EMISSIONS from the lead smelter at Boolaroo blanketed the township over the past century with an array of neurotoxic metals including arsenic, cadmium and lead.
As a result, childhood lead poisoning was commonplace. Toxic metals such as arsenic, cadmium and lead are persistent. They are readily absorbed into children’s bodies, and adversely affect intellectual and behavioural development. Recent major international reviews of low-level effects of lead exposure confirm its insidious, lifelong effects.
The Lead Abatement Strategy (2007), developed by Pasminco Cockle Creek Smelter and endorsed by the then NSW government, was designed to ‘‘achieve a reduction in human exposure to lead dust contamination in surface soils’’ from the long history of emissions on to the neighbouring residential environments.
In Boolaroo, environmental lead exposure and contamination is well known, with various studies conducted over the decades. The last publicly available blood-lead study, the ultimate marker for lead exposure, showed that blood-lead levels remained significantly elevated: One in six children younger than five had a blood-lead level greater than or equal to 10micrograms/decilitre (100 parts per billion), the Australian blood lead goal at the time. The level is under review; the National Health and Medical Research Council has recommended lowering it to 5 (50ppb).
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Exposure to lead in children can causes IQ points to be lost, and is associated with increased ADHD behaviours.
These data are based on population studies, composed of individuals, but data from multiple peer-reviewed studies provide consistent findings on the effect of lead exposure. These effects are sufficient for the National Health and Medical Research Council and major international bodies such as the World Health Organisation to declare there is no safe level of lead exposure.
The Lead Abatement Strategy involved various clean-up strategies in domestic yards depending on soil lead levels (no other metals were considered). The physical removal of contaminated soil was only scheduled to occur where soils were found to be greater than 2500milligrams/kilogram. Further, garden beds and household dust were not measured, and these pose a significant risk to children.
Given that the underlying objective was to ‘‘achieve a reduction in human exposure to lead dust contamination in surface soils’’ I was asked, along with my students, to evaluate the efficacy of the approach.
We found no difference in lead contamination between houses that had received treatment compared with those that had not. Thus, one might conclude that the original objective was an abject failure.
We also examined clean-up strategies elsewhere in Australia and internationally benchmark the processes executed in Boolaroo.
Comparison with the major clean-up in Esperance, WA, following lead contamination showed that the procedures at Boolaroo could not be classified as world’s best practice. There was no genuine attempt to achieve soil standards in domestic gardens anywhere near the Australian national guideline of 300mg/kg. At Esperance, all soils above 300mg/kg were excavated to the full depth of contamination, removed and replaced.
By comparison, on the other side of the fence from the existing homes around the Pasminco site, the NSW government ordered that the old smelter site was to be cleaned up according to the Australian soil guidelines for lead of 300mg/kg.
Unfortunately, no matter how much spin is applied to this issue, this is a case of environmental injustice. There has been one standard applied for the redevelopment and clean-up of the old Pasminco site and a different set of rules and standards for the long-suffering community of Boolaroo and surrounding suburbs.
On the face it, it appears that the community surrounding the old Pasminco site has been short-changed for the benefit of the remaining Pasminco creditors.
It is disappointing to discover that there has not been any post-abatement assessment of the efficacy of the clean-up either in terms of the environmental measures we have assessed or via blood lead (and other metal) sampling of young children.
If that data exists in a substantive form then it needs to be made available to provide some assurance to the community.
It is likely that the government and industry will argue that the Lead Abatement Strategy was acceptable.
To really determine if they believe this is the case, I propose a simple test, which can be summarised as so: ‘‘If it is good enough for them then it must be good enough for us.’’
Assuming the government and industry respond in the affirmative that the Lead Abatement Strategy was sufficient, then let’s offer to exchange the (very likely clean) soils of those responsible, including the Pasminco creditors, with those from the houses, parks and schools at Boolaroo and surrounds.
That way everyone will be satisfied.
Let’s raise the bar for Boolaroo and clean up to a level that is appropriate, protective and in line with national standards.
Mark Patrick Taylor is a professor of environmental science at Macquarie University, Sydney.
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