LEAD Action News

LEAD Action News Vol 3 no 1 Summer 1995.  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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Case Study - A Mother Takes Action!

by Michelle Calvert

Late in 1994 my two year old son was found to have a blood lead level of 33 g/dL, more than three times the "National Goal". The impact of this discovery on my husband and I was profound. We were initially confused but as we grappled with the information about lead poisoning the confusion gave way to guilt and then fear for the welfare of our son. At the same time we were desperately trying to establish how this calamity had happened.

It was a matter of chance that I had Ian tested for lead poisoning. I had read an article in the local paper drawing attention to the problem and identifying old houses, especially those being renovated, as a prominent cause. Our Haberfield (8 km west of Sydney city) home was being extended and renovated, although we were not actually living there during this process, we were living with my Mother also in an old home at Haberfield. From our tests it seems that Ian had eaten paint flakes from an external wall of Mum's old laundry. The quantity could not have been much more than an area about the size of a ten cent piece. It is probably this fact which filled us with anger, because we think of ourselves as well informed people. We were aware, we thought, of the danger of lead in paint and in petrol but aghast at the tiny amount of paint necessary to cause such a potentially serious problem. I was angry because I was ignorant of how little exposure a toddler needs to become seriously harmed by this insidious substance. Why weren't we as a community fore-warned and therefore forearmed about this problem? Surely this is a health issue and the responsibility of Government!

Since that time my research tells me that the inner west of Sydney is populated with large numbers of potentially affected children and I am alarmed and indeed anxious that this fact, which is well documented, has been shelved or conveniently set aside as an issue too difficult and complex to deal with.

One recent South Australian study indicates that the possible number of children with blood levels above the National Goal is in the order of 200,000 to 400,000 children Australia wide. If this is correct the implications for "Australia - the clever country" are obvious. But the real tragedy here is for the children themselves who, because of the insidiousness of the effects of lead and the lack of obvious symptoms are left untreated and as a consequence fail to reach their full potential.

The National Goal should be an environment which is "lead safe" through the stringent control of any addition of lead into the environment and careful management of lead contaminated sites. Such a target may not be achievable in the immediate future, but a target it should remain and strategies put in place to achieve that aim.

Lead contamination is no doubt the most significant and preventable public health problem facing us today. Its resolution mandates that a number of priorities be established. The first of these and the easiest to achieve is the elimination of lead in petrol.

Herbert Beauchamp of the Toxic Chemicals Committee said in 1992;

"Australia has the second highest motor car ownership in the world, the highest concentration of population in cities, and produces the highest per capita lead load from petrol sources. While lead used in petrol accounts for only 7% of the lead used in the Australian environment, it contributes 90% of the lead in air and thus constitutes the greatest threat to the most sensitive population - children under four. Sydney air receives 800 tonnes of lead from petrol every year."

Unlike our economic peers we have not eradicated lead from petrol. The U.S.A. and Japan have taken this initiative and have shown a definite correlation between reduced lead in petrol and reduced population blood lead levels. It is disappointing that we tolerate a petrol lead level higher than many other OECD countries.

The removal of lead from petrol is the easy problem to solve. It is achieved by the stroke of the legislative pen. Infinitely more difficult is the removal of existing lead from the environment. Such as:

  • lead contamination in soil - the soil in my "safe" suburban yard had a reading of 11,259 ppm [parts per million] around the perimeter of the house where window sashes and sills had been scraped free of old flaking paint;
  • ceiling dust - the legacy of fallout from 50 or more years of the internal combustion engine and 100 years of neighbours' renovations and coal and wood burning;
  • lead in construction - lead flashing and plumbing fittings; and the list goes on.

By far the most dangerous source of contamination is lead in paint in pre 1970 housing stock. My personal story demonstrates this perfectly.

In recent times we have been persuaded by paint manufacturers that painting is easy, safe and child's play. This "do-it-yourself ethic" has concealed the danger inherent in older leaded paints. It seems just as acrylic paints have masked the dangers of lead paint - the ease of use of these new paints and the years have masked the knowledge that these leaded paints pose a grave threat to our families.

A massive education campaign is required so that all are made aware of the prevalence of leaded paint in old homes and the dangers of its removal, as it poses a direct threat to children and the foetuses of pregnant women. More particularly we must advise of the kind of care and methods which must be taken to minimise these dangers.

We need to raise the awareness of home and building renovators whether professionals or "do-it-yourselfers". They must understand the dangers for themselves; the need for scrupulous methods so that contamination of the immediate environment does not occur; and the implications of careless removal and disposal methods for the broader community.

As a Councillor on the Ashfield Council in Sydney I have succeeded in introducing some positive measures which other Councils may follow and which may find expression in future State Government strategies.

Ashfield Council issues information brochures dealing with the health and safety issues associated with lead to each applicant for a Development or Building Application and more importantly now imposes the following as a standard condition on planning and building approvals that involve the removal of external paint.

"External paintwork shall not be removed from any building on the site without written approval having been obtained from Council.

An application for approval shall be submitted to Council's Environment and Health Department and shall include:-

  • Certificate from an independent testing lab of the lead content of the paint to be removed;
  • Name and address of the person who will be carrying out the work;
  • Details of the method of removing the paint; and
  • methods of containing and disposing of the paint residue.

There are other important measures which are called for and which may eventuate in the future. Among these is the need for funding of research into the physiological effects of lead on children; a kinder method of testing children for lead and a program designed to screen all children at risk.

Concurrently with the infant immunisation programme a questionnaire devised to reveal potential "at risk" children should be instituted. The questionnaire should seek to identify factors such as:

  1. whether renovations are being or have recently been carried out;

  2. age and condition of house;

  3. parent/fellow occupant occupation or hobby;

  4. proximity to major road or lead source.

Where an answer indicates a risk - a follow up blood test should be ordered and if elevated blood lead levels are detected, professional assistance should be given to identify and contain the source of pollution. I am disappointed in the initial reporting of the Lead Taskforce recommendations that random blood tests for under sevens will be undertaken. Children under four are most at risk and it appears that testing seven year olds will only confirm what we already know. A large number of our children have been damaged by lead. We need to intervene at a time when positive action could be taken for the child.

It is clear that there is scope for an industry to flourish in the area of lead removal and decontamination of sites. This would involve the setting and maintenance of adequate standards of performance and protection for consumers from frauds and charlatans.

Overall, you will agree, the difficulties associated with lead contamination of our environment are many. Fundamental to their resolution is Government acknowledgment of the problem and an acceptance of the responsibility to act.

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Last Updated 14 November 2012
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