LEAD Action News
LEAD Action News Vol 1 no 2 Winter 1993   ISSN 1324-6011
Incorporating Lead Aware Times ( ISSN 1440-4966) and Lead Advisory Service News ( ISSN 1440-0561)
The journal of The LEAD (Lead Education and Abatement Design) Group Inc.

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Towards a lower chemical load for Australia

by Herbert Beauchamp, Toxic Chemicals Committee (TCC),
Total Environment Centre, Sydney

The price of living in a large city is a significant chemical load as­sociated with polluted air, water and food which reduces the quality of life. Governments will only respond to citizens' complaints when conditions become intolerable e.g. in Australia in the 1-4 year age group there may be more than half a million children who have elevated blood lead levels.

TCC here proposes a number of concrete steps which can be taken by federal or state governments in 10 areas where better control of lead is required.

Reducing lead in petrol

Except for people living close to smelters, or near contaminated sites or those with occupational or hobby exposure, the most important method of reducing lead is the rapid phase out of lead in petrol. Australia has the second highest motor car ownership in the world, the highest concentration of population in cities, and produces the highest per capita lead load from petrol sources. The rate of change in lead load on the population of Australia needs to be significantly higher than 10% per year. Mainly due to gradual replacement of leaded petrol (LP) using cars in the fleet, by those that use unleaded petrol (ULP), lead in air is already falling at 9% per year. While lead used in petrol accounts for only 7% of the lead used in the Australian environment, it contributes 90% of the lead in air and thus constitutes the greatest threat to the most sensitive population children under four years.

Sydney air receives 800 tonnes of lead from petrol every year. Averaged, this is equivalent to over half a kilogram of lead on every house, but the distribution is very uneven. TCC recommends that the maximum lead concentration in LP in cities be reduced by the end of 1993 to 0.15 g/L and that a further reduction to 0.026 g/L or lower be introduced by the end of 1995. The octane rating of low level leaded petrol should not be regulated by government.

Greater use of ULP

Close to 40% of ears are now using ULP, but there are a further 30% of cars which could operate on ULP without any reduction in performance or any detrimental effect on the ear. The reason this does not happen is failure by governments to produce incentives. The UK Government caused a rapid switch from LP to ULP by creating a strong financial incentive. We recommend that the Federal Government reduce excise on ULP by two cents a litre and adds a corresponding margin to LP. Such a move would be tax neutral but would act as an incentive for owners of certain cars to switch to ULP. Further it would be an incentive for all other cars to experiment with lead free petrol. All cars can run on the lower octane rating ULP provided a minor adjustment is made to the distributor timing device and an alternative valve lubricant is used where needed. It would be possible at inspection for registration to modify petrol inlets for those ears which can run satisfactorily on ULP.

Lead in food

The chemical load of lead on children is already high, and further exposure should be avoided. Four sources of food items in the standard diet cause 91% of lead intake, 44% of the intake stems from whole meal bread, 22% from ham, 16% from rice and 9% from tinned pineapple. In the case of pineapple and ham the presence of lead is directly related to lead solder. Welding has taken the place of solder in most cans and approximately 90% of locally produced cans are welded. Most of the imported tins are soldered. Government should legislate immediately to ban food being sold, manufactured or imported in soldered cans. A Western Australian survey found lead levels in food in soldered cans to be nine times higher than those in welded cans. Current legislation allows a Minimum Permitted Concentration [MPC] in food of between 0.3 and 10.0 mg/kg for different categories of food. The 10 mg/kg limit is for food additives and imported food. It is recommended that Australia adopts the UK standard of 1 mg/kg for all food excepting baby food for which the standard should be 0.2 mg/kg. Imported food should also conform to this standard.

Lead in fertilisers

There are no national standards for lead in fertilisers. A National Standing Committee on Agriculture and Resources has been established to look into impurities in fertilisers. Western Australia is the only state which has legislation in place. Since January 1993 the sale of fertiliser containing more than 0.05% lead or lead compounds has been prohibited in W A. This example should urgently be followed by all states, as it would reduce the lead content of whole meal bread and rice, the major sources of lead in the standard diet.

Lead in drinking water

Lead solder, lead fluxes, and brass fittings are responsible for significant levels of lead in drinking water, particularly in first flush water. NHMRC guidelines for lead in drinking water are 50 µg/L. This is being revised in light of the new WHO recommendations which allow a maximum of only 10 µg/L. In Germany and the Netherlands lead solder is prohibited. In the USA since 1992 the 90th percentile of a sampling of tap water must not exceed 15 µg/L. If the water sampled exceeds this level the householder is required to take remedial action. Use of plumbing supplies containing lead has been prohibited since 1988, though do-it-yourselfers are not policed. Australia should urgently follow the USA example.

Lead in paints & plastics

Lead is still being used for a wide number of products in the paint industry, including primers, lead chromes and industrial, aut­omotive and white goods coat­ings. Lead driers are used in household paints in small quantities. Paint is a non durable product and within a few years is usually removed by scraping, sanding, sand blasting or by the use of a blow torch. Each of these operations is a source for lead accumulation by the operator and for those within the vicinity of the operation. There are satisfactory replacements for all lead products used in paint and the industry has been moving in this direction, slowly, since 1922. Australia should ban lead for consumer paint products by the end of 1993 and phase out lead in all paints by 1996. Substitutes are available for lead in PVC as a stabiliser and this use should also be phased out by 1996.

Lead crystal & lead glazes

Lead has been used in crystal glass to enhance its lustre, density and brilliance and allow the crystal to be cut. Lead will leach out rapidly in contact with alcoholic beverages. This could be a significant source of lead for a foetus or breast fed infant. Crystal glass should have a warning on the label until substitutes are on the market. Lead glazes are dangerous to those who work with them and to those who use them in tableware to store acidic food or drink. An early phase out date is recommended.

Secondary smelters

There are 79 secondary lead smelters around Australia. Primary smelters turn ore into lead. They are usually large and located some distance from capital cities. Secondary smelters deal principally with reclaiming lead from batteries. They may be in heavily populated areas, and are considered to be a source of significant pollution. While recycling of lead batteries should be increased by a high compulsory deposit system and by prohibiting the dumping of exhausted batteries in land fill, the conditions of operation of secondary smelters will have to be tightened. Facilities should be closed if not operating to strict standards.


Incinerators of all kinds, industrial, municipal, and hospital, need to be strictly regulated. A draft environment statement for bio­medical waste incineration gives maximum limits for new incinerators in respect to total heavy metals (antimony, arsenic, cadmium, lead and mercury) as 0.01 mg/m3 and maximum leaching rates for ash, etc, in landfall disposal as 5 mg/L. These appear reasonable standards, but need to apply to all incinerators - old and new.

Sewerage sludge

Guidelines for maximum levels of lead in sewerage sludge have been recently established in a paper available from the NSW Water Board. For lead there is a maximum concentration in sludge of 300 mg/kg. Maximum annual loading and maximum concentration in soil are also given. At this stage there is no legislation to enforce these guidelines. The publication unfortunately does not compare these guideline recommendations with overseas standards.

Disincentive tax

TCC proposes a tax to be imposed on the sale of all lead, cadmium and mercury products, based on the percentage of heavy metal content. Money to be used for activities similar to that used by USA Department of Housing in its extensive program to reduce children's exposure to lead paint and remedial work in areas of high heavy metal pollution.

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