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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Lobbying the peak body of the developed nations the OECD

by Theresa Gordon

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), initiated, in May 1990, activity focusing on reducing risks of five industrial chemicals: brominated flame retardants, cadmium, methylene chloride, mercury and lead. Lead was given the priority and the first draft of the lead risk reduction document was produced in November 1990.

Elizabeth O'Brien of The LEAD Group, and myself, from the Lakes Environmental Action Defence (No-LEAD) in Newcastle, NSW, obtained the copy of the second draft document on lead risk reduction, dated 21st May 1991, as part of our attempt to arm ourselves with the most up to date and authoritative material available. This document was made of the hard hitting statements which inspire lead activists to fight on; statements such as "Lead is a poison that affects virtually every system in the body, with no physiological value." This document did what it was intended to do. It made clear statements about the real threat of lead, both to humans and to the environment. It was suggested an International co-operative strategy could be developed, one similar to the Montreal Protocol for CFC’s. This strategy could include banning those uses of lead which present unreasonable health risks, a tax on virgin lead, promotion of recycling and safe disposal practices, education campaigns about product risks, promotion of substitution where possible and development of substitution and cleaner production technologies.

You may be thinking "At last - after hundreds of years of denying leads' toxicity, this responsible generation is going to bite the bullet" (lead substitute of course).

Well sorry, but you would be wrong. The International Lead Zinc Research Organization Inc. (ILZRO) (how very academic and without pecuniary interest these industry bodies can sound) were quick to object to the draft ILZRO released statements such as, "The concept of product substitution figured too prominently and needed to be more in balance with other risk reduction measures." My local industry person informed me that "The document was rejected, as no country was willing to suffer the drop in standard of living that would result from the recommendations in this document." It reminded me of the pesticide companies stating that the attack on DDT was a Communist plot to destroy the economy of the US.

As one could imagine, much lobbying and pressure would have been coming from the lead industry since that second Draft Document. Is it cynical of me to feel this lobbying may have paid off? The third draft, dated November 1992, proffered only a couple of quotable quotes. Firstly, "... because the phasing out of leaded gasoline has lead to dramatic decreases in atmospheric lead levels it is clearly the most important single measure for lead risk reduction.” Secondly, "Annual ILZRO expenditures for the conduct of lead health-related research will typically range between, $400,000 and $600,000.” This second statement reminded Elizabeth of a story related by toxicologist Herbert Needleman in his book "Human Lead, Exposure" 1992, which said in part: "Embedded in this LIA. (Lead Industries Association) analysis was major objection both to the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] conclusions about the health effects of lead and the damage from lead to automobile engines. A comment from one EPA staffer reflected the Agency's reaction :'It just goes to show that for the right amount of money you can make the numbers say anything'."

The fourth and final draft dated February 1993, is a very much watered down affair. Gone are the statements such as "lead is a natural toxicant which affects a broad spectrum of species and persists in the environment", and "Lead is considered a particularly hazardous ecotoxicant", and also "The effects of lead exposure on plants include inhibited plant growth, reduced photosynthesis, and reduced water absorption; and all of these effects may result in plant death and reproductive failure." In the latest draft of the document, these statements have been replaced with, "In general, ecological effects of lead are limited".

Gone is the section which states that phasing out lead in petrol is the most effective way of reducing air and blood lead levels. Gone is the idea of a strong, mandatory, international, cooperative approach. Considerable anger and frustration over these changes, and the many others, prompted me to write the following letter to Dr Geoff Thompson of CEPA (Commonwealth Environment Protection Authority). Dr Thompson was the leader of the Australian Delegation to the 19th and 20th Joint Meetings of the OECD.

"May 1993

Dear Sir,

The new chapter 6, headed "Summary and Considerations", is to me the final insult to the original integrity of this document. As affected Community members of a lead smelting town [Boolaroo], we no longer feel we have any faith in the intentions of the OECD to protect the health of the people. As we have watched, this Document has deteriorated to the point where it only satisfies the interests of a hazardous industry, one whose very existence forces it's employees and the co-existing community to sacrifice their health and potential.

"I am willing to say only that, if this document wished to remain true to the charter of the OECD, there should have been no reason to change any part of the original "Summary and Conclusions" .

"It is obvious why it was changed, and it is obvious that all meaningful and positive international aspects of risk reduction are not being allowed to remain.

"I believe that industry's advantage with money and lobbying has distorted this document. We, the unfunded, unassisted and affected Community, have suffered intolerable disadvantages during the process of contributing to this document. I will be taking my complaint to a higher authority within the OECD body.

Yours Sincerely, Theresa Gordon."

The intentions of the OECD were originally sound, but what happened along the way has been a very sad "missed opportunity". It is not my wish to discourage "little people" from trying. On the contrary, it is time for us all to continue to speak up and motivate ourselves towards change. It is up to us to support the scientists and researchers who made those earlier statements, which implored the world to take a longer look at lead and its destructive nature.

We do have one last chance to influence Australia's input to appropriate risk reduction actions to be recommended by the OECD to its members. Once again we will be making strong statements that support strategies leading to tightening of standards, and restrictions on lead production and uses, and also the promotion of recycling, but we are not expecting any miracles.

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