LEAD Action News

LEAD Action News vol 5 no 1  1997 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 - From the Boolaroo Smelter to Your Car Battery

By Theresa Gordon, NO-LEAD.

Ed. - Much of the lead produced in Pasminco’s Boolaroo smelter ends up in car batteries - and local activist Theresa Gordon has some fascinating insights on cradle to grave impacts on a point source community.

If you set your mind on "cradle to grave" realities, your thoughts may become uneasy indeed when viewing your car’s lead acid battery. The lead acid battery accounts for 64% of worldwide lead usage. As a society we have come to rely on the properties of lead and it would seem we are willing to bend many of society’s health and moral standards to accommodate this reliance.

Let me share some of the realities of using the lead acid battery in your car.

On a National level we make exceptions to the rule in two important areas, these being Occupational Health principles and the Sex Discrimination Act.

The NHMRC (National Health and Medical Research Council) of Australia set a level of below 10 g/dL (micrograms of lead per decilitre of blood) as the health goal for all Australians. All Australians, that is, except those working with lead. The standard for lead workers is 50 g/dL. Quite a difference! But let’s be grateful for small mercies, this level was revised in 1994 from a level of 65 g/dL.

Only women who can prove they are sterile can seek work in the lead industry processing areas. The reason being that foetal damage can occur at maternal blood lead levels of 25 g/dL and foetal growth retardation begins at maternal blood lead levels of 8 g/dL. This issue has been fought in the courts for many years. The important finding is that male infertility due to decreased sperm count, sperm size and sperm motility as well as increased rates of sperm mutation can occur even at 40 g/dL.

The people and the environment around lead smelters and mines suffer greatly for our insatiable and annually increasing use of lead. The smelting process emits lead, arsenic, cadmium, mercury, selenium, zinc and sulphur dioxide to air and water, with the greatest effects suffered by the local children. In Boolaroo in Newcastle in 1991, 84% of children tested had a blood lead level over 10 g/dL, some as high as 40 g/dL. To this day, even with remediation efforts, it is not known if it will ever be possible for a community of children to live close to a lead smelter and maintain a blood lead level below 10 g/dL.

To "live with lead" at Boolaroo it is recommended that you adhere to the "Behavioural Guidelines". This amounts to a regime of what I see as unsustainable levels of housework. It also leads to the burden of guilt and responsibility for protecting against lead contamination being placed on the shoulders of the victims.

A school curriculum module was developed to help teachers in the area help the local children. This document had many positive supportive recommendations. However, I believe, once again usual standards were eroded with the addition of sentiments stating that children need to realise that they are ultimately responsible for their own health and also that a supportive family unit was the best combatant to the threat of lead. All this, rather than focus on the source of the contamination as the real threat.

The local industry responded to the situation in 1991 by cutting emissions and also buying up some of the closest homes. They re-rented the properties to childless people (using the criterion that children under 12 years of age were the most likely to be adversely affected by lead). Therefore, creating Australia’s first "Child Free" streets.

As recently as 1985-86, 91.6 tonnes per annum of lead were emitted to air from the smelter. (Ref: Technical Report No. 3 of Environmental Impact Statement: Pasminco Metals Sulphide Pty Ltd Asset Modernisation Program, June 1994). Also in 1990-91, 2.2 tonnes of lead, 2.2 tonnes of zinc, 2.2 tonnes of selenium, 1.8 tonnes of cadmium, 22 kgs of arsenic and 2.2 kgs of mercury were legally permitted (licensed by the NSW EPA) to be discharged into the local Cockle Creek. Great improvements have occurred since with closer to 20 tonnes of lead per annum emitted to air and a directive for the company to reach zero toxic discharge to the creek by the year 2000. Still, when viewed alongside the efforts to remove lead completely from petrol, those living near smelters have a long way to go.

It appears the use of lead inherently brings with it an erosion of what we see as acceptable standards on health in general, occupational health, sex discrimination, planning, child health and protection, and environmental health and protection.

So next time you get into your car think of the costs of the use of the lead acid battery. Think how, if "cradle to grave" strategies were adopted as mandatory practice for all toxins, what benefits it would bring to supporting the rights we all should have to bring our families up in a healthy environment.

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Last Updated 10 January 2013
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