A new report has found levels of lead in the blood of children living around the South Australian town of Port Pirie have reached a ten-year-high.
South Australian health authorities announced the findings with the release of the latest report in a series tracking blood-lead concentrations among children between two and five-years-old since 2011.
Among those children tested last year, 276 recorded a blood-lead result higher than 5 micrograms per decilitre. The number of children with results equal to or exceeding 20 micrograms per decilitre grew from 13 children in 2019 to 16 children in 2020.
Among two-year-olds, the average blood-lead level was 7.3 micrograms per decilitre – a “robust indicator” considered to show the level of contamination among the wider community.
According to the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) guidelines, any reading above 5 micrograms per decilitre of blood is dangerous to unborn babies, infants and children.
Levels in this range have been “associated” with lower levels of academic achievement, more behaviour problems, a delay in puberty in children, and increased blood pressure among adults.
Beyond 10 micrograms per decilitre, the effects of lead contamination become increasingly more severe
'A long history'
Port Pirie is the central hub in what is the traditional lands of the Nukunu people who hold Native Title over the area. Speaking to NITV News, senior Nukunu law man, Doug Turner, said the situation was complicated – and came with a long history.
For years Port Pirie was the third spoke in an industrial heartland in the region known as the “iron triangle”.
The lead smelter is the main employer for the 15,000 person town, with Aboriginal families running businesses that contract with the company, or who have young family members undertaking apprenticeships.
“Lead poisoning doesn’t discriminate. Lead doesn’t care whether you’re an Aboriginal kid or a white kid,” said Mr Turner.
“You’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t. The people there, they’re caught in a trap. Nobody wants their kids to have a high level of lead. But the community needs employment.
“It’s either lead in their kids, or no industry. If you take away the industry, what are you going to do?
“If you take away the smelters, you’re left with a bloody great mess. You need a plan. And that doesn’t happen overnight.”
Mr Turner said there was a long history of industrial contamination in the region that went beyond air-lead-levels to include spills in coastal areas along the Spencer Gulf.
This is the result of more recent incidents that include a sulphuric acid leak in January 2019, and another “toxic” cadmium leak in 2017, but also the legacy of an industrial smelter that has been operating continuously since 1889.
The problems associated with lead refining in Port Pirie have been known for almost as long with a shocking Royal Commission into “plumbism” – another name for lead poisoning – carried out in 1925.
Today the World Health Organization says there is no safe level of lead exposure.
Mr Turner said that with other industrial workplaces closing in the region, government, business and the local community had an obligation to work together to heal the landscape and to build a more diverse local economy.
“I’m not trying to stick the boot in,” Mr Turner said. “I’m just saying there’s a lot of positive things they could do. You got to take the blinkers off. Ask for more. Create something. Leave something positive behind, is what I’m saying.
“It would be good to get the company –the refinery– to say if you got this issue, let’s also do some environmental work. Let’s cover up the salt flats in the area and rebuild the ecology.
“That’s what I’m saying with the Country. Look after the place. Look after the Country. Look after the Gulf. Look after the people.”
Findings not unexpected
SA Health’s director of scientific services David Simon said he was disappointed at the findings but they were “not unexpected”.
"The increased lead-in-air contributed to the amount of lead contaminated dust deposited in homes and public spaces across Port Pirie during the year, meaning more people were likely exposed," Dr Simon said.
“Young children absorb lead very quickly and spend much of their awake time in areas that can be easily contaminated, such as floors and soil, and ongoing efforts to reduce lead exposure within the community remains the highest priority.”
In an effort to tackle the issue, the state’s Environmental Protection Authority made changes to the smelter’s operation licence that lowered allowed emissions to 0.40 micrograms per cubic metre.
The company then breached this condition when levels of 0.41 micrograms per cubic metre were recorded last year.
Nyrstar’s Australian spokesperson Gail Bartel said the company was also “disappointed” with the results and that it has planned $25 million in further works to address the issue.
“Nyrstar acknowledges there is still much work to be done and is continuing to identify and implement additional operational and environmental improvements to deliver further reductions throughout 2021,” the statement said.
Mr Bartel added that lead-in-air emissions from ongoing smelter operations was “only one source” of contamination.
“Nyrstar recognises that lead-in-air from ongoing smelter operations is only one cause of community blood lead. Historical lead emissions are another significant cause. Accordingly, in parallel with onsite work, Nyrstar maintains its commitment to the Targeted Lead Abatement Program (TLAP),” said Mr Bartel.
“Despite a delay in an improvement in community blood lead levels, Nyrstar is expecting the significant work being undertaken on site and through TLAP with families most at risk will deliver an improvement in future quarters.”