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Mining the heartache of lead contamination


Mt Isa sunsetMt Isa in Queensland is currently experiencing 'lead-alert'. Children are being exposed to excessive lead levels. Having previously lived the lead contamination story with small children, I know the heartache and frustration it causes.

Lead's incompatibility with human physiology was first observed in 200BC. Children are most affected. Absorption by developing brains and nervous systems can lead to hyperactivity, lack of concentration and loss of IQ.

The effects are subtle, and it's this nerve-racking subtlety that causes nightmares for families. Do we move away? Do we stay? Often enough, one parent wants to go and the other sees the problem in less dramatic terms, so it strains parental relationships.

There's usually dissembling when the spotlight lands on a lead mining town. Mt Isa is no exception. Since 2003, Swiss based Xstrata has owned the mines in question. According to an article in The Australian (December 2006) 290 tonnes of lead were released into the air in Mt Isa in 2004-2005. Queensland's Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said politics had prevented air quality monitoring at Mt Isa's two smelters.

On 20 March 2007 ABC News quoted Xstrata's Ed Turley: 'There's already extensive natural sources of heavy metals in Mount Isa due to the levels of natural mineralisation.'

And Mt Isa Mayor, Ron McCullough, said in the same report: 'I don't think it is a major problem.'

It wasn't a view shared by the EPA, and these laissez-faire reactions weren't good PR. The next day the company announced a public meeting when, according to ABC News, data was released showing soil lead samples from the area are up to 33 times above federal health guidelines.

Several public meetings followed and, alongside them, guidelines for parents on protecting their children — among these, Queensland Health's advice on the importance of washing children's faces and hands. Such advice is all well and good as long as it is not sold as the solution.

At a public meeting I attended 20 years ago similar ideas came up, including frenzied cleaning, scrubbing vegetables in salt, ensuring children never played outside and getting them to wash vigorously before and after inside play. The more obsessive you were, the better.

It's clever. It turns a public health issue into an internalised housekeeping one. It's impossible to maintain the cleaning schedule and paid work. And the endless housecleaning doesn't involve developing a relationship with a child, but one with an industrial strength vacuum cleaner and bone gnawing cleaning agents.

In Mt Isa last year Xstrata commissioned a new study. When involved in a lead action group at the time of our crisis, we learnt this was a popular strategy with mining companies. This distraction takes a lot of time, makes the company look earnest and tells us nothing new.

Professor Michael Moore, from Queensland University's National Research Centre for Environmental Toxicology, told the ABC on 2 April that he believes it is already clear where the Mt Isa problem lies: 'There's evidence, immediately, that the cover and the barriers are not adequate.'

Eureka Street spoke to Professor Moore's colleague Professor Jack Ng.

'The factors which contribute are historic mining practices, geological factors and current mining practices such as smelting techniques,' he said.

'With geographical factors you can't really do anything to make it safe for small children, with historic issues there is a real challenge. But you can do something about current smelting practices.'

Improving its PR, last month Xstrata said lead is part of life in a mining town, although it had committed to improving its environmental performance. It also identified all the steps it has put in place since 2003 to ensure that its lead emissions drop in the future.

But the trouble is, the historic lead load of Mt Isa is enough to cause serious risk to children because the lead is already in the soil. And this historic load needs considerable financial investment to fix.

'Xstrata and Mt Isa have to play catch up,' Professor Ng explained.

Inevitably, the families who are better off will move, leaving the most vulnerable to stay and live with the problem. This includes the Aboriginal communities whose children are over-represented among the Mt Isa children with high lead levels.

Eureka Street asked Xstrata's chief operating officer Steve de Kruijff, though their community relations advisor, if the historic links between lead and risks to small children are communicated to job applicants on recruitment. He was too busy to comment.

If lead mining companies want to argue that lead poisoning goes hand in hand with lead mining, they need to spell this out when they recruit. Too often, those in the loop know the risks with lead. But the first time most parents find out is when they are holding their child's blood lead level test results in their hands.

Mount Isa mines blamed for increase in blood lead levels (ABC)
Margaret Rice Margaret Rice is a Sydney-based freelance journalist.


Flickr image 'Mt Isa Sunset' by Aidan Jones



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Existing comments

The EPA last week on local radio was suggesting that the house and child cleaning methods were all that was required to deal with the problem. This is a typical overall Qld government response to a public health issue, i.e. there is no problem but if you're worried deal with it yourself.

Gabrielle Henry | 06 May 2008  

Should not the Company build the town of workers at a more distant site and provide fast commuter transport?

Francis Brown | 06 May 2008  

My daughter was in one of the areas that was supposed to be a trouble spot 20 years ago and got tested and guess what, NOTHING, all good, a clean home, good healthy diet and a bit of old common sense.

We are still here and no problems along with hundreds of other families some third and fourth generation, also without ever having a problem.

Mt Isa is a great place with plenty of opportunities for all. I would rather live out here than in the cities with all the vehicle emissions, or are they good for you? They must be otherwise you would have written an article about it.

Ron | 06 May 2008  

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