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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Case study: The Port Kembla Community’s Dilemma with Toxic Dust

By Robin Mosman, NSW Community Lead Advisory Service

A recent inquiry from a resident of Port Kembla highlighted starkly the need for a "cradle-to-grave" focus on the management of lead. Ceiling dust in his home has been found to be heavily contaminated by arsenic, lead, cadmium and other heavy metals.

The Southern Copper Limited smelter has been operating in Port Kembla for decades. The 200-metre stack overshadows the public school which is on the boundary of the smelter; the Catholic primary school is 100m away.

There have been community and public health concerns regarding lead and other pollutants from the smelter’s emissions for decades. A study of blood lead levels in children in the area is known to have been done as long ago as the 1950’s. Community knowledge of that study is that it showed high blood lead levels in the children, but the results were not released. A further series of blood lead surveys on children were conducted in the early 1970’s, late 1970’s, early 1980’s and late 1980’s.

The late 1980’s study revealed blood lead levels that are unofficially considered "shockingly high" by the Illawarra Public Health Unit (IPHU), although it is thought that "methodological problems in the testing might have been responsible".

In 1992, increasing awareness of the lead problem and pollution generally, coupled with community pressure, eventually led IPHU to instigate a Roof Dust Survey. It was decided that testing the accumulation of heavy metals in the roof dust of houses within 5 km of the southern end of Port Kembla industrial area (i.e. the smelter) in concentric circles would give a good representation of the loading of lead and other heavy metals in the area emanating from the smelter.

The survey showed a clear pattern of diminishing loads of heavy metals the further one went from the smelter. It found that houses within 1 km of the smelter had "substantial concentrations" of lead, cadmium and arsenic in their ceiling dust. One householder was advised that dust samples from her house showed levels of 2471 parts per million (ppm) of lead, 30 ppm of cadmium and 308 ppm of arsenic. The number of houses affected by the dangerous metals decreased the further they were away from the smelter. Houses with building-paper lining under roof tiles had lower levels of the heavy metals. The average lead levels in the ceiling dust measured 3500 ppm at 200-300 metres from the smelter; 1800 ppm at .5 km; 1000 at 1 km; and 500 ppm at 5 km.

The 1994 NSW Lead Management Action Plan (LMAP) states:

"Lead in house dust is recognised as one of the best predictors of childhood lead poisoning, but is the least understood and has the greatest divergence of opinion on sampling protocols...

"Lead loading measurements (micrograms of lead / sq. metre) more directly measure lead available for a child to ingest and so better predict children’s blood lead levels that do dust lead concentrations (parts per million)...

"Dust control, in general, is needed in construction and demolition sites..."

LMAP states that in the absence of better data and on the strict understanding that further validation work must be done, soil with lead levels of between 300 and 1500 ppm should be covered with grass or some other appropriate barrier.

However, there is currently no guideline on action levels for lead in dust.

The "Health-Based Soil Investigation Levels" published by the National Environmental Health Forum in 1996, lists proposed health-based investigation soil levels for arsenic of 100 ppm, and for cadmium of 20 ppm. There is no information given for action levels, and dust is not considered.

Householders whose ceiling dust was sampled were notified individually of their results by the IPHU in 1993 and advised: "No attempt has been made to interpret the above results, but the presence of arsenic, cadmium and lead in the quantities shown would suggest that the dust shouldn’t be permitted to enter the living areas of the house. As the dust is quite fine, anyone entering the roof space should protect their lungs by wearing a dust mask." There was no information given about possible health effects of exposure, or what kind of dust mask was required.

In a report of this survey given to the Port Kembla Pollution Committee, an open forum meeting monthly for industry, community, Council, Environment Protection Authority (EPA), and the Water Board, the following health information was all that was given by the IPHU:

"It is most unlikely that anyone would eat enough of the dust to get acutely ill. However, if the dust is eaten or breathed in, some arsenic, cadmium and lead may get into the blood and if so, some of that would stay in parts of the body, such as the kidneys, liver and brain. This would simply add to the amount that the person has already.

"There would be no health risk to people in the living areas of houses, if the ceilings are sound and do not contain openings which let the dust into the rooms...

"Some of the dust is fine and could be inhaled deep into the lungs where it may not come back out again.

"If a house is not going to be altered, the best thing to do is to leave the dust there and make sure that the ceilings are sound. If a house is to be renovated, the dust should be removed before the ceilings are demolished. This would best be done by one of the asbestos removal contractors at Kemblawarra.

"Children between 1 year and 4 years 11 months are most likely to get heavy metals into their systems from dust in their homes. Concerned parents may get their children tested for blood lead levels..."

The IPHU formed the Illawarra Lead Taskforce, to develop a lead management plan for the Port Kembla area. Another blood lead survey conducted in 1994 found 11% of the children surveyed had blood lead levels in excess of 10 g/dL, the level beyond which the National Health and Medical Research Council recommend no Australian should be. Assistance has been given by IPHU to help manage the problems of children found to have high blood lead levels.

The Department of School Education funded an Environmental Lead Assessment Report of lead levels in soil at the local primary school. Half the 26 samples of soil tested contained greater than 300-ppm lead, ranging up to 1581 ppm, 5 times the NSW level requiring further investigation. $40,000 has since been spent remediating the school grounds by topsoiling and paving, but parents concerned at the proximity of the smelter to the school have formed a School Relocation Committee. They are meeting with the Premier to put their case on 25 March 1997. The NSW government has already said that if the smelter breaches its emission levels during the first twelve months after it re-opens; the school will be moved. The Relocation Committee is not prepared to wait, past experience with the smelter having convinced them that breaches are inevitable.

A representative of Illawarra Residents Against Toxic Emissions (IRATE) said they are currently having talks with the IPHU about the possibility of a soil survey throughout the community. "We have a very multicultural population here and there are a lot of people who grow their own vegies. It’s a big part of their culture," he said. However, as at February 1997, no satisfactory way has yet been established of dealing with the ceiling dust problem in Port Kembla. The social demographics of the area are changing, with older residents dying or moving away. The younger families buying up the old houses are renovating them. The charges of the few Sydney-based companies specialising in removing ceiling dust put their services beyond the reach of many locals.

Unable to meet increased production levels, or to comply with pollution reduction levels required by the EPA, Southern Copper closed down the smelter in 1995 for "care and maintenance". Prior to this, IPHU had developed a "do-it-yourself" system in conjunction with Southern Copper, whereby people could borrow a HEPA vacuum cleaner, mask, disposable clothing and bags, and the smelter would take the dust back for disposal. Detailed instructions are provided, which IPHU’s Environmental Health Officer goes through with the borrower to make sure everything is clearly understood. However, only two people used this system before the smelter closed.

Southern Copper are now negotiating the sale of the smelter to previous partners Furukawa and Nissho Iwai Co Ltd. Although IPHU have spoken unofficially of "ideally industry and government paying for lead abatement" it is difficult to see how this could happen with Southern Copper now not existing.

The IRATE representative says that the issue of ceiling dust remediation is coming down to the issue of who accepts responsibility. "Southern Copper are saying they are not the only source of lead in the area, but they are the only source of cadmium, and there are large levels of that".

IPHU are reluctant to advertise the "do-it-yourself ceiling dust removal" scheme. They feel it is unethical to encourage people to remove the contaminated dust themselves, fearing that in doing so an even greater problem could be created in the living areas of people’s homes. They consider that the scheme should be properly trialled to ensure that it can be done safely. Until then, they prefer the system to be a safety net only, and that householders leave the dust where it is, making sure that there are no ways for it to get into the living areas of houses.

However, they acknowledge that cases of high blood lead levels clearly caused by ceiling dust have occurred. And the home renovations which cause the disturbance of the leaded ceiling dust (skylights, insulation, demolition) continue.

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