LEAD Action News

LEAD Action News vol 4 no 1  Summer 1996    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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Lead Contamination by Neighbours - Case Studies

by Robin Mosman, The LEAD Group

An increasing number of inquiries are being received on this topic as the level of lead awareness in the community rises.

Professor Brian Gulson, a professorial fellow at Macquarie University and a member of The LEAD Group’s Technical Advisory Board, has been studying lead contamination in Sydney houses. He has found cases where people have paid tens of thousands of dollars to decontaminate their houses, only to find that their children’s blood lead levels had not decreased. "Somebody down the street may have been renovating and dust just gets in the air and blows around everywhere - lead dust can go kilometres," he said.

A summary of the problem was given by one caller: "We were doing minor renovations and taking all the precautions - wet sanding - and four houses away from us a place was professionally sand-blasted. So it’s not so much what you do in your own backyard, it’s the total environment."

Case A was busy leading "a nice, normal, happy life" when the century-old Queenslander next door was sanded down by a professional painting company in preparation for painting, and her life "changed to a nightmare." No precautions were taken to contain the paint dust. "The men removing the paint had masks on. The wind changed, started blowing the paint towards us - there was just this thick layer of dust on everything - toys, bed covers, everything." She rang the Health Department, who advised her to wet mop and wipe in the short term while they tested the paint. "When the paint was found to contain up to 15% lead they said ‘Get out!’." She found herself with her own 3 children, 2 young visiting relations and an elderly invalid father on oxygen "lugging ourselves from motel to motel for 5 weeks, because the Brisbane Exhibition was on and no place could give us more than a few days at a time". Cleaning contractors moved into the house, working to Department of Workplace Health and Safety guidelines for cleaning lead-contaminated houses. "It was worse than moving. The whole house was completely turned upside down, everything was washed down, ceilings, walls, everything in it - and it was all being done by people who didn’t know where anything went, they’d put things back where they thought they’d come from, I couldn’t find anything. Every day there was some new drama. It was an absolute nightmare for us, it was absolutely horrendous."

The Division of Workplace Health and Safety had issued guidelines for the safe removal of lead-based paint in 1994, but a report of the incident in the local metropolitan newspaper stated that the painting contractor said he did not know of any dangers associated with sanding old paint, and that he didn’t consider it his responsibility to check if paint contained lead before sanding it.

The family have successfully claimed $26,000 for the cost of the clean-up.

Case B made contact with LEADLINE because her neighbour was sanding paint off the wall nearest to her property - "He’s putting enormous amounts of lead dust into the air - onto our side path and garden. We’ve been so careful with out own renovation - we became lead-aware through articles in the local newspaper. And this guy in a couple of days might ruin it all." Her first action had been to contact her local Council, where she was able to get some EPA information - "It was really good - easily accessible and reader-friendly." This was particularly important in her case as her neighbour was Greek, didn’t read English and the information had to be read and relayed to him by his wife and daughter. Fortunately the neighbour was prepared to stop work to consider it. It was at this point that LEADLINE was contacted for information about legal rights in the event of the neighbour deciding to go ahead with his sanding, and for more back-up information. "Fortunately it was a reasonably good outcome. He responded really well. He stopped using the sander, he didn’t work in windy conditions, he wet the paint down and cleaned up properly, double-bagged all the old paint. If he’d been difficult it might have been different."

She spoke of the need to be able to access information quickly under such circumstances - "When someone’s doing it at the time you have to stop them quickly." She was concerned that - "The guy I spoke to at Council didn’t know anything, he had to go and look it up" and that the EPA information which had been so effective was the only copy Council had - "When I asked for a copy for myself, he said that was all they’d had. It’s a bit of a worry because the Council is who you think to ring first."

When asked of LEADLINE’s role in the outcome, she said that publicity in her local paper generated by The LEAD Group was what had raised her lead-awareness in the first place, and that LEADLINE’s support and information-giving role had been essential for her ability to handle the situation. "It’s vital to have someone to talk to, someone who knows what they’re talking about, who understands your concern. It gives you a bit of stick. It re-enforces your determination. Otherwise it’s very easy to give up. It’s diabolical the amount of paint there is flaking everywhere in the inner west."

Case C’s experience was not as satisfactory. She contacted LEADLINE because her neighbour was stripping back paint from his roof. LEADLINE advised her to ask him if the paint had been tested for lead. He stopped work and tested the paint, which was leaded. "They were very responsible then, they wet-scraped and bagged - but it was very windy, and there were paint chips from where they were working at the front of the house at our back door." Then the people over the road had their garage roof water-blasted, and another house in the street had a huge renovation. "After that I gave up. It’s coming at us from everywhere, from all directions, I don’t think you can get away from it. It’s so frustrating - the odds are just against you because of the lack of education, people are just so unaware. It’s so hard because lead is invisible, and the effect of it is invisible."

She was grateful for LEADLINE’s information and support and is using the information on lead-aware housekeeping and nutrition to safeguard her family. When she expressed her concern that there were a number of old houses that would be renovated soon in her neighbourhood, she was encouraged to think about pro-actively and co-operatively approaching her neighbours with information prior to work commencing. Her mood changed noticeably at this suggestion and became much more positive. She became motivated and energised to take action again.

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