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Media Release Monday 2nd October 2000

What Does the Menzies Centre Have to Hide?

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"Why has is taken the Menzies Centre three years to publish its 1997 study 'A Survey of Blood Lead Concentrations in Children Living in West Coast Tasmanian Communities'?" asks long-term advocate for the elimination of lead poisoning, Elizabeth O'Brien.

Elizabeth O'Brien is the National Coordinator of The LEAD Group - a group set up by parents of lead poisoned children in 1992 with the aim of having no Australian child's blood lead level exceed 10 micrograms per decilitre (10 g/dL), by the year 2002.

"The Tasmanian response to proven excess levels of lead in children's blood is now emerging as the most appalling response of any state in Australia" said Ms O'Brien, who is also the Manager of the Lead Advisory Service Australia. "I've managed over 22,000 calls from the public and from industry and government agencies since mid-1994 when The LEAD Group first obtained federal government funding to run the Lead Advisory Service Australia (LASA). The freecall LASA hotline was funded to support the public education campaign aimed at achieving the National Health and Medical Research Council's lead target and goal. The NHMRC target is that every Australian should have a blood lead level less than 15 micrograms per decilitre (with the exception of lead workers) by the end of 1998.

"In all that time since 1994, I have not seen a worse instance of lack of appropriate action by a state government", said O'Brien. "In 1997, the Menzies Centre study discovered nine children in just four towns surveyed on the West Coast who exceeded the NHMRC target, yet the Public Health section was unable to say, on Friday 28th September 2000, what had been done to follow-up these cases. They were unable to provide a copy of a West Coast lead education package, even though, Professor Dwyer, Director of the Menzies Centre was reported in mid 2000 as having said that "as a result of the research the Department of Health and Human Services and the Menzies Centre would produce education packages specifically tailored to this community." [Ref: Western Herald article "Blood lead levels in West Coast Children"]

The NHMRC guidelines on follow-up for communities with more than 5% of children with a blood lead level exceeding 15 g/dL, such as Queenstown where 6% were above this level, are:

  • Investigate lead sources in the affected community

  • Develop environmental management plans with effective strategies for community involvement in design and implementation

  • Plan to: particularly target sub-populations in the community showing blood lead levels above 15 g/dL; include specifically prepared community education programs; set a time-frame for on-going re-assessment of community blood levels.

"On 23rd June 2000 the Lead Advisory Service Australia was contacted by a journalist who was following up one of the nine West Coast children with a blood lead level above 15 g/dL. Since then we have learned that the Menzies Centre found that Adrian Oates of Gormanston near Queenstown had a blood lead level of 33.3 g/dL in 1997 when he was three years old. But no investigation of lead sources in his home was made until March 1999, after he had turned five. His original blood lead level was higher than any of the 1,575 children tested in the national blood lead survey published in 1996.

"Between his 1997 blood test and the 1999 home assessment, his blood lead level had jumped to 41.7 g/dL and still no action was taken to replace the lead contaminated soil in the yard or clean up the lead contaminated dust tracked into the house.

"It was not until his mother, Denise Oates requested it 15 months later in June 2000, that her other children were even tested. By that time, Adrian's five-year old sister Makayla, had a lead level of 38.6 g/dL, his three year old brother Tyler had a level of 20.0 g/dL and his 13 year old brother Raymond was 18.3 g/dL. Four children were now above the notifiable level, and still the only public health action had been some gravelly soil for the yard in late 1999.

"On 29 June 2000, the Acting Health Minister Fran Bladel was reported in the Burnie Advocate as saying "the family was now being assisted out of their house." Three months later, the family is still in their house having only been made one offer of a 3 bedroom house for their family of seven."

Denise Oates has said "I can't understand why they let my younger kids get lead poisoned. The Menzies Centre told me in 1997 that they'd get back to me if Adrian's second blood test was as high as the first one. They never got back to me so I thought it must not have been important. Now I know what lead has done to my little boy, I've asked the Lead Advisory Service to give me enough information packages for me to hand out to everyone with kids who should have been told about lead. I want other people to know how to prevent lead poisoning before it's too late for their family. I just want to see Adrian settled at a special school and getting the speech therapy that he needs so people will be able to understand him when he talks. My husband has worked for 30 years to support his family and he's always paid his taxes. The government has done nothing for us in return - it's so unfair."

But what does the Menzies Centre study have to say? Phone the Centre on (03) 6226 7700 on the promised publication date (Monday 2nd October 2000) and ask for your copy. See if the Centre or the study or Public Health (phone (03) 6233 2898) can answer the following key questions:

  • Have the blood lead levels in any of the 9 children who exceeded 15 g/dL in 1997 been brought back to below the NHMRC goal of 10 g/dL? How long did it take or will it take for the goal to be achieved for each child?

  • Denise Oates may have been notified in writing by the Menzies Centre of her son's lead level, but either the letter was lost in the mail (which happens often where they live) or was lost after it arrived. She requested another copy 15 months after the lab report was sent to the Menzies Centre. In April 1998, the Menzies Centre Bulletin stated that "Each participating child's result will be sent to his or her parent with a copy to the child's family doctor if requested." When were the mothers of each of the other 8 children notified in writing of the blood lead level and were they followed up with a phonecall?

  • The first samples of soil, dust and water in Adrian Oates home were collected by Public Health on 17 March 1999, 15 months after Public Health was notified, according to the lab, of Adrian's high blood lead level and nearly 2 months after another blood test on Adrian that showed his level had risen to 41.7 g/dL. In a summary of their study presented to West Coast Council on 20 June 2000, the Menzies Centre claimed that it was following the protocols used in the national blood lead survey. If this is true, then why wasn't a lead assessment carried out for each of the nine children and isotopic fingerprinting research done to determine their lead sources, as was done with the national survey? The national survey was published in 1996 and reported on blood samples collected in 1995. All 1,575 blood lead results were sent to parents as soon as they were validated. Why weren't West Coast families advised in writing as soon as their results were validated?

  • In October or November 1999, gravelly soil was laid in Adrian Oates' yard. Was this the only remediation measure taken for any family by Public Health? Why did it take nearly two years for action?

  • Why is Adrian Oates' blood lead level still 36.6 g/dL?

  • When will GPs actually start blood lead testing children between the ages of starting to crawl and before going to school? This way, blood lead results can be provided within a week or two

  • According to the Menzies Centre summary, "A greater proportion of people on the West Coast study engaged in auto-repairs (25% vs 8.5% [nationally]) and panel beating (10.5% vs 2.65%) compared to the National Survey." Why hasn't a fact sheet or booklet and education campaign including workshops for lead-safe Do-It-Yourself auto repair been developed?

  • The soil in Adrian Oates backyard contained nearly 3 times the acceptable level of lead. The house dust contained twice this level. Why wasn't a HEPA vacuum cleaner given or loaned to the Oates family as occurs in Pasminco's mining and smelter towns in the rest of Australia? Why haven't other soil lead tests, lead dust wipes, analyses of lead in tap water and paint, etc been carried out or reported?

  • Will there be a heavy metal survey of soils and children in the mining towns to determine what other contaminants are adding to the toxic load in the community?

  • Who was on the Ethics Committee that presumably approved this study even though it did not ensure follow-up home lead assessments and blood tests to track the achievement in each case of the NHMRC goal for blood lead (to be below 10 g/dL)?

  • How independent of Pasminco is the Menzies Centre if the Centre delayed publication of this survey due to the Class Action against Pasminco smelters in South Australia and NSW?

The Lead Advisory Service has been told that Adrian Oates has been found by the community nurse to be suffering from hearing and vision problems. His paediatrician is concerned about his poor speech development, his mother is concerned that he can't count or write his name and doesn't know his colours. His teachers find him too difficult to control and his mother is asked to take him home from school up to three days a week. All of these health effects could have been contributed to by his lead poisoning. Excess and prolonged exposure to lead is also associated with anaemia, kidney damage, slow reaction time, balance and growth problems, early school drop-out, reading and writing difficulties, aggression and delinquency. Yet lead poisoning is preventable.

"It is frightening to think of the full range of health and social problems that Adrian Oates now faces, in view of the fact that much of his lead exposure could have been prevented by an appropriate government response in 1997. The lead poisoning of both his younger sister and brother could have been entirely prevented.

"And what of all the other children who have started to crawl or been in the highest risk age group for lead poisoning (up to school age) in the three years since the results of the Menzies Centre study could have been revealed?" asks Elizabeth O'Brien. "The Lead Advisory Service would dearly like to assist the government and community in Tasmania to sort through some of these problems but the Menzies Centre's refusal to provide any information about their study since our first written request in June 2000, begs the question - what does the Menzies Centre have to hide?"

Contact Elizabeth O'Brien on (02) 9716 0014 ###

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