Media Release - For Immediate Release 8th February 2001
Lead companies may sink advisory service
Australia's two largest lead-mining companies -- Pasminco and MIM (Mt Isa Mines) -- have today given the kiss of death to Australia's only advisory service on the hazards of lead poisoning.
The Lead Advisory Service Australia, LASA, has been functioning for the past five years, principally through funding from the NSW Environment Protection Authority. To continue getting NSW government funding, the service needs funding from the corporate sector. The two lead-mining companies have rejected the LASA approach to be the principal sponsors.
The Manager of the Service, Elizabeth O'Brien, has been providing the service voluntarily since funding ran out at the end of last year. "It's just so frustrating," she said. "After five years professional operation, our calls don't just stop when the money runs out. We're still handling over 300 calls for help a month, yet many more emails go unanswered."
"These companies make millions of dollars profit from selling lead, a known poison that is particularly damaging to young children, but take no responsibility for the down-stream consequences. It's little wonder that they rank so poorly in public perception of their corporate and environmental responsibility" Ms O'Brien said.
"It's time we copied the US trend of demanding these miners pay a tax on lead produced, to educate the community about its dangers. The miners think their responsibility ends at the edge of the fall-out zone from their smelters."
LASA provides a free hot-line service that gives the public an independent and objective source of advice on lead poisoning. The service is mostly used by parents who find or suspect that their children are lead poisoned from old leaded paint or ceiling dust accumulated over decades of leaded petrol use.
LASA now gets only minimal funding -- $15,000 a year from the Commonwealth Government and $5,000 from the South Australian Government. But the service needs $200,000 a year so it can respond to all its callers - there were 5,500 calls handled in the last financial year. Current funding only keeps the office going, and does not cover wages for staff to answer calls or create the much-needed publicity that educates the public sufficiently to prevent lead poisoning.
By way of comparison, the US national government has recently announced US$170 million for lead poisoning prevention programs. The Australian Commonwealth Government spends $15,000 on LASA. The latest published estimate of the number of pre-schoolers alone who are lead poisoned in Australia is 75,000, plus unknown numbers of older children and adults.
To raise the funds necessary for the service, The LEAD Group, which operates the service, developed a Prospectus for shared funding of LASA by Governments and business. The NSW Government expressed interest in funding its share -- $25,000 a year -- provided that the corporate sector came to the party. As a result of Pasminco and MIM's refusal, NSW Government funding for LASA is also at risk.
Elizabeth O'Brien became active in promoting lead safety when she found her children had been lead-poisoned simply by living in inner Sydney where lead paint, dust and industrial remains abound. Her children support her continuing voluntary work, telling her not to worry about presents for Christmas and birthdays because she gets no income for work they know is vital.
"There are thousands of families across Australia living in environments contaminated by lead. Just because petrol and paint rarely contain lead these days does not mean the problem goes away. Frankly, it is a national disgrace that governments and companies fail to provide advice and support to families facing lead poisoning when we know the damage it can cause."
The recent report National Pollutant Inventory prepared by Commonwealth and State Governments rated lead as the 11th most dangerous substance out of 208 rankings. The report says (p.235):
Lead is poisonous in all forms, the poison is cumulative and the toxic effects many and severe. Ingestion of a large amount of any soluble lead or organo-lead compound may cause poor appetite, nausea, pain, leg cramps, muscle weakness, damage to the brain, kidneys and reproductive organs, and death. Behaviour effects can include: mood changes, disturbed sleep, memory loss, and poor attention span. Lead is especially damaging to the health of children and the unborn child. Young children exposed to lead can experience a decrease in intelligence, learning difficulties, slow growth and defective hearing. Lead exposure during pregnancy can contribute to premature birth, low birth weight and abortion.
When asked what next, Elizabeth said "We can only hope that other companies come to our aid and that the other State Governments pay their share for the service that benefits all of Australia. At the moment, I'm hoping that the Bill and Melissa Gates Foundation will help us -- perhaps international groups care more about our lead poisoned children than Australians."
"In the end, we'll just have to put a message on our phone saying 'Sorry, no-one cares. Ring MIM or Pasminco and ask them if it's their lead that's poisoning you, and whether they will help.' "
While the LASA service still operates, people can call on 1800 626 086. But be quick.
For interview, Contact: Elizabeth O'Brien on (02) 9716 0014 ###
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