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  QUESTION: Current litigation related to lead poisoning in Australia. 18 Aug 2003, Pennsylvania USA

I am a reporter who follows litigation concerning lead poisoning issues. I am curious to find out if there is currently litigation related to lead poisoning in Australia. can anyone provide information?

Thank you,
james cordrey

ANSWER: 20 Aug 2003

Dear James,

I am copying this email to the only three Australian lawyers that I have known to have anything to do with lead poisoning litigation though none of them has succeeded in a lead poisoning case. I will leave it up to these three to email you directly or for you to email them with your query (see email at the bottom of this email). They are:

  1. Lindy Wall, Solicitor, Wallace Wilkinson & Webster, Hobart, Tasmania - lwall[at]wwwlawyers.com.au
  2. John Rowe, Barrister, John Rowe's Chambers, Sydney, New South Wales - jerowe[at]bigpond.com
  3. Bill Madden, Partner, Slater & Gordon, Sydney, c/o Debbie Seward - dseward[at]slatergordon.com.au

I wish I could tell you that there was the level of litigation relating to lead poisoning in Australia that would be appropriate to the number of cases of lead poisoning in Australia, but the reality is far from this. Here's a typical example of how litigation is thwarted at every turn. It pays to keep in mind, that the cases that come to my attention are the "lucky" ones - by some accident or another, these are the extremely rare Australians who actually know what their blood lead level is. Blood lead testing is not at all common in the world's biggest lead exporting country.

Around about December 2001, in Brisbane, the state capital of Queensland [home of the first legislation in the world in 1922, controlling the level of lead in paint (unfortunately, only limiting it to 5% and only on surfaces a child could reach)] a family had two lead-poisoned daughters treated by chelation in hospital after being exposed to dry paint dust after the mother had specifically told each of the painters "we'll get out of the house if there's lead". The painters said they wouldn't sand much & it would only be the top layer [so there was no need for the family to move out]. After the painter had been sanding for 4 weeks, he was declared lead poisoned and sought 3 months off work on workers compensation. This is what prompted the mother to ask the doctor to do blood lead testing on the whole family - all of them were well above the Australian goal (to be below 10 g/dL).

As there is no licensing system for lead assessors in Australia and the only experienced domestic lead assessors are all in the southern states, there are no lead assessors at all in Brisbane. An environmental consultant quoted that the contamination report would cost $5000 so the family paid the airfare for a Sydney lead assessor to fly interstate and he found that the paint was up to 16% lead. By July 2002, it had cost $44,000 to clean up and there were still ongoing medical costs.

The family has decided that it is too much stress and expense to sue after they had to sell their house and discard all their furniture and $500 worth of dust-exposed frozen meat at their own expense, though they may sue when their daughters turn 18 years. There is no Australian legislation which would protect any prospective purchasers from or warn them about lead hazards in the home.

The contractor involved, Dave, of property management company Manorstate Pty Ltd, did not inform his worker [Russell Hausler, phone Brisbane +61 7 3261 1891] about lead hazards, so the worker dry sanded and got himself up to a blood lead level of 97 micrograms per decilitre before he collapsed at work and was found unconscious by the householder. Russell's GP (general practitioner) admitted he knew nothing about lead poisoning but investigated it and worked out that he needed to send Russell to Royal Brisbane Hospital the next day. The doctor at the hospital refused to give Russell chelation treatment and sent him home "because his lead poisoning was chronic not acute". This was based on the history of the worker who had worked for 20 years as an auto exhaust system repairer before joining Manorstate full-time, 3 years prior to the incident and who in all his 23 years in the exhaust and painting industries, never had a blood lead test until the one that registered 97 g/dL. Blood lead surveillance is extremely rare among Australian workers - there are no collation or reporting programs for workers currently operating in any state. In Queensland, pathology results for workers with a blood lead level over 50 g/dL invoke notification to the Queensland Health Dept. (which neither collates nor reports on the data) and investigation by Queensland WorkCover Authority if the worker seeks compensation. The Medical Tribunal hearing was held in January 2003. According to Russell, Dr Patrick Carroll was the WorkCover toxicologist who states in his reports that he doesn't know what caused Russell's problems but it is all in his mind. Russell says the impairment schedule is where it all stems from because the doctors have said he is "nil-impaired" but Russell has spent $26,000 of his savings on living expenses because he can't get a job in either of his last two careers. The first 6 months after his lead poisoning are a daze for Russell - he has in his files doctor's reports when he can't even recall seeing those doctors. Some time in June 2003, Russell's no win no pay solicitor told him he would ask Russell to come back in a week's time. The solicitor had had one other case on lead poisoning that he told Russell he couldn't talk about to Russell but Russell now believes the solicitor had never dealt with lead in his life. Russell didn't want to pay $100,000 for the solicitor to learn about lead. Once the solicitor didn't ring him he rang around 6 other solicitors none of whom would take on his case or knew anything about lead.

The above case demonstrates just some of the reasons why to my knowledge there has never been a successful case of lead poisoning litigation when the source was lead paint in Australia. I hope this helps. I'd be very interested to know why you are investigating this issue.

Yours sincerely
Elizabeth O'Brien

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