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Lead Advisory Service News Volume 1 No 1
The journal of The Lead Advisory Service  ISSN 1440-0561

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Getting a child out of prison. Who will help ?

By Robin Mosman, Information and Referral Project Officer,
Lead Advisory Service, NSW

In 1990 Roslyn Cook and her husband decided to buy a home in Fourth Street, Boolaroo. They chose the area because of its proximity to valued resources, family members, Lake Macquarie, the countryside, mountains. They had never heard of any official concern about the possibility of health effects from the Pasminco Metal Sulphide zinc and lead smelter located on the far side of First Street, Boolaroo, three streets away. In November 1990, they moved in to their roomy older-style timber and fibro home with their 2 children, Noel aged 11 and Jessica aged 4.

Later that same year, a Public Health pilot study revealed a significant lead contamination problem in the area. There have been lead smelting operations on the Pasminco site intermittently since 1897, and prior to 1961 these operations were not covered by any environmental laws or regulations (1). The emission of pollutants from the Pasminco plant had led to elevated concentrations of heavy metals in the soil and buildings in the vicinity of the plant, and caused heavy metal contamination of sediments in Lake Macquarie that "rank among the most highly contaminated in the state" (2).

Noel and Jessica's blood lead levels were tested at that time along with those of other children in Boolaroo. After only 4 months of living in Boolaroo, Noel's blood lead was 17 g/dL, Jessica's 18 g/dL. At the time, the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) level of concern was 25 g/dL. Since then the goal that has been set is for all Australians to be below 10 g/dL.

Roslyn was given a poster explaining housecleaning techniques for protecting her family from the lead. The poster was put up on a wall in her home and followed scrupulously. In July, 1992, Roslyn's third child, Samantha, was born. It was never suggested to Roslyn while Samantha was an infant that her blood lead should be tested.

In 1992 Pasminco, wanting to expand its operation, voluntarily purchased some of the homes closest to it as a buffer zone. The buffer zone consisted of the residential area directly south of the plant, and included First Street, Second Street and one side of Third Street, bounded by Main Road to the west and Mulbring Hill to the east. Pasminco's basis for the boundary delineation was that, even following investment in new technology and a program to minimise fugitive emissions, it could not guarantee consistently meeting NHMRC goals for air quality at the First Street air monitor. The company claimed it would install equipment that would significantly improve its environmental performance, but linked this and the creation of a buffer zone with community acceptance of increased production. Pasminco subsequently rented out the houses in the buffer zone to people with no children under 12 years of age.

The Cooks' home, located in Fourth Street on the rise of the hill directly opposite and facing the smelting furnace rooms, was excluded from the buffer zone.

In December 1994 - January 1995 a Commission of Inquiry was held to make recommendations regarding Pasminco's proposal to increase production. During the Inquiry, community action group NO LEAD argued strongly that for the protection of the community and the environment, Pasminco should enclose the smelting furnace rooms and the raw material and sinter handling areas. Spokesperson Theresa Gordon says, "NO LEAD believes that these sources of fugitive emissions are the biggest contributors to blood lead levels". However, the Commission made no such recommendation.

In 1993, the Lake Macquarie Environmental Health Liason Committee was established in response community concerns to deal with the lead issue. It consisted of representatives from the Environment Protection Authority (EPA), Hunter Pubic Health Unit, Lake Macquarie City Council (LMCC), Pasminco and the community. This committee then set up a Remediation Management Centre and in 1995 established a Remediation Management Committee. A Project Manager and Administrative Assistant were appointed to oversee remediation activities to be carried out. EPA, NSW Health, LMCC and Pasminco provided funds of $240,000. In September 1995, a $200,000 grant was received from the Environmental Rehabilitation and Restoration Trust of the EPA, and in November 1995 an additional $100,000 was provided by Pasminco. Further funding of $1.5 million each has recently been provided by EPA, NSW Health and Pasminco, bringing the overall total to $5.04 million.

One of the main initial strategies of the Remediation Management Committee was the remediation of some 18 houses where children had recently recorded blood lead levels greater than 15 g/dL.

Samantha Cook was one of these children. In August 1995, aged 3, she had become generally unwell, with symptoms of lethargy, stomach pains, loss of appetite, constipation alternating with diarrhoea, and a high temperature. She was experiencing respiratory problems which necessitated the use of a ventilator, and coughing up extremely thick mucous. She was tested at John Hunter hospital for whooping cough, but these tests proved negative. By December 1995 she had lost the use of her legs, which were swollen and covered with bruises. She was referred to a paediatric specialist. The specialist was unable to see her until January 1996 by which time the swelling and bruising had subsided. He could offer only a diagnosis of "fleeting viral arthritis". When bone scan X rays showed possible lead lines in her bones, blood lead tests were ordered. These showed Samantha's blood lead level in July 1996 to be 34 g/dL.

At this time, Roslyn knew of no other child outside of the buffer zone with high blood lead levels. Since then she has become aware that there was an 18-month-old boy in the same street who had a blood lead of 39 g/dL. Lead assessor Graeme Waller, who provides lead testing and analytical services in Boolaroo, has since tested this child’s shed baby teeth. They showed lead levels of 126 g/g and 93 /g, a level Graeme Waller described as "unusually high". Samantha has not yet lost her first teeth, so it is not known how high her lead levels may have been when she was a toddler, the most vulnerable time for lead exposure.

Soil samples from Cooks' property tested in 1996 prior to remediation, registered lead levels in parts per million (ppm) of

Front yard soil 2,651 ppm, Back yard soil 1,009 ppm, Ceiling dust (from the ceiling void) contained 16,800 ppm.

300 ppm is the level of lead in soil which has been adopted by the Australia and New Zealand Environment and Conservation Council (ANZECC) and the NHMRC as the level above which further investigation should occur.

Testing of dust within the home revealed the following lead levels in micrograms per metre squared (g/m):

  • Front bedroom (window well) where Samantha slept 12,333 g/m
  • Front hallway 10,833 g/m
  • Chimney in family room 7,950 g/m
  • Hardiplank walls of house 2,974 g/m

Although the acute symptoms of her illness passed, Samantha has been left with learning difficulties, behavioural problems and sleep disorders, all believed to be symptoms of lead poisoning.

By December 1996, Roslyn's meticulous and unremitting house cleaning had brought Samantha's blood lead level down to 30 g/dL. Her gruelling daily regime included vacuuming the entire house with a vacuum cleaner fitted with a HEPA filter, then washing the floors and wet-dusting all surfaces, while trying to keep her hyper-active daughter inside the house in order to avoid further contamination. During this month, the Cooks' home was remediated. Leaded ceiling dust was removed from the roof cavity; all wall vents were sealed; all cracks in internal mouldings were sealed with a flexible sealant; gaps between skirtings and floors were sealed; gaps in the tongue-and-groove ceilings in the living room, kitchen and bathroom were sealed. Carpets were removed, and the house vacuumed with a HEPA filter vacuum cleaner. The yard was topsoiled with 10mm of fresh soil.

The child's blood lead level went up to 32 g/dL. Although knowing that tests can produce readings that are out by one or two points, the Cook's were understandably distressed. "Samantha's lead level has gone up, not down, and we've just had enough" Roslyn said. "We want some answers." She went to the local newspaper with her daughter's story, hoping that somehow publicity would draw attention to their plight, and with it some assistance. Instead she received anonymous rape threats from "voices muffled, on the phone", and threats to her horses, agisted nearby. Fishing hooks, broken glass and metal screws were found in the horses' feed, and the paddock fences were cut. Her daughter's horse died in strange circumstances one night.

By July 1997, seven months after the remediation, Samantha's lead level had gone down to 24 g/dL, but tests by Graeme Waller showed that dust on the front wall of the house, which had been completely repainted after the remediation in February, had lead levels of 5935 g/m. This is the same wall which prior to remediation had registered a lead level of 2974 g/m.

Roslyn's children were already virtual prisoners in their own home, forbidden to play outside in the yard for fear of further contamination. Windows were rarely opened, and then only fractionally. Desperate to reduce Samantha's blood lead level, Roslyn struggled on with her regime of daily vacuuming, floor washing and wet dusting the entire house.

In Pasminco's August newsletter "Community Report", it is stated that in June 1997 the 'lead in air' reading at the Sixth St monitor was 1.9 g/m and in July 1997 it was 2.7 g/m. However, according to Trevor Henderson of the Newcastle EPA, because the Sixth Street monitor is about 30m higher than the level of the houses, it is not representative of the air the community breathes. At the Fourth Street monitor the levels were 1.1 g/m for June 1997 and 1.2 g/m for July 1997. The NHMRC goal is to be below 1.5 g/m, however outside the buffer zone the Department of Urban Affairs and Planning have set a level of below 1.0 g/m with 95% compliance for every sixth day reading after 31st Dec. 1997.

When Roslyn contacted Pasminco in an attempt to find out the source of this new high lead level on her house, their response was to ask if she had painted the house with leaded paint. The Remediation Committee have since commissioned the CSIRO to establish whether the source of the lead was current emissions or dust from old slag. At the time of publication, this question still remains unanswered.

On the evening of Friday 5 September 1997, three explosions in Pasminco rocked Boolaroo. According to an EPA representative, a fault in some copper cooling blocks allowed water to leak into the smelter, exploding when it contacted the molten slag. More explosions occurred for the same reason on 10 September1997, and again on 5 November 1997.

The explosions on 5 September 1997 cracked eleven windowpanes of the closed-in veranda at the front of the Cooks' house and caused many of the areas which had been sealed by the remediation team to open up overnight. Of particular concern to Roslyn is that the roof and living room ceilings have opened. With the subsequent explosions, more of the gaps sealed in the remediation process have opened.

Pasminco agreed to replace the windows only. Roslyn has received no response to a letter in which she notified them that she held them responsible for all the damage.

She approached her own insurance company. Building and Engineering consultant B.J.Compton in a report to Roslyn’s insurance company, stated "We do not accept that the damage evidenced is explosion related. Due to the type of foundations, and the materials on which they are founded combined with the age and type of construction means the residence will always be subjected to movement which can result in the type of damage evidenced. Some of the damage can be directly contributed to age and poor fixing".

She then approached the Remediation Committee for assistance. On Wednesday 19 November 1997 she was told that further dust testing for her house would have be carried out before any decision would be made by the Committee about whether more work was required under the remediation program.

The results of this testing were reported in the Twelve Month Post Remediation report on 2 December. They showed recontamination of both front and backyard soil and ceiling cavity dust since the Six Month Post Remediation report, sufficient to constitute a "mild lead related biohazard potential" for the soil, and a "minimal to mild lead related biohazard potential" for the ceiling cavity dust.

Surface dust wipes done within the house show a significant reduction of lead levels. Graeme Waller described them as the lowest he’d ever come across, and attributed them to the effectiveness of Roslyn’s cleaning. However, Roslyn, who is small and slightly-built, says "I’m cleaning all the time. I’m so tired. How long do I have to keep on cleaning a whole house every day, trying to keep the lead out?" Her blood lead level rose from 9 g/dL to 13 g/dL in the six month period.

In spite of Roslyn’s heroic efforts, Samantha’s blood lead level did not come down at all. At the Twelve Month Post Remediation stage, it remains at 24 g/dL.

Samantha's blood lead level is still one the highest of all children in the area. At her last test at John Hunter Hospital, the nurse had to abandon efforts to obtain blood from her right arm, as it was too scarred from previous tests. Roslyn's voice shakes when she talks of the need for further testing, a traumatic experience for both mother and child in this instance. She has recently been told that Samantha may need to be put onto special drugs to control her hyperactivity and lack of concentration.

She has no confidence that further remediation of their home will solve anything, as explosions of the type which have undone the previous remediation work happen at Pasminco on average about three times a year, as stated by an EPA representative at the most recent Liason Committee meeting on 19 November 1997.

In desperation, Roslyn has written to the Hon Craig Knowles, the Minister for Urban Affairs and Planning, the consent authority for Pasminco's development, claiming that the consent conditions issued by his department have failed to reasonably protect her child.

Quoting the Newcastle Herald's headlines of 28.8.97:

"Pasminco Profit Soars, with Room to Improve –

The 1996/97 net profit of zinc giant Pasminco Ltd surged 70% to $64.7 million yesterday despite the company's admission that operations were still misfiring"

she questioned whether her child's health and potential had been sacrificed for Pasminco's increased profit margins.

"It is my firm belief that remediation will never work while ever Pasminco is allowed to continue to operate with its furnace rooms and raw materials handling areas open to contaminate this community. No other smelter anywhere in the world would be allowed to continue in this archaic manner when situated so close to a community" she said.

An EPA representative stated that the policy with Pasminco has been not to fully enclose, but to identify individual sources of emissions and focus on ways of dealing with them, either by changing the operation, changing the technology or working on better ‘end-of-pipe’ collection of the waste stream. He said that these were cost effective methods aimed at meeting air quality standards set down in the company’s consent conditions. He said that two action strategies had been identified to deal with stack emissions, and ten action strategies for fugitive emissions. Some of the company’s consent conditions will be met by 31.12.97, the date for compliance, and some will "drag over".

Desperate to get Samantha away from Boolaroo, the Cooks have had their house on the market for the last eighteen months, with two different agents. In all that time, only two potential buyers have even looked at it. Both had young families.

The Cooks have asked Pasminco four times to buy their house. Pasminco have refused on the grounds that the house is outside the buffer zone.

The value of Cook’s house represents 0.15 % of Pasminco’s profit for 1996/97 alone.

Roslyn says "I feel like we have been shut up in a box here and we can't get away.

It's got to end. I can't even sell my house to get my kids away from here."

In Port Pirie in South Australia, site of the Pasminco Port Pirie Smelter, since 1986 the government have purchased "a couple of hundred of houses’ according to the Manager of Family Services Sue Barnes at the Environmental Health Centre there. These were houses deemed by case workers and building officers to be unsuitable for remediation for structural reasons. Fair market value is determined by the Lands Department. Some have cost as much as $58,000, in an area where land values are low compared to NSW values.

The Remediation Committee’s Project Manager Denis Pryor said "I don’t think house purchase was ever considered in the Plan of Management or the Plan of Action prepared by the Committee".


1 "Living with Lead - a Draft Plan for addressing Lead Contamination in the Boolaroo and Argenton areas" edited by Brian Gilligan, on behalf of the Lake Macquarie Community Advisory Committee.

2 "Lake Macquarie - An Environmental Reapppraisal" Review Seminar, July 1991, Belmont NSW - Batley, in Whitehead, J.H., Kidd, R.W. and Bridgman, H.A. (Eds) 1991.

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