatal strokes and heart attacks than the number of people killed on the roads in Australia every year.3 The more lead, the worse the effects and the greater the range of symptoms. For people who work with lead or anyone who suffers a ¡¥high¡¦ blood lead level, the results are more devastating: impotence in males, miscarriage in females, blindness, delinquency, aggressive mood swings, kidney failure, and possibly cancer. Certainly, at very high levels, lead causes coma, convulsions and death.

Page 4

Are you starting to think of who you know (or have heard about) who might be lead poisoned? Is it you? It¡¦s amazing the number of people that you talk to who have a family member who died of lead poisoning, especially when you consider that the vast majority of cases go undiagnosed. In 1993, a baby girl died in New Zealand from eating 8 square centimetres (about 1 square inch) of paint off her forty-year-old cot. The diagnosis came after the death. Every year in Australia, Aboriginal children and adolescents die of lead poisoning - they get it from sniffing leaded petrol. But the autopsy rarely attributes it to the leaded petrol - they might die of accidental causes, blood loss or self-immolation, because something went horribly wrong when they were high. Or they might have died of kidney failure or heart attack. The higher the blood lead level on admission to hospital of a petrol sniffer, the more likely the person is to leave in a box.

And then there is the environmental load. No organism on the planet needs lead in order to function. Lead is toxic to every organ in the body and to every organism on the planet. Lead is also the most studied toxic substance and the most widespread industrial contaminant. Where there are other contaminants, there is almost always lead. Lead is a marker toxic substance. If we can do something to make the planet safe from lead, there is hope that we can do something to make it safe from other toxic substances. My argument is that lead can be a model for toxic use reduction.

Solutions to Lead Problems

To make the world lead-safe for our children today will require a lot of cooperation and communication. I believe that childhood lead poisoning will be eliminated in Australia when everyone knows that lead is toxic, that it is everywhere, and that there are three components to every poisoning - the contamination of the local environment, the intake into the body, and the absorption from the gut, lungs or skin. By intervening at all three of these points in the pathway of a poisoning, we can make our children¡¦s lives safe. That is, by cleaning up our children¡¦s environment, by cleaning their hands and not adding lead to their air, and by ensuring that they consume regular, small, nutritious meals and have adequate iron, calcium, zinc, protein, vitamin C and pectin, and not too much high-fat fast food, we can prevent our own children being poisoned (or further poisoned).

Page 5

But hang on, what if the sources of lead contamination are constantly being replenished in our particular local environment and it is impossible to keep up with cleaning it up? What if a significant proportion of the cars on the road are still emitting lead from their exhausts, which settles on every surface your children touch, and adds to the weight of leaded dust in your roof void that may be slowly leaking into your living space, or that may one day be demolished and spread everywhere, or that may just collapse as ceilings sometimes do? What if the 3.5 million pre-1970 homes in Australia (which might include your neighbour¡¦s house or the local childcare centre) continue to have their old leaded paint dry-sanded or heat-gunned off intermittently?

What if the sum total of lead required for every consumer product which contains lead demands that more lead be mined in the world every year, and children live in the mining communities and around the smelters and lead recycling secondary smelters? If you had a running tap spreading water faster than you could mop it up, the solution would be to turn off the supply, wouldn¡¦t it? To replace all the lead in petrol with a safer alternative, such as is in LRP (lead replacement petrol), so that people who can¡¦t afford or don¡¦t want to buy a post-1986 car could immediately use unleaded petrol, would cost about the same as leaded petrol.4 That is the same price that people are currently paying to the federal government in their leaded petrol tax. That tax (in excess of $725 million has been collected to date5) could be used to pay for other lead-risk reduction programs. For example, just like leaded ceiling dust removal has added about $10 million to the cost of the Sydney Aircraft Noise Insulation Project, people who live outside Sydenham in Sydney could have their ceiling dust removed by government grant, or at least a subsidy. And it could be made illegal to dry-sand or heat-gun old leaded paint. These instruments of contamination (heat guns and sanders) could be appropriately labelled with warnings about lead.

Page 6

Professional renovators could be regulated to have licences to do lead abatement work. The government could provide low-interest loans to owners to make pre-1970 buildings lead-safe, just like they currently give loans to ensure that heritage buildings and fences are painted the appropriate colours. Whole inner-city industrial suburbs could have lead-risk reduction programs in housing, paid for by the government.

Consumers could be educated (through labelling requirements, for example) about the cradle-to-grave impacts of the lead which they are purchasing in so many consumer products, so that they could make decisions about whether they really want to be responsible for contamination of all those point-source (smelting and mining) communities and for consequent problems between concerned residents and the public relations machinery of industry. In the meantime, taxing the production of lead at the mines would ensure that, in future, it is not just the taxpayer who ends up paying for all the environmental and social costs of despoliation of the environment by mining and lead contamination from the manufacture, use or disposal of the products, but that these costs (externalities) are factored into the cost of products. That is, when you pay for a leaded product, you will be paying the true cost of the cradle-to-grave management of lead. These taxes could then be put towards preventive lead-risk reduction activities in the homes of smelter towns such as Port Pirie, Broken Hill, Boolaroo, Hobart and Port Kembla, and not just for those whose children have been poisoned.

Bureaucrats tell me, and Choice magazine seems to concur,6 that consumers just want the cheapest product that will suit the purpose: they don¡¦t want to have to pay extra to ensure that government regulators are out there managing the product¡¦s toxic impacts or industry is paying for product stewardship. To me, it is all a matter of being informed. I know I would rather know the true cost of a car, for instance, so that I can determine its true affordability both to me and to society.

It is only when consumers start to make informed choices, and they ¡¥consume thoughtfully¡¦ (or don¡¦t consume), that they truly use their ¡¥consumer power¡¦. Until then, they are being misled by the affordability of old houses, which are in truth ¡¥toxic time-bombs¡¦, and of private transport. If one factored in the road accident deaths and injuries, the asthma attacks and respiratory deaths from particulates and the greenhouse effect, then it is clear that the car is already unaffordable.

The Founding of The LEAD Group

Page 7

In 1990, uninformed and heavily pregnant, I went looking - with my husband and two children - for a bigger house to buy. The house we wanted had a view from the kitchen window of a chimney stack across the road. I listened to my body and to the ¡¥head-stuff¡¦ that flashed through my mind. I heard a concern for the baby that was growing inside me. In our attempts to discover whether it would be safe to buy the house (it wasn¡¦t, so we didn¡¦t) my life was turned upside down. I became a parent by day and a campaigner by night. For five years since leaving primary teaching I had been attempting to be the best mother I could possibly be - reading to my children for two hours a day, from home-made books in their own style of language, illustrated with photographs of our life; networking with other mothers through breastfeeding and play groups; and founding a women¡¦s discussion group to recharge my batteries after spending all day tending to my children¡¦s every need. They were ¡¥continuum concept¡¦ babies for whom crying was circumvented at every opportunity. It pained me when I couldn¡¦t work out what ailed them. I was connected to my children as though I was my children.

The full-on parenting of my first son was redoubled for the second son, who was born profoundly deaf, blind in one eye and with unknown sight in the other eye, with a heart murmur and suspected autism. I had been in contact with German measles at the play group when I was five months¡¦ pregnant. My new baby didn¡¦t make eye contact with me until he was seven months old. Our entire house became a playground for auditory, visual and motor stimulation, with weekly visits from an occupational therapist and a toy library. When I believed we were over the worst period-when he had gone from being developmentally delayed (being late to lift his head and to sit up), to being advanced (by walking at nine months, when he was declared not autistic), when his hearing had by a miracle developed and his speech had gone from backward to advanced with constant speech therapy, and when we knew his other eye could see - then I was ready to have the daughter I had always wanted.

Almost precisely at the same time as my third son was born, in September 1990, I began to get passionate about lead. You see, we didn¡¦t buy the house, because the chimney stack belonged to a lead flashing manufacturing plant, and the soil in the backyard had twenty times more lead than the recommended level. And I remembered from my teaching days a blood lead survey of the children in the school at which I taught showed they all had high levels of lead. ¡¥That¡¦s why they¡¦re all so stupid and so difficult to teach¡¦, one of the teachers told me. In my part-time campaigning I was able to get the then State Pollution Control Commission (SPCC, and now the Environment Protection Authority, or EPA) to convince the manufacturing plant to pay for further soil tests. In the meantime, we moved into an old house we figured was far enough away from the plant (less than a kilometer) to be safe. I then met the young mother who had just purchased the contaminated home, at a nursing mothers meeting. Together with a third woman who lived across the road from the plant, we co-founded The LEAD Group in time to be presented with the soil results. After the meeting at the plant, in which we were told that one house alongside the plant had fifty times the recommended level of lead in the soil, we were advised by the SPCC officer that they had no regulatory power to act on soil results, but that we should ¡¥get the kids tested¡¦.

Page 8

In September 1991, at the age of twelve months, my youngest (third) baby had a blood lead level of 31 μg/dL, my three-year-old son was 13 μg/dL and my five-year-old son was 14 μg/dL. The source was most probably a combination (as it nearly always is) of dust from the renovations carried out by the previous owners of our house, lead fallout from decades of leaded petrol use, and industrial sources in Sydney¡¦s inner west. The impact of these results was to provide endless motivation for me to become as much of a full-time campaigner as is possible with three small children. Having such a defenceless babe with a blood lead level three times the acceptable US level has unleashed in me infinite energy and passion for a less toxic world. No amount of money could buy such passion. The same passion is evident in my greatest lead campaign colleague, Theresa Gordon - a wonderful woman who grew up in the shadow of the Boolaroo lead smelter (see Chapter 3).

As I was later to discover through having the shed baby teeth of my children tested for lead, our eldest son was also badly affected as a toddler (we lived in an old inner-west house then, too), but my middle son was much less affected.

Page 9

Going straight from lying on the floor to getting up and walking at the age of nine months, as he did, had apparently saved him the many months of exposure at the crucial time when normal babies are crawling. For the first time I felt lucky to have an abnormal child. Since realising how insightful and cuddly he is, I feel lucky to have him full-stop. So, every night, when it is time for my eldest child, now at high school, to start doing his homework, talented and intelligent though he is, he simply doesn¡¦t have the functional learning behaviour to get on and attend to tasks. This to me is the worst aspect of ¡¥low¡¦-level lead poisoning - that it detracts from a child¡¦s ability to use the (still possibly high) IQ he is equipped with after it has been depleted by lead. Many people don¡¦t understand that lead doesn¡¦t make you dumb. Rather, it decreases IQ, so that a potential perfect genius becomes a frustrated smarter-than-average child, and a potential below average intelligence child becomes a socially dysfunctional one. The problems with the effects of lead are society-wide, and are not always recognizable in individuals.7 The lead in children in Port Pirie, in South Australia (Australia¡¦s biggest lead smelter town), has doubled the number of children with an IQ level below 82, which can lead to poor school performance, reading disabilities, problems with attention and fine motor skills, and anti-social behaviour.8

At the blood lead level my youngest son had, if he had not been tested, and had I therefore not been motivated to bring his blood lead level down, he would have been in the highest blood lead group in Port Pirie - that is, among the worst-affected 7% of children. It took me two years of bloody hard housekeeping and care (having to discover for myself what worked and what didn¡¦t) to get his blood lead level down to the national goal level. Many standard cleaning techniques simply make for higher blood lead levels, such as vacuuming with an ordinary vacuum cleaner rather than a special HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate Air) vacuum cleaner.

Though industry and government have presented housework as a necessary part of the solution to pollution, in my case it was dangerous. The many extra hours of housework gave me ample thinking time for campaigning. I typically did all my writing in the middle of the night while the floor towels were having the tracked-in dirt washed out of them, and I constantly had to balance my desire to just ¡¥be¡¦ with my children, talking and reading with them, with having to clean up the always present lead dust that rains down on the little children in our cities. I was always motivated by the thought that if I campaigned hard enough, other children could have a lead-safe world and other parents would have more time to play with their babies. Whenever people ask me how my baby is now that he is ten, I tell them he is the most gorgeous little boy in the world and his personality will get him through anything. As a teacher, I know all about scripting children to perform to the best of their ability.

History of The LEAD Group in Action

Page 10

Back in 1991, the new owner of the original contaminated house we almost bought put together a thirty-page submission which eventually led to a blood lead survey of Summer Hill, the results of which became one of the critical factors in the setting up of the NSW Lead Taskforce. This was a government taskforce headed by the EPA. The taskforce eventually had nine working groups under it which met from June 1993 to early 1994. At the working groups, industry, government and community representatives formulated over 200 lead recommendations for solving lead problems such as lead in children¡¦s blood, water and wastewater, petrol, air, paint, food, soil and dust, Broken Hill and education. I represented the community, as a volunteer, at over fifty of the meetings of eight of the working groups.

Just as had happened in the 1980s, when, in response to lobbying over the school blood lead survey, New South Wales led the country in introducing unleaded petrol in 1985, so the push to further reduce the amount of lead in leaded petrol, and to proactively reduce the amount of leaded petrol sold, came from New South Wales. By 1992, The LEAD Group had joined forces with Theresa Gordon from NO-LEAD (North Lakes Environmental Action Defence Group) in Newcastle and with Lynette Thorstensen, of Greenpeace, to go to Canberra and lobby the Minister for the Environment.

We won a 50-75% reduction over two years in the amount of lead coming out of car exhausts in the various states of Australia. We didn¡¦t win a phase-out date. We did win a reduction in the ¡¥acceptable¡¦ level of lead in blood from 25 μg/dL, the previous ¡¥level of concern¡¦, down to 10 μg/dL, which brought Australia in line with the US. In November 1993, the National Health and Medical Research Council (NH&MRC) set a national target for 1998, when all Australians should have a blood lead level less than 15 μg/dL, except if they worked with lead.9 In order to achieve this target, strategies were to be out in place whereby 90% of pre-school children would have blood lead levels below 10 μg/dL.10 But why was it acceptable for 10% of pre-schoolers in Australia (approximately 100,000 children) to be lead poisoned by 1998? The target was obviously not achieved by the end of 1998 and it certainly wasn¡¦t achieved by the end of 1996 when the National Blood Lead Survey (the Donovan Survey) was published. The Donovan Survey found that 7.7% of children aged from one to four were above 10 μg/dL and 1.7% were above 15 μg/dL. So everyone ignored the fact that the specific target of zero children above 15 μg/dL had not been met, and decided that the lead problem was over because the 1998 target of less than 10% of children being above 10 μg/dL had been met two years early. The upshot of the Donovan Survey having tested far fewer children than the planned number that was necessary to do a reasonable statistical analysis, was that Donovan couldn¡¦t specify the prevalence of lead poisoning in rural areas as compared to urban areas. It turned out that the NH&MRC statement was also carefully worded so that no one was ever sure in what population the target was to be met.11 Parents would of course hope that their immediate community would have fewer than 10% of children being lead poisoned (that is, above 10 μg/dL). But because the figures were reported as national averages, communities at particular risk - such as inner Sydney, which had 25% of children with higher lead levels - were ignored.

Page 11

After the NSW Lead Taskforce recommendations were flushed out (in late 1994) by further campaigning for and success in gaining a NSW Parliamentary Select Committee on Lead Pollution, New South Wales ended up with over 400 recommendations for how to clean up the most leaded state in Australia. One component of the federal government¡¦s $4 million education campaign about lead involved funding The LEAD Group with $150,000 to set up a national LEADLINE, a lead advisory service based on a freecall number, (1800 626 086). The number of enquiries to LEADLINE peaked at 650 in one month during its term, which ran from June 1995 to May 1996, by which time the federal government had changed from Labor to Liberal and the funding ceased. Apparently, we had solved the problem! The annual number of calls handled by the Lead Advisory Service (Australia) has increased steadily since 1995, such that in financial year (FY) 1999/2000 it was over 5500 calls.

Page 12

Thankfully, the NSW Labor government took over the freecall service and funded extra community education components to the value of $300,000 for the first thirteen months of operation, from June 1996 to June 1997. We received $290,000 for FY 1997/98 and $236,000 for FY 1998/99. We hoped to receive more, so that we could achieve more, from the federal and state governments, as well as from corporate sponsorship, in FY 1999/2000. In fact, we received $214,000 from the NSW government and $15,000 from the federal government, and no corporate sponsorship, in FY 1999/2000. In FY 2000/2001 the Lead Advisory Service received $109,000 in grants from the federal, NSW and South Australian governments. A proposal put to Pasminco to fund a community outreach program was unsuccessful. I am still the coordinator of The LEAD Group, though I was required to resign as president to take up the position of manager of the Lead Advisory Service (NSW). We hoped for a much more significant portion of the $725 million lead petrol tax income from the federal government, and community outreach funding from the NSW government. In fact, so far, we have only received $20,000 from government sources, $2,000 from non-lead corporations and no funding from lead corporations for FY 2001-2002. So in 2002, despite the fact that the call level to the Advisory Service remains high, government and non-government funding sources have fallen drastically. Since 1993, The LEAD Group has published twenty-eight issues of our journal called LEAD Action News, and published numerous fact sheets. With volunteer labour and later government funding, our publications, telephone counselling service, media coverage, and, more recently, information stalls at expos, plus workshops for parents and other community groups, have personally assisted in solving the lead problems of hundreds of thousands of Australian families. Yet in 1996, a national blood lead survey estimated that 75,000 pre-schoolers still had a blood lead level above the national goal. No one knows how many older children and adults in Australia are lead poisoned. On 1 December 1996, New South Wales made a blood lead level above 15 μg/dL a notifiable disease, so there should be some data in time. Data from a 1997 NSW state blood lead survey remains unpublished.

Page 13

Data from a blood lead survey undertaken in 1997 by the Environmental Centre in Broken Hill - a lead mining town in far west New South Wales - has highlighted the plight of the town¡¦s babies, many of whom are poisoned before they even crawl. The blood lead survey undertaken in 1998 by the Hunter Area Public Health Unit (PHU) in the area around Boolaroo - a lead smelter community near Newcastle - found that 43% of the children were poisoned, and the most recent published blood lead survey in Sydney (1996) found that 25% of the pre-schoolers within 10 kilometres of the central business district (CBD) are poisoned, as well as 9% of the pre-schoolers more than 10 kilometres from the CBD.12This last pool of Sydney children makes up by far the greater number of kids.

The Biggest Lead Problem is Cars

Why are cars the biggest lead problem? Simply because 64% of the world¡¦s lead goes into lead acid batteries, and most of those batteries are for cars. But also because there is lead in petrol, and, believe it or not, there are still cars being made today which run on leaded petrol, because developing countries have still not introduced unleaded petrol. If Australia is anything to go on, there will be people complaining well into the future about the expense of switching from leaded to unleaded petrol for these now new cars. How leaded petrol was ever allowed to be sold in the first place is a rather unbelievable story that I came across in an anonymous article given to me by Greenpeace in 1992. The following story was later confirmed by an article published in The Nation on 20 March 2000.13 Tetraethyl lead was developed in the early 1920s as an anti-knock additive by Thomas Midgley (who thus invented arguably two of the most dangerous substances ever conceived of, for he also invented chlorofluorocarbons). Within a few years of going into production, five workers were dead from lead poisoning, and thirty-five others of the production team of forty-nine were severely lead poisoned. The product was marketed by industry giants Standard Oil, General Motors and Du Pont. Some of the workers who died actually went mad and suicided - such are the dramatic effects of organic lead compounds on the brain. Of those workers, a company official said, ¡¥These men probably went insane because they worked too hard¡¦. Midgley accused the dead men of ¡¥carelessness¡¦. After 300 more cases of lead poisoning and another six deaths, the US Surgeon General questioned whether it was a public health risk to allow leaded dust to fall on the streets of cities. The lead industry giants held sway for nearly seventy years on that issue, by which time the weight of evidence was too much even for the by now much-practised tactics of ¡¥buying¡¦ research and independent¡¦ experts, invoking the national ¡¥economic health¡¦ to forestall regulation, and selling the concept that damage to people¡¦s health and to the environment is a necessary price of progress.

Page 14

In 1990, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), comprising the world¡¦s twenty-four wealthiest nations, declared lead to be the top-priority chemical of five priority chemicals targeted for international cooperative risk-reduction activities. The November 1992 unpublished, restricted draft of the OECD¡¦s Lead Monograph declared (on page 12): ¡¥Finally, because the phasing out of lead gasoline has led to dramatic decreases in atmospheric lead levels, it is clearly the most important single measure for lead risk reduction.¡¦

At around the same time, the US Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) published a list of the world¡¦s top twenty toxic substances. Lead was number one. And while some developed countries managed to phase out leaded petrol (for example, Japan in 1986, Canada in 1990, Austria in 1993, the United States in 1995, and New Zealand in 1996), others such as Australia have lagged behind, with a final phase-out date proposed to be 2002. However, the developing countries may soon catch up, now that the World Bank is economically behind them. According to the New Scientist of 27 July 1996 (page 13):

The World¡¦s biggest aid lender to developing countries now puts banishing lead from petrol as its number one priority for Third World transport investment ¡K There is, says the World Bank, ¡¥no excuse for continuing to allow leaded fuels in any city.¡¦ 

Page 15

In fact, a report from the United Nations Environment Programme and the OECD confirms that China¡¦s lead petrol phase-out, which began in 1997, was completed in 2000 - two years ahead of Australia.

So, now you can see why I have been passionate about getting rid of lead in petrol since 1992. But another change has taken place in my consciousness since then. It is called the Gaia Principle and it has a hold on me. I interpret the Gaia Principle to mean that something which damages any part of the planet damages me. Just like my children¡¦s crying still hurts me, so the despoliation of any country by mining wastes and the dumping of leaded waste in Third World countries, where neither workers¡¦ health nor the environment is adequately protected and children die recycling batteries, hurts all of us.

Apart from every old car and some new cars having lead in the petrol tank steel, the petrol, the wheel and seat-belt weights, the PVC interiors, the mirror backing paint, the radiator, possibly the exterior paint, and perhaps the panel beating, every car has at least 8 kilograms of lead in the battery, which needs replacing every couple of years. In 1996, Australia was exporting around one-third of all its lead acid batteries for recycling in Third World countries, in contravention of the Basel Convention which says that First World countries will not export contaminated waste to Third World countries.14

Moving on from the Gaia Principle you get to the concepts of cradle-to-grave management of lead (in recognition of the fact that there are billions of metric tonnes of mined lead already ¡¥out there¡¦), toxics use reduction, and finally to the concept of zero emissions mining, smelting and manufacturing processes. The only way forward is to accept where we are at and to take steps to improve the planet¡¦s health - for the sake of all of us. As you can see from the above, lead is a leader amongst toxic substances and the only one mentioned by name at the 1994 United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) (I was there in New York lobbying). And again at the 1995 CSD meeting, specific actions for leaded petrol and other lead consumer products were the only specific chemical-risk reduction actions agreed at the meeting.

What You Can Do About Lead

Page 16

To make a start, I advise that you finish reading this and then, it you have any questions, ring the wonderful staff at the Australia-wide Lead Advisory Service and together we can solve our lead problems (freecall: 1800 626 086; office tel: (02) 9716 0132).


Ask your painter whether there is any lead in the pre-1970 paint they are about to remove or to prepare for repainting for you. If they answer, ¡¥She¡¦ll be right, mate¡¦, hire another painter. If the painter happens to be your partner/friend, or they are the only painter around, move the children out of the house until you can be sure that a lead-aware clean-up has taken place (even if that means doing it yourself, though we don¡¦t recommend this if you are pregnant or within three months of possibly conceiving). The whole purpose of lead-aware paint removal is to protect humans and the rest of the environment from lead. Wear a respirator with dual filters (carbon and HEPA). For non-wood surfaces, wet paint removal techniques (wet sanding by hand, efficient vacuum extracted water abrasion, chemical stripping) are recommended, although chemical strippers and baths have been shown to leave some invisible lead behind in the wood which when sanded prior to repainting then creates lead wood dust.


Both partners should have a blood lead level below 10 μg/dL fully four months before conception. Adequate zinc levels are extremely important to the health of the foetus in the months prior to conception, so have your zinc and lead levels tested from the same venous blood sample, and use zinc supplements if necessary.


I would suggest that unless you make massive donations to environmental groups, or you are a campaigner, the greatest single environmental action that you will take in your life (apart from selling your mining shares) is to decide to live without buying a car. This is something you very much have to do before you decide where to live, unless you already live on a public transport route or you ride a bike. The second best environmental action you can take personally is to decide to reduce your car use. I would love to hear from anyone who has successfully done this in the city through the period of having small children. You are an environmental champion. Try to think of the car as a cigarette on wheels. If you remember that there are 300 toxic components in cigarette smoke, and more than 1,000 in petrol vehicle emissions, this will help you to remember to walk, cycle, roller-blade, ride-share and car-pool as much as possible, and to switch off your engine whenever you are parked, especially if you use leaded petrol. And as my twelve-year-old says, ¡¥Get your car tuned - people are breathing¡¦, and ¡¥Don¡¦t exceed the speed limit - it wastes petrol¡¦.


Page 17

If buying or renting a pre-1970 house, assume it is lead contaminated, especially if someone else has just repainted it and there doesn¡¦t appear to be any problem.

Lead and the Future

My vision is that through understanding the toxic effects of even just the lead component of cars, and adding that to the total deficit which private transport brings to the life of the planet, people will be persuaded to reduce their use of cars. Specifically, my vision is that in every year the number of new vehicles being registered in Sydney will be less than than the number for the previous year. And for the number of vehicle kilometres travelled in that year to be less than the number on average for each vehicle in the previous year. In other words, that we see a turnaround in car use and that the city truly ¡¥goes green¡¦. There is a real need for people to campaign for the Roads and Traffic Authority (RTA) to not build any more roads and for the State Transit Authority to get funding to build a decent public transport infrastructure. I envision that heaps of people will soon be wearing a sky-blue-coloured ribbon and joining the Blue Skies campaign against new motorway developments. And they will decide how much ride-sharing, use of public transport, cycling or walking is suitable for them right now, and set targets to do what they can to reduce their car use or their family¡¦s car use.

Page 18

The ¡¥three by three¡¦ cents per litre petrol tax currently being collected by the NSW government for road spending could go entirely and immediately over to public transport expenditure for the next three years minimum. Both the NSW Parliamentary Select Committee on Lead Pollution and the NSW Lead Taskforce reports15 contained a recommendation that leaded petrol should be phased out in New South Wales by 1996. In the absence of a suitably early phase-out date of leaded petrol from the federal government, some refineries, such as BP and Shell, have led the way in phasing out lead petrol. The Western Australian government achieved a phase-out date of 1 January 2000.

Leaded petrol was finally phased out in Australia as at 1 January 2002 - or so we thought until we read about the exceptions allowing highly leaded Avgas to continue to be supplied to those remote Aboriginal communities with petrol sniffing problems, plus to motor car and motor bike sports and boasting associations. An article by Paul Toohey in the Weekend Australian Magazine of 24 - 25 November 2001 (¡¥In your face - the town ruled by petrol sniffers¡¦) stated that six petrol sniffers had died in the past eighteen months in the South Australian town of Oukatja (population 400, including sixty sniffers), and: ¡¥In the past two months, Avgas, or aviation fuel, has replaced super [leaded petrol] and unleaded at the town¡¦s only service station. It is unpopular with car owners because it blows out engine gaskets, but it is widely held that Avgas cannot be sniffed because it makes people violently ill. A glance at the cans of Oukatja¡¦s petrol sniffers quickly dispels this notion. With no petrol available, all the children¡¦s tins have a few centimetres of dirty blue liquid - Avgas - swilling around the bottom.¡¦ Despite this, a decision was made by the Hon. Amanda Vanstone on 23 January 2002 that Environment Australia would grant the Department of Health and Ageing the right to increase the number of remote Aboriginal communities to be supplied Avgas to thirty-three communities. Senator Vanstone¡¦s decision ¡¥took into account recommendations from the Fuel Standards Consultative Committee. The Committee advised that Avgas was not attractive to petrol sniffers ¡K¡¦ The Committee does not seem to have advised that it is the lead in petrol that mostly kills sniffers.

Page 19

As of mid-2002 The LEAD Group is providing the web-based Global Lead Advice and Support Service (GLASS). With over 1,000 hits a week to our website (www.lead.org.au) and an individualized information and referral email service accessible via a form on the website we have so far assisted people in forty-one countries covering an enormous range of lead-related issues. Attempts to gain funding for this service have so far been unsuccessful and it is currently run on voluntary labour. One of our original aims was to eliminate childhood lead poisoning by 2002. Obviously, this has not happened and so we have adjusted our aims to firstly include all age groups in the elimination of lead poisoning and extended the time to the optimistic date of 2012. Our thinking is based on the fact that behind every lead-poisoned adult is a lead-poisoned child.

Imagine a city where people take more trips on bicycles than in cars (Amsterdam is such a city), and where they don¡¦t have to wear respirators to do so. Imagine a city where your children can walk or ride their bikes home from school safely even when there is a major traffic thoroughfare between your home and the school. Imagine the centre of your city with no choking traffic fumes and no heavy particulate-laden air on still days, and no black dust in windowsills. Imagine if the worst you had to put up with on the busiest road was the summer glare, and not the traffic dust in your eyes. Imagine major roads alongside which you would actually be content to breathe deeply, to centre yourself and say, ¡¥This is my chosen environment and I feel healthy in it¡¦. Imagine being able to see blue skies to the horizon every sunny day, everywhere you look.

Page 195

Endnote 1. M.Fett, M. Mira, J.Smith, G. Alperstein, J. Causer. T. Brokenshire. B. Gulson and S. Cannata, ¡¥Community prevalence survey of children¡¦s blood lead levels and environmental lead contamination in inner Sydney¡¦, Medical Journal of Australia, vol. 157, 1992, pp. 441-5.

Endnote 2. In 1992 there were approximately 12,000 people working in the Australian lead industry (e.g. mining and smelting) and countless others who work with lead every day. Some of them die without ever properly recognizing lead as a danger. They die of strokes or heart attacks brought on by the rise in blood pressure that lead causes. See, for example, Joel Schwartz et al., Costs and Benefits of Reducing Lead in Gasoline: Final Regulatory Impact Analysis Report from Office of Policy Analysis US Environmental Protection Agency, February 1985 (especially Chapter 5, ¡¥Health Benefits of Reducing Lead: Adult Illnesses Related to Blood Pressure¡¦)

Endnote 3. Julian Cribb, ¡¥Toxic deaths overtake road toll¡¦, The Weekend Australian, 8 September 1993, p.3

Endnote 4. See ¡¥Leaded Petrol to be Phased out by 2002¡¦, Media Release by Senator Robert Hill, Minister for Environment and Heritage, 15 March 2000, p. 1.

Endnote 5. Leaded Petrol Excise Figures, March 1994 to January 2000. Data available from Federal Department of Industry, Science and Resources.

Endnote 6. Australian Consumers Association, advertising brochure, 1997.

Endnote 7. There are several thousand references documenting the reduction in IQ caused by lead, but my favourite is by Professor Herbert Needleman, Human Lead Exposure, CRC Press, Boca Raton, Ann Arbor and London, 1992.

Endnote 8. See Lead Safe: A Guide for Health Care Professionals, NSW Lead Education Program, Lead Reference Centre, Social Change Media, 1997, p.8; Anthony J. McMichael, Peter A. Baghurst, Neil R. Wigg, Graham V. Vimpani, Evelyn F. Robertson and Russell J. Roberts, ¡¥Port Pirie Cohort Study: Environmental exposure to lead and children¡¦s abilities at the age of four years¡¦, New England Journal of Medicine, vol. 319, no. 8, 1988, pp. 468-75.  

Endnote 9. G. Alperstein, R. Taylor and G. Vimpani, Lead Alert: A Guide for Health Professionals, Commonwealth Environment Protection Agency, 1994.

Endnote 10. Ibid., p.6

Endnote 11. The exact words read: At its meeting on 3 November 1993, NHMRC set target dates for the reduction of lead in all Australians to less than 15 μg/dL (0.72 μmol/L) by the end of 1998, with the exception of occupational exposure. Strategies in place to achieve this first target should be such as to result in blood lead levels in 90% of children between 1-4 years below 10 μg/dL (0.48 μmol/L by the end of 1998).

Endnote 12. M. Mira, J. Bawden-Smith, J. Causer, G. Alperstein, M. Karr, P. Snitch, G. Waller, and M. Fett, ¡¥Blood lead concentrations of pre-school children in central and southern Sydney¡¦, Medical Journal of Australia, vol. 164, 1996, pp. 399-402.

Endnote 13. See Jamie Lincoln Kitman, ¡¥The secret history of lead¡¦, The Nation, 20 March 2000. Full text available at www.thenation.com in Archives.

Endnote 14. See ¡¥Lead Overload: Lead Battery Waste Trade and Recycling in the Philippines¡¦, A Greenpeace Report, August 1996, p. 1.

Endnote 15. NSW Lead Management Action Plan 1994, available free from the NSW Pollution Line, tel: 131 555. [NB: As of January 2014, this reference is out of print but the Strategies from it have been web-published by The LEAD Group Inc, in LEAD Action News volume 14 number 2 (see next article).]

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Last Updated 17 March 2014
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Phone: +61 2 9716 0014