Safe lead levels may be halved

 The national guideline for safe lead levels may soon be cut in half.

The blood lead level guidelines may be revised if the World Health Organisation (WHO) reduces its level of concern from the current ten micrograms per decilitre to five micrograms per decilitre, according to the Port Pirie Recorder.

A reduction could force Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council to follow suit.

A spokesperson told the Recorder that "while the council’s public statement says that everyone should have a level under 10 micro grams per decilitre, it also emphasises that research evidence on the effects of low-level lead exposure – particularly in children and pregnant women – gives no simple answer on what levels are ‘safe’ or ‘of concern’.

"If the scientific evidence is compelling, the council will consider revising the blood lead level in its public statement.

"At present the Lead Working Committee’s specific role is to advise on managing individual exposure to lead in Australia with the aim of developing a guide for health practitioners."

Lead smelting is carried out by Xstrata in Mt Isa and Nyrstar in Port Pirie.

Both towns have a historical issue with high blood lead levels, however recent studies in both Mt Isa and Port Pirie have found lead levels dropping in children to more acceptable standards.

Port Pirie recorded its lowest ever blood lead levels late last year.

A South Australian Health report found that from January until September the number of children with levels of less than ten micrograms per deciliter has increased from less than half in 2005 to around 75%.

On top of this, the geometric mean lead levels had also fallen to five micrograms per deciliter while the mean of children aged 24 months more than 11% in 2006 to only 5.9%.

However, SA Health noted that fewer children were tested this year.

Other Australian towns with active lead smelters have also registered a drop in local children’s blood lead levels.

In Esperance last year, a report by Golder Associates found that the levels of lead contamination no longer posed a risk to humans.

The Golder report said dangerously high levels should no longer exist at the port, as lead was no longer being handled.

"No short-term health risks were identified for children and adults, as levels of lead in rainwater, soil or dust were not high enough to cause acute health effects," it stated.

"No long-term health risks were identified for children and adults when realistic long-term predictions of exposure to lead and nickel were used."

However, the report recommended further clean ups and investigations into the remaining lead in rainwater and homes.

At Mount Isa, Xstrata has long been in focus for the effects its lead smelting has on the local populace.

Despite claims of lead poisoning, recent studies by Queensland health have shown a significant drop in the blood lead levels of children in Mount Isa.

The study found that only 4.8% of children tested showed lead intensity above that recommended by the WHO, a drop from 11.3% in earlier studies.

Last year Xstrata faced a $1 million lawsuit from a woman alleging her daughter suffers from lead poisoning.

She claimed her nine-year-old daughter was diagnosed with irreversible brain damage after living in Mount Isa.

The law suit was filed against Xstrata Mount Isa Mines, Mount Isa City Council, and the Queensland government.

Regarding the potential slashing of the safe lead level limit, SA Health stated that the priority for everyone involved is to continue to reduce the lead levels of children in Port Pirie with the goal of having all children below 10 micrograms per decilitre, in line with the council guidelines.

"SA Health remains vigilant in monitoring levels in children and will continue to work with the smelter, local council and Port Pirie community to continue to improve these levels," a spokesperson told the Recorder.

There is no set date for WHO’s decision. 

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