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QUESTION: What are the dangers of lead poisoning for our health if we move to Broken Hill? 17/12/10  Victoria, Australia

Hello, we are a couple in their late fifties considering a move to Broken Hill.  It is one of our options.  We are wondering what the dangers are in terms of lead poisoning and our health. We have been advised that a lead test should be done before moving to Broken Hill.

Our concerns are: is the water safe? are we likely to become ill from the dust, sand etc.

We will probably be buying an older house.  We are wondering if this is a concern in terms of lead in the pipes.

Basically anything you can tell us would be appreciated.  Please contact us by email as it is easier for us. I hope that is ok.  Thank you for your help.

EMAIL TWO Sent: Friday, December 17, 2010 8:35 PM To: The LEAD Group

Thank you for your quick reply and very useful information. We have been doing some research to see if it would be okay for us to live there as Broken Hill is such a beautiful town. Myself and my husband have only visited a few times. We plan to buy a house and settle there.  It sounds like if we are careful and sensible we should be okay.

I was wondering if you know of the percentage of adults that do suffer from lead poisoning?  I would imagine it is less now with less  mining happening. Thanks again I really do appreciate your time and effort in replying. Regards

EMAIL THREE Sent: Saturday, December 18, 2010 4:59 PM

Subject: Re: Do you know the percentage of adults that suffer from lead poisoning?

Hi Elizabeth. Thanks again for all the useful information.  I will certainly contact Steve as we have already decided to grow indigenous plants anyway. I'm sure he will be very helpful in helping us decide what to grow.  We are still in the process of deciding whether to move there. I'm going to take a trip there in January/February sometime.  Thanks again. You offer a wonderful service.  There are so many contaminants to worry about everyone and can all become overwhelming. You information has helped us to put it in a different perspective. 

Regards

 EMAIL FOUR Sent: Monday, December 20, 2010 4:46 PM

Thank you Elizabeth.

ANSWER: Dec 17 2010 

Dear Madam,

I concur with the advice you've been given about having blood lead tests done before you move to Broken Hill and I recommend requesting iron studies on the same blood samples. When you arrive, I would also recommend a follow-up test within a couple of months so that any increase in your blood lead levels or need to increase your iron intake can be detected early.

As you have not mentioned having any children, grandchildren or pets, I am going to assume that you don't have any or that you won't have any visiting young children - that makes a big difference to the extent of the possible dangers of lead's effects on the health of your family.

We have recently published an excellent pair of fact sheets called:

  1. "Dangers of a blood lead level above 2 g/dL and below 10 g/dL to children" - and
  2. "Dangers of a blood lead level above 2 g/dL and below 10 g/dL to adults

but luckily the adult's health effects list is much shorter than the children's list. Unfortunately though, the adult's list does include the increased risk of early death, so, that is the risk that you would probably want to consider the most, when weighing up your options.

The most common way for lead to cause early death is through causing hypertension, so, if either of you already has high blood pressure, that would be a major pre-existing condition to consider before moving there.

The good news is that as adults, if you are not going to be working in a lead process, you are majorly protected from lead exposure by normal adult behaviours of good hygiene and good nutrition (see Fact sheet: Nutrients that reduce lead poisoning ) and minimal hand-to-mouth activity, but also, especially by the achievable behaviours of exercising adequately, not smoking and not indulging in too much alcohol. Alcoholics and smokers typically have higher than average blood lead levels. See Cigarette Smoking & Lead Toxicity

Before you go, if you know where you would be living, you could request a laboratory test for lead in the drinking water from the kitchen tap. I have never heard of any lead drinking water pipes being found in Broken Hill or indeed anywhere in Australia, but lead soldered pipes are a possibility if a plumber or DIY-plumber has ignored the recommendation against using lead solder that has been in place since 1994. The main reason for testing for lead (and other heavy metals) in the drinking water is because of fall-out (especially after dust storms) from mining activity and natural outcroppings of leaded ore. The LEAD Group's water laboratory lead test kits are perfect for testing your drinking water and if you want to also test for arsenic, cadmium and mercury, you can pay $15 extra per metal per sample and have all four metals tested on either one or both of your water samples. See DIY-sampling / lab analysis lead kits and note that alternatively, if you want to test more than just water, you could purchase an 8-sample laboratory lead test kit called the Comprehensive kit and use the 8 sample containers for water OR ceiling dust OR dust wipes on the floor or window sills OR soil etc. If you are keen gardeners and know that you will want to grow vegetables in Broken Hill you can request a pH test of soil by the lab for an additional $5 per soil or water sample and you can request an organic matter test for soil for an additional $40 per sample.

The dust storms in Broken Hill are very hard to predict but you could also request that your ceiling dust be tested for lead before you move in, and that if there is a huge load of ceiling dust up in the roof cavity, that it be professionally vacuumed out before you move in. That way you will have far less concern for the possibility of a ceiling collapsing and spreading this toxic dust throughout the living space, or even a small amount of it coming down during a dust storm. Ceiling dust and living space dust are manageable - you just have to know how and when to manage them. Children and pets are much more likely to ingest dust than adults.

Using sugar soap to wet-clean all hard surfaces and having a HEPA-vac to vacuum any carpets or rugs are the standard recommendations for managing the dust. However, I would go one step further and recommend removal of carpets or rugs (use water-spray to wet them down and then cut and remove them in pieces) if you want to be sure that you can manage the dust (by only wet-cleaning, no sweeping and no vacuuming) inside the home. If one of you is an asthmatic, carpet removal would be advantageous anyway.

Once you've eradicated the ceiling dust, the main lead source in an older house is usually the paint. If a previous renovator of the house has dry-sanded the paint then there may be lead dust inside and outside on the soil. This is another good reason for not keeping old carpets and for making a decision to learn about indigenous arid region plants that will hold the soil down without requiring a lot of water. There has been a permaculture project in Broken Hill for many years so you should be able to obtain advice on what grows well there. Ask Frances Boreland, Research Officer, Broken Hill Department of Rural Health, Corrindah Court, Broken Hill Hospital, PREVIOUSLY Broken Hill Environmental Lead Centre (BHELC), phone 08 8080 1279.

In short, most lead exposure for adults is manageable in Broken Hill as long as you can adjust your lifestyle.

Elizabeth O'Brien

EMAIL TWO

Dear Madam,

No one knows the percentage of adults that suffer from lead poisoning in Australia.

I've been trying to convince the federal Health Department for years, of the need to do a national blood lead survey of all ages, in order to be able to precisely answer your question and be able to compare adult blood lead levels in Broken Hill to the state and federal averages by age group, risk factors, etc.

In Broken Hill, only children up to the age of 5 are periodically tested for their blood lead levels through the NSW Health Department program. The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), which makes recommendations to state and territory health departments, has said little more than that all Australians should have a blood lead level below 10 micrograms per decilitre. They first said that in 1993 and after reviewing the health research, they repeated it in 2009 but made no recommendations to any department or to doctors to even find out what current blood lead levels are in Australia.

I find their review of the research and of their own recommendations completely without merit. They require no action on the part of any stakeholder. They encourage complete ignorance of this highly pertinent issue. Their policy ensures that lead remains aptly named "the silent epidemic". The cynics would realize that it is simply too expensive for one state with large lead industry to achieve a blood lead level even of 10 micrograms per decilitre for all its young children, let alone achieving the more pertinent blood lead level of 2 micrograms per decilitre for all ages.

Considering the risks to adults (and children) of blood lead levels above 2 micrograms per decilitre, The LEAD Group recommends that everyone find out if they're already below that level and if not, identify where their lead is coming from, remove themselves from the lead or the lead from their environment, improve their nutrition and re-test. Then repeat the process until the blood lead level goes below 2 micrograms per decilitre.

For baby boomers like you and I, who have inhaled lead with every breath we took up to 2002, due to Australia using leaded petrol since 1935 and only starting to phase out leaded petrol in 1985 (15 years after the US began their phase-out and only one year before Japan completed its phase-out) and because we took 17 years to complete our phase-out, we further recommend writing to the Health minister ([email protected]) to request that research be done on the effectiveness of natural chelating agents such as pectin or Vitamin C (perhaps Chlorella and zeolite too if credible evidence of their potential efficacy can be found) in chelating (clawing or dragging) lead out of the body. This chelation process could be the most effective mechanism of tertiary prevention of lead poisoning - that is, of getting the lead out of our bones and other storage organs, and straight out of the body via the bloodstream, kidneys then urine, BEFORE it has the opportunity to leach out as our bones demineralise with age, and be recirculated via the blood, around all our vital organs like the brain, heart and kidneys, doing the kind of damage we've written about in "Dangers of a blood lead level above 2 g/dL and below 10 g/dL to adults [FACTSHEET]"  I think there's enough of us with enough lead exposure from petrol to justify a double-blind study to tell us whether chelation can reduce our risks of early death from past lead exposure stored in our bones.

Studies from the United States, of adults over time, demonstrate that, even when lead exposure goes down, as humans age, their blood lead level tends to rise, due to bone demineralisation - leaching lead from bones back into the bloodstream. The blood lead level tends to reach a lifetime peak, at death. Thus my prediction is that blood lead levels in adults in Broken Hill have less to do with the level of mining activity and more to do with the age of the adult being tested , although of course, if the person has recent lead exposure because of their work, hobbies or non-lead-safe renovation, then their blood lead level MAY, in the case of workers, be tied in with the level of mining activity over time. In other words, blood lead levels change over time, in response to BOTH recent lead exposure and also bone lead stores leaching back into the bloodstream, which occurs under various provocations, one of which is ageing.

Yesterday when I sent you the contact details for Frances Boreland, I did not know that her permaculture project has finished. Today I received a phone number of a consultant environmental gardener in Broken Hill, Steve Ross and I have just spoken to Steve and he's happy for you to be given his phone number and email address in case you want to consult him regarding arid indigenous groundcover plants which can tolerate heavy metal contaminated soil (and thus reduce your exposure to contaminated dust). Steve is on [email protected] or mobile 0418 698 242.All the best with your lead learning curve and your future lead-safety.

Kind regards

Elizabeth

EMAIL THREE Sent: Monday, December 20, 2010 10:30 AM

Dear Madam,

Steve emailed me yesterday evening to say that he will be back in Broken Hill on January 11th so that should work out well in terms of him being there for your trip there.

All the best

Elizabeth

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