Inner Newcastle residents are being exposed to heavy metals at levels dangerous to human health, an Australian-first study into domestic dust pollution has found.
The ongoing Macquarie University study analysed vacuum cleaner dust samples from homes in Carrington, Tighes Hill and Waratah for pollutants associated with heavy industry.
Lead, manganese, nickle and chromium were all found in each of the 20 samples. Some samples contained lead at levels up to 10 times higher, zinc at four times higher and manganese at two times higher than would be expected in samples from a non-contaminated environment.
“There is a good chance the metals would have been related to past industrial processes in those suburbs,” Macquarie University researcher Paul Harvey said.
“We are seeking to understand how much of this pollution is still in the environment and how it could potentially affect human health.”
Dealing with legacy pollution and its potential health impacts has become a high priority for communities living in former industrial suburbs.
A previous Macquarie University study found high levels of metals, including lead, copper, chromium and zinc, remain in parks and gardens across the Newcastle.
The Newcastle Herald has also previously reported on the health impacts of lead exposure, which include learning difficulties, behavioural problems and cancer from contamination from the former Boolaroo lead smelter.
“The way we look at Newcastle from an environmental management perspective needs to change,” Dr Harvey, who is leading the university’s 360 Dust Analysis program, said.
“We need to develop strategies to identify and, where possible, remove this contamination.”
In addition to heavy metals, the vacuum cleaner samples will also be analysed for asbestos, micro-plastics and genetic resistance markers, that can trigger resistance to disease and illness.
“The World Health Organisation is particularly concerned about the rise of these pollutants that limit the effectiveness of drugs like Penicillin,” Dr Harvey said.
Tess Lieberman and her husband Ras moved into Tighes Hill a decade ago.
Among the first things they did was to have their backyard soil analysed for lead pollution. Tests showed the soil contained medium levels of lead, resulting in a decision to establish an above ground garden bed.
“We have two daughters so heavy metal pollution is something we are very aware of,” Ms Lieberman said.
“There is obviously still pollution in places like our roof. I’d be very interested to find out how much pollution is still around.”
While Tighes Hill no longer sits in the shadow of the former BHP steelworks, Ms Lieberman said other sources of pollution had become prominent.
“It’s misleading to say there is no more heavy industry,” she said.
“Since I have been living here coal exports through the port of Newcastle have tripled.”
A 2015 Macquarie University study found areas of Newcastle remain drenched in a toxic cocktail of heavy metals and cancer-causing hydrocarbons that rained down for decades during the city’s industrial heyday.
The majority of the contaminants can be directly traced to the city’s former smelting and steel making industries that spread pollution through atmospheric dust and slag waste, a by-product of the metal mining process.
High levels of lead were most likely the result of lead ore dust that blew across the city as it was being transported from the port of Newcastle to the Cockle Creek lead smelter in the early twentieth century.
The problem was compounded by lead slag smelter waste that was used as clean fill across the city for years.
Significant levels of copper, which can be traced to a former copper smelter that operated in the city prior to the establishment of the BHP steelworks in 1915, were also found.
Dr Harvey said Newcastle had a similar legacy pollution profile to other industrial cities around the world, such as [the former US automotive manufacturing city] Detroit.
“You will find there are lots of metals and hydrocarbons in the soil and dust that hang around for a long time,” he said.
Section 149 certificates have been issued to homes in areas such as Carrington since 1997. The certificates offer advice about minimising the risks of contamination.
To participate in the 360 Dust Analysis program visit: http://www.360dustanalysis.com/
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