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Media Release - For Burnie Advocate 19th October 2000

Alarming Inaction Over Lead Poisoning Outbreak

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The LEAD Group in Sydney has responded to statements made in the Burnie Advocate earlier this week, which happens to be Lead Poisoning Awareness Week.

On Tuesday 17th October, the Advocate reported that West Coast medical personnel said there is no blood lead 'poisoning outbreak' at Queenstown and Public Health Director Mark Jacobs was reported as saying that confusion over terminology 'outbreak' and 'poisoning' could create unnecessary concern among West Coast residents. Dr Jacobs was also reported as saying that 'outbreak' in medical terms, related to infectious diseases, and West Coast blood lead level test results showed an 'elevation' in blood lead levels and not 'poisoning'.

Yesterday however, The LEAD Group presented compelling evidence to the Advocate to back up their request to Dr Jacobs to declare a lead poisoning outbreak in Queenstown, as well as providing the medico-legal definitions of 'outbreak' and 'lead poisoning' upon which the request to Dr Jacobs was based.

"Dr Jacobs would do well to read Tasmania's Public Health Act and the Regulations," says Elizabeth O'Brien, National Coordinator of The LEAD Group Inc, a community group that has worked for nine years to eliminate lead poisoning in Australia.

Schedule 3 of Public Health (Notifiable Diseases) Regulations 1993 lists 'Lead poisoning (whole blood lead level greater than 15 g/dL or 0.72 mol/L)' as a notifiable disease. Section 54 of the Public Health Act 1997 states that 'The Director, by public notice, may declare - …that there is an outbreak of a notifiable disease in an area.'

"In the Queenstown area alone that I know of, there have been at least 20 notifications of lead poisoning among young children since December 1997, and the Menzies Centre West Coast Study found 6% (8 children) of the Queenstown population of 1-4 year olds, to be lead poisoned. The first action level for which the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) recommends public health management is when 5% of the children are above 15 g/dL.

"It concerns me deeply that Dr Jacobs has not let the public know what level of lead poisoning he does regard as "of concern" so that the public can then determine whether Dr Jacobs is acting in the public's best interests when he down-plays the problem. Dr Jacobs was notified on 14 separate occasions between December 1997 and August 2000 of blood lead tests above 15 g/dL in four children from just one family in Queenstown. The highest of these results was above 40 g/dL. Does Dr Jacobs call that 'lead poisoning'?" asks Ms O'Brien. "If there are only 4 other children in Queenstown above the notifiable level - this can only be revealed by testing all the at-risk children again (blood lead levels change over time and young children are at most risk) - then the NHMRC action level would be exceeded in the year 2000, as it was in 1997."

Ms O'Brien was also critical of statements made in the Advocate on Wednesday 18th October. Ms Venn of the Menzies Centre gave no evidence to support her claim that the data collection and analyses were appropriate to the aims of the West Coast blood lead study. The Menzies Centre West Coast study, published in June 1999, recommended 'that the Department of Health and Human Services and the Menzies Centre produce community education packages specifically tailored to [the Queenstown] community'. Although, the final paragraph from Wednesday's article says 'The Health Department responded with education packages which were distributed to individual families and local child health centres,' the only 'education package' that The LEAD Group has been able to ascertain was distributed was a small pamphlet called 'Lead Alert - Lead and health'. The pamphlet gives only a general introduction to lead and was published by the Commonwealth Government in 1995. Both the telephone numbers given on the pamphlet 'for more information' have been changed since 1995.

"What is alarming about all this," says Ms O'Brien, "is that children are being lead poisoned while doctors quibble about terminology. When are they going to start pro-active blood lead testing and proper investigation of sources that are, to some extent, the responsibility of government, eg soil, mullock, tailings, air pollution, fish, street-dusts and ceiling dusts in houses around mining activity?" ###

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Last Updated 08 March 2012
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