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  QUESTION: Lead contamination along train tracks, 12 May 2003, New South Wales Australia

I am quite relieved to find your site and know that there are people concerned and willing to do something to address this issue.

I have a question on the level of lead in residence areas near the rail tracks. If you will observe the Western Line in NSW, coal is transported through rail and traverses a number of residential suburbs particularly Parramatta, Westmead, Pendle Hill etc.

I'd like to verify that the level of lead from coal dust is safe in my area. Is it possible to obtain some test findings or possibly conduct one myself with your help. As a parent of a 3 year old daughter who is very lively, I'd like to eliminate the thought that eventually lead poisoning will claim whatever smartness and vibrancy from my child.

Thank you for taking on this endeavour and please inform me how we can support (in a non-financial sense as well). Since we participate in local church activities and play groups, this could be a medium for disseminating very important information.

Thank you again and looking forward to your feedback.

ANSWER: 29 Jul 2003

Dear Jose,

This is an interesting point that you raise. I have not previously read or heard of anyone hypothesising that elevated dust and soil lead levels along train tracks may be from the dust lost during the transport of coal by train. I have heard of or read of several other explanations for the elevated levels typically reported along train tracks (eg on the Harbour Bridge AND around Sydenham Station when ceiling dust lead levels were measured by the Sydney Aircraft Noise Insulation Project - although I've not heard of a study in your area) including the following sources:

  • the red paint of "red rattlers" (the old carriages which preceded the silver ones we now have)
  • lead was apparently used as a lubricant between the overhead wires and the pantograph ["A device on the roof of an electric locomotive or multiple unit through which electric power is drawn from the overhead wires" REF:
  • lead brake linings
  • lead emissions from coal-burning steam trains
  • dust lost from uncovered loads of lead ore or lead concentrate being transported eg along the tracks between Broken Hill and Port Pirie.

The best way to find out if there are elevated lead levels in dust or soil originating in trains would be to undertake isotopic fingerprinting of all possible sources of lead contamination in soil and dust near the train tracks but this is quite an expensive project so you would have to convince the State Rail Authority or similar body to fund it. See "A Brief Review Of The Lead Isotope Fingerprinting Method" by Professor Brian Gulson.

The only other option is just to collect soil and dust samples (three soil samples for a particular site is regarded as a minimum) and send them to a lab for lead analysis. For labs see or contact The LEAD Group to order a comprehensive Do-it-yourself lead assessment kit including instructions and sampling equipment, plus a report with an interpretation of all the laboratory results (very useful).

It would be excellent if you were prepared to place lead-aware renovation booklets and factsheets in places where people can just take them. If you would like to provide a postal address we can post you as many copies as you think you can disseminate.

You will only know whether your three year old carries an excess lead load by taking her to the GP for a whole blood lead estimate. You can ask the doctor to mark the blood sample (or the referral if the blood is to be taken at a pathologist's) for bulk-billing under Medicare.

Please let us know how you go. Writing of your concerns about lead poisoning and lead contamination to your state and federal health and environment ministers is the most useful way to propose adequate government funding for the Lead Advisory Service Australia but having a letter or an article published in any local newsletter or newspaper is going to get the lead warning to more people directly.

Good Luck with it all.
Elizabeth O'Brien

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Last Updated 20 April 2012
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