Professor Mark Taylor recently visited Indonesia with Bret Ericson of Pure Earth to test lead contamination levels in vulnerable communities. Despite it being one of Australia’s closest neighbours, the situation is markedly worse there. Jakarta is home to some 1,000 informal used lead acid battery recycling plants that cause significant human and environmental lead contamination.
Next week – 23 to 29 October – is International Lead Poisoning Prevention Week. We caught up with environmental lead testing expert Professor Mark Taylor from the Department of Environmental Sciences who says that despite Australia being a high-income nation that has implemented many exposure control measures, some communities remain at risk.
What do Australia’s current health guidelines tell us about lead exposure?
Australia has set a blood lead level of 5 micrograms per deciliter (50 parts per billion – ppb) as the acceptable maximum level of exposure. International research has demonstrated adverse health effects at blood lead levels less than 10 ppb in both children and adults including cognitive damage, behavioral problems, fetal growth and increased blood pressure. In the three lead mining and smelting towns of Broken Hill, Mount Isa and Port Pirie, 50 per cent of young children have blood lead levels above 50 ppb placing them at risk of life-long adverse health problems. Recently, we calculated that around 100,000 Australian children would have blood lead levels above 50 ppb.
What can Australia do to eliminate lead contamination?
Some effective strategies have already been implemented: a now almost complete global ban of leaded petrol use is in place, and there is a United Nation’s Global Alliance to eliminate lead paint. We must also strive to hold mining organisations accountable when it comes to minimising environmental lead contamination and cleaning up contamination. Complete global elimination of the use of leaded petroleum for cars and airplanes (AVGAS), lead shot, wheel weights and fishing sinkers should also be a top priority for governments worldwide. Where there are viable alternatives, they should be used and where not, such as AVGAS, they should be developed.
How can we protect ourselves?
This is a difficult question to answer, because as far as we know there are no safe levels of lead and it is hard to identify exposure risks. Paul Harvey, a PhD student in my research group, recently published research showing that Australians are being unnecessarily exposed to lead via household plumbing products such as tap fittings. Installation of lead-free fittings and end of tap water filters can help to eliminate exposures. Houses built before approximately 1970 are likely to contain lead paint and require a professional decorator to remove it safely. Garden soil can contain high-levels of lead, particularly in the older parts of cities and in lead mining and smelting towns. To minimize exposure, remove or cover the soil and wash your hands before eating. For those who live, work or recreate (e.g. shooting ranges) in places where higher than normal amounts of lead are present, getting blood lead levels tested is an essential element of personal protection.