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Lead Issues including North Lake Macquarie

Lead in North Lake Macquarie

Lake Macquarie is located ten minutes from Newcastle. Its centrepiece, the Lake, is one of the largest coastal saltwater lakes in Australia. North Lake Macquarie consists of three suburbs. The suburbs are Argenton, Boolaroo and Speers Point. Boolaroo was established in the 1890's as a housing estate for the workers of the local lead smelter which operated between 1897 and 2003.

Studies from 1991 onwards found elevated blood lead levels in children who lived within several kilometres of the smelter. In 1991, 84% of children aged one to four years in Boolaroo and Argenton had blood lead levels of 10 micrograms per decilitre (µg/dL) or above, a level at which learning and behavioural problems may occur. Wide spread soil contamination was evidenced with 70% of samples having lead levels exceeding the level for further investigation of 300 parts per million (ppm).  The use of slag as landfill contributed to the spread of contaminated soil in the area.

Reports of elevated blood lead levels in children living in North Lake Macquarie resulted in the establishment of the Environmental Health Centre in Boolaroo in 1996. The Centre aimed to reduce children's blood lead levels and implement a range of strategies including health promotion, greening, lead abatement and a blood lead testing program.

The Environmental Health Centre conducted an annual blood lead monitoring program for the children living in the North Lake Macquarie area. From 1998 to 2001 a household abatement program provided carpet and ceiling vacuuming, removal of visible slag and top dressing of soil. There was however no appreciable reduction in children’s blood lead levels as a result.

After the smelter’s closure, average blood lead levels in children under five years of age steadily declined. As the lead-in-air levels decreased, the average blood lead levels in children decreased from 9.6 µg/dL in 2003/04 to 6.8 µg/dL in 2004/05 and to 4.5 µg/dL in 2005/06. The proportion of children under five with lead levels greater than 10 µg/dL also declined from 40% in 1997 to 26% in 2004, 17% in 2005 and 7% in 2006.  A survey in 2015 found that all children tested had a blood lead level below 5 µg/dL.

These results suggest that while the smelter was in operation, the main source of lead for young children in the area was recent, rather than historical, smelter emissions.

The final  Environmental Health Centre Annual Report 2005-2006 Community Information Paper was produced in 2006.  With encouraging results from the last round of testing in June 2006, there was no longer a need for the Environmental Health Centre to have a continued presence in the community.  Services previously provided by the Environmental Health Centre had been handed over to other appropriate service providers.

However the soil and dust in the local area is still likely to contain lead from the past operations of the smelter. In addition, flaking and deteriorating lead-based paint from within the older homes has increasingly been recognised as a cause of elevated blood lead levels in young children. Therefore, care should still be taken with personal and home hygiene for children and pregnant women to minimise lead exposure.

Lead awareness activities have continued for residents in the area including:

  • Local doctors being reminded in an annual letter of the need to be vigilant for exposures or behaviours that could place young children at risk of elevated blood lead levels.
  • The distribution of hundreds of “Final Whistle” booklets to local residents, libraries and schools in 2010. The booklet contains personal narratives of local people living with lead and the ongoing issues. The Final Whistle booklets are available from Lake Macquarie City Council.
  • A DVD promoting lead-safe behaviours addressing both contaminated soils and lead paint removal was distributed in the North Lake Macquarie area in late 2006. Lead Safe Blitz is a step-by-step guide to protecting families from lead.
  • Blood Lead testing was carried out in June and July of 2015 for children between six months and five years of age and pregnant women living in the North Lake Macquarie, to ascertain whether they have elevated blood lead levels.  The results of this testing detailed in the 2015 Blood Screening report are reassuring, with all blood lead levels below 5 µ/dL and confirm the previous downward trend of blood lead levels in young children. Results also confirm that children’s blood lead levels in the past appear to have been driven by fresh smelter emissions more so than lead contaminated soils.

Lead - Frequently Asked Questions

Lead is a naturally occurring heavy metal, often used in industry. It can be dispersed widely in the environment through contamination of water, dust, soil, and some paints.

Lead can affect everyone, but children under five years of age are at greater risk because they tend to put their hands or other objects into their mouths; they absorb more ingested lead than adults; and their brains are still developing so they are more sensitive to the effects of lead.

Lead gets into our bodies when we breathe in lead dust or fumes in the air or if we eat food or drink water that contains lead.

Why is there lead in soil?

Soils can contain lead in varying amounts, depending on their geological source. Factors which affect the amount of lead in soil include:

  • Age and building materials used in houses. Most houses built before 1970 contain lead-based paint. After 1970 lead levels in paint dropped, but old paint may be unsafe if disturbed during renovations. Slag, containing lead, has also been used in parks and gardens and homes as fill and/or to provide drainage.
  • Proximity to emissions. Homes near industries that produce or use lead may have lead dust fall into their homes or gardens.
  • Homes near heavy traffic may have higher levels of lead in soil due to exhaust from lead petrol, although this has decreased with the use of unleaded petrol.
  • People may bring lead into their homes and yards as a result of their work or hobbies (eg lead solder, furniture restoration and lead sinkers).

A level of 300 parts per million (ppm) of lead in soil has been set as a level for further investigation by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC).

What should I do if I have lead in soil?

Homeowners who think they may have lead in their soil should get advice from the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage or from their local council on reducing soil lead levels.

The NSW Lead Management Action Plan (NSW Interdepartmental Lead Taskforce, Environment Protection Authority, 1994) sets the following levels for remediation which could be used as guidelines for a site specific / child specific residential property:

  • < 300 ppm - no action
  • 300 - 1,500 ppm - grass cover or other appropriate barrier
  • 1,500 - 5,000 ppm - top dress with 50 mm clean soil and grass cover
  • 5,000 ppm - soil replacement (top 200 mm)

Management strategies should recognise that there is a difference between contaminated land that is a direct and immediate health risk and that which does not pose a health risk (but should still be recognised as a potential hazard).

What can the homeowner do?

If your home or gardens are contaminated by lead, the following suggestions can minimise the risk of lead exposure:

Remove contaminants

  • Wash hands thoroughly after playing outside and touching pets, paying particular attention to dirt from under the nails and ingrained dirt
  • Wash hands before eating and preparing food
  • Thoroughly rinse fruit and vegetables before eating
  • Wash toys, dummies and bottles frequently

Nutrition

Children should have a healthy and varied diet.  Children who have dietary deficiencies in iron, calcium, and vitamin C are more susceptible to harm from lead exposure. Diets with sufficient iron and calcium help reduce the absorption of lead into the blood and Vitamin C may help the kidneys to remove it.

Garden and outside play

Children need safe areas in which to play. Plans for your garden should include:

  • Barriers over bare soil, such as grass, garden beds, mulch or bark chips
  • Separate areas used by adults for hobbies or activities that may generate sources of lead exposure (eg stripping down old furniture or spray painting of cars)
  • Keep painted surfaces that are accessible to children in good repair
  • A cover over the sandpit to protect it from pets or other animals that may carry lead

After working in the garden, it is important that shoes be removed or cleaned prior to entering the home, as they can carry lead onto floors and carpets. Children who play in the garden should always take their shoes off prior to coming indoors for the same reason.

Vegetable gardens

Research indicates that some leafy vegetables collect lead-bearing dusts more readily from the environment than other vegetables eg lettuce and silverbeet. These plants are not recommended for consumption by young children or pregnant women when grown in lead contaminated gardens.

Always remember to thoroughly wash all fruit and vegetables prior to storage and eating. This removes any surface dirt which may contain lead.

Compost and mulch are excellent, natural ways of improving the nutrient content of your vegetable beds. Compost provides organic matter - which helps to reduce the amount of accessible lead in the soil of vegetable beds. Increased soil quality will also promote vegetable growth.

Keeping of chickens

Poultry foraging for food in lead contaminated soils may swallow enough lead to cause their eggs to become contaminated with lead and could be unsuitable for consumption. To protect poultry from lead contamination:

  • Do not allow the poultry to range freely through the yard
  • Keep poultry in a poultry house paved with a concrete or bitumen floor.  A 100–150 mm layer of straw, wood shavings or rice hulls should be placed on the floor of the poultry house.  The litter should be kept at a depth of 150 mm by adding more fresh material when necessary
  • All poultry require access to a dust bath.  Provide a large shallow pan (such as a kitty litter tray or children's wading pool) filled with loose uncontaminated soil, sand, hardwood ashes or a combination of these within the poultry house
  • Ensure the poultry house is constructed of materials free of lead
  • Wash eggs prior to use

Where else can lead come from in the home?

Paint

Nearly all cases of acute lead poisoning in children admitted to children's hospitals in recent years have been attributed to home renovation activities.

Most houses built before 1970 contain lead paint. After 1970, lead levels in paint dropped but old paint and flaking paint may be unsafe if disturbed during renovations. Unsafe renovations where old lead paint is removed or prepared for over-painting are the most common causes of lead poisoning.

Open-flame torches create dangerous fumes. Dry sanding without water creates lead dust. Fumes and dust can be breathed in, eaten or can contaminate the house, its contents and surrounding areas. You can renovate safely if you take precautions and use the right equipment.

Lead contaminated dust

Many older Australian homes and buildings have lead dust in their ceiling cavities, wall cavities and under the floor. This may have come from industrial pollution, exhaust emission from use of leaded petrol, unsafe renovations or demolitions.

To reduce this hazard, it is recommended that cracks, ceiling roses and some vents be sealed to stop dust leaking into rooms. Also, wet wipe surfaces before preparing food or drinks, window sills, ledges and flat surfaces at least weekly and after vacuuming and wet mop rather than sweep floors.

What about lead in fish caught in the lake?

In 1997 studies conducted by a steering committee managed by the Hunter Public Health Unit found that lead levels in fish were an average of 0.22 mg/kg which is under the food standard level of 0.5 mg/kg. The Public Health Unit recommended that fish intake be limited to 1.35 kg of fish per week to prevent excess selenium intake which should also protect against excess lead accumulation, however, lead in fish should be taken into account in the management of children with already elevated lead levels.

National Health Medical Research Council

Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council’s (NHMRC) recent review of lead exposure confirmed there is convincing evidence for adverse health impacts if a person has a blood lead level of 10 µg/dL or greater.

Young children are more likely to be exposed to lead, to absorb it and accumulate it during their important developing years. The NHMRC recognises that most Australians live in areas where there are small amounts of lead. It recommends that a blood lead level greater than 5 µg/dL may indicate avoidable exposure to lead and should be investigated and reduced, particularly for young children and pregnant women. For further information, see the NHMRC information paper.

Learn more about lead

Watch Lead Safe Blitz for information about reducing lead exposure in and around your home.

Lead Blitz YouTube Video

Visit the NSW Health website and read the NSW Health fact sheet – Lead Exposure in Children
Read the Blood Lead Screening in North Lake Macquarie, 2015 final report
Read the Community Information Paper with results from 2005-06 blood lead testing
For further information, see the NHMRC information paper.
See the Department of Environment Fact sheet – Lead

If you have any more questions please contact the HNE Population Health Unit via phone 4924 6477 or email.