Action News vol 3 no 4 Spring 1995.
Lead Contamination in Houses in Sydney
by Associate Professor Chris Winder
In October 1994 a Lead Contamination in Houses Project was completed by the Chemical Safety and Applied Toxicology Unit of the University of New South Wales. The project was to investigate the levels of contamination in houses, sources and pathways, and the role of such sources and pathways in exposure.
Thirteen houses in and around inner Sydney were assessed for lead contamination using paint, soil and dust samples.
The fact that eleven of thirteen houses in the Sydney metropolitan area have high levels of lead contamination suggests that lead contamination of houses is not a minor problem. There are a number of reasons why lead content might be elevated, but a common finding in houses is that lead in paint is an important source.
It is known that lead abatement activities make a significant contribution to household lead contamination and are a major source of lead exposure, especially to non-professional remediators and their families. The main reason for this is an ignorance of the hazards of lead remediation, or a reluctance to believe that the risk is significant.
Under ordinary administrative law principles governing civil liability, local government councils have a duty to their ratepayers to ensure to consider whether to exercise their powers to take remedial action in the event of a public nuisance. Therefore, local councils could take a more prominent role in warning householders about the lead risk in older housing. For example, Ms Michelle Calvert, a councillor with Ashfield Council, has pushed through a motion that the Councils should inform all householders in areas with older housing that they may have paint containing lead. Other Councils should be developing similar policies.
In the context of home ownership, all householders have a duty of care to ensure that their houses are as free of risks to a level that is as low as reasonably practicable. While ordinary householders may be reluctant to consider that lead is a problem (especially if considerable expense may be required in remediation activities), the identification of a lead risk cannot be ignored. Indeed, one of the householders in this study is now abating the lead risk in their property at considerable expense, so that the house can be offered for rent. However, the issue here is less aimed at the ordinary householder, and more at large landlords, such as the NSW Department of Housing. Such an agency cannot ignore the problem of lead in its older housing stock, and it should be developing policies to deal with this issue, especially in the areas of public information, hazard identification, and risk abatement.
Further, at present, there is no easy way to identify which houses may be considered a potential lead problem, although a register of housing by age would be useful. The development of such a register could be coordinated by the local councils.
Advice, Information and Training
The role of many local councils in assisting the public in advice on lead in housing is quite poor. Often the wrong person is consulted, or councils do not give environmental issues the same attention as other matters.
A public information campaign on the problems of lead in older houses should be developed, in conjunction with State government departments and the local councils.
Information to the public is the first step. A more detailed lead risk communication program should also be developed to inform both non-professional and commercial remediators about the risks of lead in older painted surfaces, and its hazards during remediation activities.
Information programs should be reinforced by training of key groups, such as consultants offering lead assessment services and commercial remediators. Training programs should include the identification of lead remediation, what activities increase the lead risk, and the means for its proper control. The development of such training programs should be coordinated by the NSW Health, NSW EPA and WorkCover.
Resourcing of Lead Assessment Services
The inability of householders to obtain assessments of the lead hazards in their houses remains a problem. The refusal of the Health Department to conduct domestic lead assessments except for cases of poisoning is unacceptable. Therefore, more resources need to be given to the supply of lead assessment services, especially in the public sector.
Licensing of Consultants and Remediators
The possibility of licensing or accrediting consultants offering lead assessment services and commercial lead remediators following appropriate training should also be examined, especially in the light of recent re-contamination findings by Dr Brian Gulson of the CSIRO. While there is some way to go before efficient and practicable methods of remediation and abatement are identified, a significant expertise in asbestos removal exists which could be used to assist this process.
Standards for Environmental Samples
The next step is standards. The National Health & Medical Research Council and ANZECC have already established recommended standards for lead in blood, lead in air, and lead in drinking water. Standards should be developed and implemented for lead in soil, lead in domestic paint surfaces and lead in household dust above which action is required to be taken. For example, a house with soil lead at 200-400 ppm should be classified as a lead risk, and policies and procedures should be developed which can address the problem. Higher levels should be associated with escalating activity (for example, mandatory abatement at levels above 1000 ppm).
Lastly, independent research should be funded which:
Such research could be funded at the Commonwealth or State level, or through a levy on industries such as mining, battery manufacture or paint manufacture.
In conclusion, lead in paint has not been recognised as a particular problem, especially when contrasted against problems such as lead in air (from petrol) or lead in water. However, in certain areas, such as in older housing contaminated by lead abatement activities, other problems can overwhelm the issues of lead in air and water.
An initial examination of lead contamination in houses in Sydney suggests that the contamination of houses by lead in paint or soil is significant. While the problem has been considered localised, for instance, in the inner suburbs, this is misleading. The identification of high levels of lead in a house in Hornsby indicates that lead in houses is a problem of older houses, wherever they happen to be. Further work needs to be carried out to establish the true magnitude of what appears to be a largely unrecognised and ignored problem.
Activities such as public information, training, better resourcing of lead assessment services, standards setting and research also need addressing.
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