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LEAD Action News vol 4 no 3 Winter 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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Community Responses to Chronic Environmental Lead Contamination in Broken Hill, NSW

by Dr Tara McGee, Associate Lecturer, School of Aquatic Science and Natural Resource Management, Deakin University.

Background

Lead contamination is one of an extensive list of environmental hazards which are being faced by an increasing number of communities world-wide. The potential negative effects of young children's exposure to relatively low levels of lead are widely recognised. Policies and programs have been designed to reduce potential lead exposure. These policies also have important implications for the well-being of the children, families, and communities involved.

My [Ph D] study examined community responses to lead contamination in Broken Hill, a community which is also dealing with mining industry retrenchments. The lead contamination in Broken Hill was brought to public attention with the release of the results of a Regional Public Health Unit blood lead survey of 899 local children aged 0-4. The survey reported that 20.3% of children tested had blood lead levels higher than 25 g/dL, the National Health and Medical Research Council level of concern at that time. One year after the release of the survey results, Broken Hill experienced a significant change in the local mining industry, when Pasminco Mining Broken Hill's Northern Operations closed, and its Southern Operations were restructured in February 1993. As a result, 500 mine workers were retrenched, thus reducing the mine workforce to 846.

During the study, I spent nine months in Broken Hill, over six visits between May 1992 and December 1995. During these visits, I interviewed parents with young children, retrenched workers and their families, and other residents. I also talked to representatives of local organisations, such as local health professionals, mining industry, and unions. I spoke to a number of groups, and had informal discussions with local residents throughout my time in the city. In addition, I reviewed media coverage, demographics and historical documents.

Coping Responses

Broken Hill residents described a range of strategies which they used to cope with the lead contamination. Similar to responses of other communities, many people in Broken Hill used coping strategies to understand and reduce the perceived threat or importance of the lead contamination, and keep the threat to the family (rather than community) level.

The lead contamination was mainly seen as important by those residents who believed that they themselves, or their families were directly affected. Some residents, including parents with young children, believed that the lead contamination was an acceptable part of working in the lead industry and living in Broken Hill. The invisibility of the lead contamination and its negative effects made it more difficult to cope with. People had varied beliefs about the source of children's lead exposure, duration of lead contamination and negative effects, whether the lead contamination was widespread or isolated, its level of danger, and its controllability. Many parents themselves, other residents and organisations mainly held parents with young children responsible for causing and solving problems with children's lead exposure.

Residents' actions to cope with lead contamination were mainly private, rather than public, and individual rather than collective. Families generally coped with the lead contamination privately, with parents seeking information and using interventions provided by health agencies, including the blood lead testing program and behavioural guidelines. A few families moved house, and some reduced their planned family size to reduce further lead exposure. There was some public discussion, mainly with family and friends, which decreased over time. A few individual residents (rather than a large group) were publicly active. These private coping strategies helped some people to reduce the lead contamination threat  by reducing their child's lead exposure. In some cases, they also reduced uncertainty and associated stress. However, many people also suffered negative effects on their health and well-being if they were not successful in reducing children's lead exposure, or because of difficulties in reducing their children's lead levels.

The lead contamination and responses increased stress and stigma for parents and families of young children most directly affected, but reduced stress and stigma for other community members. They increased cooperation between local organisations, but weakened community social networks.

Interacting Factors

There are a number of reasons for these types of responses. This study found that the characteristics of the lead contamination, and of individual residents, aspects of the social setting, responses of organisations and responses to the February 1993 mining industry retrenchments affected responses to lead. Invisibility meant that people were less certain about the lead contamination and its negative effects. An individual resident's beliefs in their ability to control lead exposure was also important. The social setting includes cultural, political, economic and social aspects. The six characteristics of the social setting which mediated the community response are cultural assumptions, beliefs and values, stigma, relationships between mining companies and the community, social support and undermining, social influence and economic factors.

Organisations (such as local and state government, mining industry, health agencies and the local committee) scientifically identified the lead contamination itself, provided scientific information about the lead contamination, and resources (such as financial assistance) and coping strategies (such as the suggestions to reduce children's lead exposure). These responses of organisations probably contributed to lowering lead contamination exposure and negative effects on local children. Although there were some important positive effects of residents' use of intervention programs, their use also had negative effects on the health and well being of some parents and the community. Responses of organisations also affected how the community responded to lead contamination. The retrenchments of February 1993 affected retrenched individuals and families significantly, and changed the social, cultural, economic and political nature of the community. Both the retrenchments and lead contamination affected lifestyles of community members, increased dependence on government services and negatively affected the community's social networks. The retrenchments also affected how people responded to the lead contamination. Responses to the retrenchments reduced individual and community concern about the lead contamination; contributed to the reduced use of public coping strategies, and reduced the ability of parents to implement some lead exposure reduction measures and increase their economic difficulties if they did implement them.

Policy Implications

The results of this study highlight the fact that health policy needs to focus on the social and psychological well-being of the community, families and individual residents, as well as the biophysical health effects of environmental lead contamination.

I recommend that health policy should be guided by three principles:

  1. A focus on the community rather than individual and family levels, with the aim of supporting parents, and communication;

  2. Strategies for increasing community participation include widespread dissemination of information, including what residents other than parents can do to deal with lead contamination. Ways of increasing support for parents include informal discussion groups, financial support and advice;

  3. Health policy should be tailored to suit the Broken Hill community and its members, and involve an exchange of information between residents and service providers.

Such a reoriented approach will support the efforts of communities and community members to cope with chronic environmental lead contamination in an effective and equitable manner.

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Last Updated 26 November 2012
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