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MEDIA RELEASE 20th December 2002

Lead Advisory Service funding debacle

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By Isla Bindon-Howell

The Lead Advisory Service Australia (LASA) will close within weeks without funding affecting hundreds of children, according to its co-ordinator.

The LEAD Group, a community organisation based in Sydney’s Inner Western Suburbs, runs the free phone service nationally to provide information to protect children from lead poisoning and the environment from lead contamination.

LEAD Group co-ordinator Elizabeth O’Brien said the group would have closed this week but on December 4 Wests Ashfield, an inner Sydney rugby league club, offered a $10,000 rescue package.

Ms O’Brien said the service could be credited with halving the number of children throughout Sydney poisoned by lead.

She said the most recent published blood lead study of children in the Central Sydney Area Health Service found 25 per cent of children studied were lead poisoned, down from 50 per cent in 1992.

Ms O’Brien said since 1995 NSW made up more than 75 per cent of its cases.

The State Government funded LASA between 1996 and 2000, with grants from the Federal and South Australian governments until 2003.

A spokesperson for the NSW Environment Protection Authority (EPA) said it would provide funding if funding could also be secured from a broader base, such as industry, the Federal and other state governments, and other relevant NSW agencies, such as NSW Health.

The EPA spokesperson said the EPA had assisted The LEAD Group to seek broader funding by facilitating discussion with NSW Health and providing contact details for environment portfolio agencies in other states and territories.

Leichhardt Council, an inner Sydney municipality, funded the service in 1992.

Leichhardt mayor, Councillor Maire Sheehan, said if the State Government had said it would fund the group it should co-ordinate its own agencies, instead of passing the responsibility to the community group.

Cr Sheehan said Leichhardt Council would try to help.

"Councils have always attempted to, as far as they can, fill the gap when State Government drops the ball in terms of responsibility for what are state-wide obligations and state-wide issues – so of course Leichhardt Council will make every attempt to provide some support to The LEAD Group as we have in the past," Cr Sheehan said.

"However, it’s a stop-gap measure and should in no way be read as a way of letting the State out of their obligations."

Ms O’Brien said in Sydney, four times as many children were likely to be lead poisoned as they were in Broken Hill, a lead mining town in NSW.

Because of lead mining Broken Hill is considered a major point source of pollution.

At Broken Hill, because of concerns about public health, NSW Health runs the Broken Hill Environmental Lead Centre.

Ms O’Brien said lead was a public health issue for Sydney.

"It’s great that taxpayers are funding clean-up in Broken Hill but there are many families in Sydney who cannot afford to manage lead hazards in their home and don’t even know they need too," she said.

"In the United States lead poisoning and asthma are the top two children’s environmental health issues receiving funding and it should be the same here.

"Children at risk - the Health Department need to specifically concentrate on prevention instead of treatment.

"We need to be kept open."

A spokesperson for the NSW Health Minister, Craig Knowles, said the Minister was monitoring the matter.

The EPA spokesperson said it was clear, from a 1999 study of children’s blood lead levels, because of excellent internet resources and other information now available on the issue, that the need for lead education to the general community had reduced since LASA was first established.

The spokesperson added the 1999 study of children in non-point source communities found the average blood lead level was well below the national goals, reflecting a drop in community risk achieved through the reduction of lead in petrol, paint and improved community education and awareness.

However, Ms O’Brien rebutted this claim.

Ms O’Brien said the 1999 study had never been published, and without peer review and publication, could not be regarded as valid.

The EPA spokesperson said mainstream services were now equipped to undertake education and information about lead; for example, the EPA’s Pollution line.

However, Ms O’Brien said LASA received thousands of calls every year because it provided advice and information the government couldn’t.

Ms O’Brien added that the phone-service was vital as many people did not have web access, and research stemming from calls was used to constantly update The LEAD Group’s web site, visited by 1000 people every week.

Ms O’Brien said it was still as easy today as it was when the service was first established, for a child to be lead poisoned.

She said it only took a flake of lead paint the size of a twenty-cent piece to take a child’s blood reading to an unsafe level, and thousands of families living in older homes were at risk because of lead in paint, soil and dust.

Ms O’Brien said lead was used in paint prior to 1970 and many families renovated without ever knowing their home or garden was contaminated

She said lead dust from paint and pollution built up in ceilings and wall cavities and people were poisoned when they ingested the dust or lead paint flakes.

Young children were particularly susceptible because of their high level of hand-to-mouth activity and could also be poisoned by take-home lead dust from contaminated workplaces and hobbies.

Ms O’Brien said Sydney, particularly the Inner Western Suburbs, were still a hotspot for lead poisoning because of the large number of older houses in the area.

This year most cases nationally involved childhood lead poisoning from old paint during renovations and from lead in ceiling dust.

Ms O’Brien said this year, in one case at Leichhardt, a family vet told a couple to visit their local GP when their dog died of lead poisoning.

According to Ms O’Brien, the GP discovered the husband, a renovator, had a blood lead level nearly four times the Australian goal, and his wife, pregnant at the time, later gave birth prematurely to their baby.

Ms O’Brien said the mother’s blood lead reading was not reported to LASA, but she added that Australian and US research had found links between high lead levels in mothers and prematurity.

The EPA spokesperson said LASA had received significant funding over the years, and over the previous two, several grants from the NSW Environmental Trust – a fund administered by the EPA, including; $85,000 for lead education support for NSW local government; and, $80,340 for the Lead Tool Kit project.

The spokesperson said the Lead Tool Kit project was extended until the end of December this year.

Ms O’Brien said the project was extended but extra funds weren’t provided.

The EPA spokesperson said The LEAD Group did not make any further submissions to the Environmental Trust for new projects in the year 2002-2003.

She added the EPA was open to having further discussions but it hadn’t received any revised proposal for funding since last contact in July 2001.

However, Ms O’Brien denied this claim.

Ms O’Brien said the group had replied to the EPA in October 2001 and since then had made numerous phone calls and sent emails to reiterate the urgent need for funding.

The EPA spokesperson said Ms O’Brien had made contact last month and discussions would be held shortly.

Ms O’Brien said all governments should be concerned about lead because of its wider impact on the environment and river and harbour sediments were contaminated when renovations involving lead paint were left unchecked.

Ms O’Brien said this year, after NSW, most calls (including emails) to the service were from Victoria, overseas, Queensland, the ACT, Tasmania, South Australia, Western Australia, Australian email address but state unknown, and the Northern Territory, in that order.

A spokesperson for the West Australian Health Minister, Bob Kucera, said any request for funding would be considered in light of other competing priorities for health funding, but the government had not been formally approached.

However, Ms O’Brien refuted this claim

She said she had sent formal funding submissions to all state and territory governments and all but South Australia had said no.

Ms O’Brien said the Federal Government had agreed to review its LASA funding next year through Environment Australia, however, the National Health and Medical Research Council, Australia’s leading health advisory body, had responded, but ignored the request for funding.

When questioned, the Victorian, Queensland, Northern Territory, Federal and Tasmanian governments failed to respond.

A spokesperson for the ACT Chief Minister, Jon Stanhope, said given the earlier correspondence was two years ago and under a former government The LEAD Group was welcome to send another submission for consideration.

Ms O’Brien said The LEAD Group was also an advocate for the community on lead issues and could be credited ultimately, with the phasing out of lead in petrol this year, a recent Australian ban on lead candlewicks, and, a ban last year on lead toy soldiers.

The Federal Government and the NRMA funded LASA before 1996.

Ms O’Brien said LASA regularly provided information to paint companies, tradespeople, doctors, childcare and health professionals, government departments, prospective parents and parents, building and painting contractors and people involved in making renovation lead safe.

For further information on lead poisoning or contamination please see www.lead.org.au or phone LASA on 1800 626 086, or call the NSW Pollution Line on 131 555, or the NSW Health Department on 9391 9000. ###

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