LEAD Action News

LEAD Action News vol 1 no 1 Feb 1993   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.

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Letters to the Community lead Information Centre

Should kids pump petrol?
What's worse, the lead or the hydrocarbons?Letter

I work as a safety consultant to industry in Queensland. I have been asked to find out if the filling of a motor car with petrol by a child can cause adverse health effects.

To the best of my knowledge you are the only organisation that studies lead contents in products.

Could you give me some advice on whether the practice of filling by children should continue, and the extent of health risks?

Michael Hampson

Reply 1.

To get to the meat of your request, the area of lead exposure from handling petrol is problematic. As you rightly point out, the main hazard would be from hydrocarbons. Organo-lead compounds are quite dilute in petrol and as they are not particularly volatile, I would imagine inhalation to be a minor problem. Indeed, I would be more worried about skin exposure, where the lead absorption would probably be assisted by the hydrocarbons it would be accompanied by.

Having said that, I recall talking to someone in the NT Health Service a couple of years ago, who told me that Aboriginal petrol sniffers can get extremely high blood lead values (sufficient to cause encephalopathy, and in some cases fatal), so the picture is not clear. Interestingly, he also told me it was quite rare to get hospital cases of petrol sniffers from communities who sniffed unleaded petrol. Perhaps we should promote the safety of the sniffing of unleaded petrol.

Dr Chris Winder, Dept of Safety Science, University of NSW

Reply 2.

We are currently undertaking a major study in the Broken Hill mining community to determine the source of lead in humans using the Pb isotope fingerprinting method and speciation of minerals in dusts using SEM, XRD and chemical methods.

The dominant source of Pb in children is from mining activity but there are others, usually minor, which include Pb from air, food and water. The Pb contents of water are low (usually < 3 µg/L) and contribute insignificantly to body burden. Like­wise, the Pb content of food is low, based on our estimates from Port Pirie and Adelaide; but we are currently measuring a 6-day duplicate diet from 5 families at Broken Hill to confirm this. The other source, air, can have contributions from the mine and also petrol. We have shown from the Pb isotope analyses of high volume filters in three locations in Broken Hill that, at least in the central location, most of the Pb is from petrol.

Of relevance to your query is that we have shown at least one child (and probably 3 children), has blood Pb derived mainly from petrol. This child helps his father at the service station and Dad admits the child would easily be exposed to petrol fumes. The Pb reading of the child is about 20 µg/dL. This is double the US Centres for Disease Control recommended level of concern for children; i.e. the level at which Pb is thought to have an impact on health, especially IQ.

Because of the potential health impacts and the fact that small children are more at risk because of their height with respect to the filler cap and the apparent increased density of fumes and deposition of Pb on the ground, petrol-filling by small children is not a practice to be encouraged.

Dr Brian Gulson, Chief Research Scientist, CSIRO Division of Exploration Geoscience, & technical consultant to the LEAD Group.

Should my child be blood tested for lead?

I recently watched a story on the Midday Show about the dangers of lead poisoning in children under four years old.

I would like some more information on this. Specifically, how would I know if I need to get my child tested? Are there any specific symptoms to watch for? Our car has been letting in fumes for the past few months and this has made me concerned. My daughter is 2˝.

I would also like to be more aware of sources of lead In the environment.

Yvette Simpson


There are no noticeable symptoms of low-level lead poisoning. Lead is a widely dispersed neurotoxin present in household dust, soil, air, paint and to a lesser extent, in water and food.

Your child is at risk if they:

  • are 9-48 months old and live in an urban environment affected by leaded petrol exhaust fallout; especially if they live or attend day-care near a busy road;

  • are 9-48 months old and live, regularly visit, or attend day-care in a pre-1970 building with flaking, chalking or peeling paint;

  • were present during home renovations, especially if it is a pre-1970 building (other occupants should also be tested);

  • live in a pre-1970 home which was once renovated by sandblasting, dry sanding, heat gun or blow torch, or practices which dispersed accumulated dust, eg demolition of ceilings and removal of flooring, without meticulous clean-up before rehabitation;

  • have marked hand-to-mouth activity, eg constant thumb sucking, placing toys in mouth; OR have a tendency to eat non-food items, especially dirt and paint;

  • live near other sources of air and soil lead contamination, eg past and present lead industry, battery breaking yards, market gardens sprayed with lead arsenate, municipal incinerator, structures being continually stripped of lead-based industrial paint (like the Sydney Harbour Bridge) or cars being stripped of lead-based automotive paint, etc;

  • live with a person whose work or hobby involves the use of lead, and who brings home lead on their shoes, clothing, kitbag, hair or skin, eg paint removalist or petrol bowser operator; maker of toy soldiers, fishing sinkers, leadlight and ceramics;

  • have a diet low in iron or calcium or eat lots of fatty foods;

  • are a foetus of a mother with previous high lead exposure. In this case, mother's blood is best tested in the 1st & 3rd trimester, and cord blood tested at birth.

What can a parent do?

  1. The only way to know whether your young child or foetus is being affected by lead, is to have a whole blood lead estimate performed at a reputable pathology clinic, after referral by your GP. If your child is at high risk of poisoning, the doctor may also request iron studies to be carried out on the same blood sample.

  2. Discuss the results with your doctor bearing in mind the action levels set by the Centers for Disease Control in the US:

a) Community prevention activities should be triggered by blood lead levels greater than or equal to 10 µg/dL (0.48 µmol/L).
b) Medical evaluation and environmental investigation and remediation should be done for all children with lead levels at or above 20 µg/dL (0.965 µmol /L).
c) All children with levels at or above 15 µg/dL (0.72 µmol/L) should receive individual case management, including nutritional and educational interventions and more frequent screening.
d) Furthermore, depending on the availability of resources, environmental investigation (including a home inspection) and remediation should be done for children with blood lead levels of 15-19 µg/dL, if such levels persist.

(from CDC, Strategic Plan for the Prevention of Childhood Lead Poisoning, Oct 1991, p2. Copies available from Community Lead Information Centre.)

  1. Act according to the blood lead result keeping in mind that the lower the average blood lead level is over the first few years of life, the lower will be the IQ loss and other effects due to lead.

  2. Ask your local public health unit for a brochure on behavioural guidelines for reducing children's blood lead levels.

  3. Ask your state Environment or Health Department for the name of a certified environmental assessor who can inspect your home and sample the vacuum dust, ceiling dust, soil and old paint if this becomes necessary.

  4. Ask for the Department's guidelines for soil remediation, dust and paint removal.

  5. Ask the Environment Dept what they are going to do to support your efforts to lower your child's blood lead level. Eg what is their timetable for the rapid phase-out of leaded petrol? How are they going to prevent your neighbours recontaminating your land by sandblasting leaded paint off their walls'?

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