Dangerous lead pollution in Broken Hill


By Steve Painter

Broken Hill residents have called for a clean-up of the city after blood tests on local children revealed dangerous levels of lead, one of the major minerals in the rich ore body that gives the city its life in the arid far west of NSW.

About 30% of the children tested had blood-lead levels of more than 25 micrograms per decilitre, the Australian safety level. This standard is presently under review: it is well above international levels. The United States safety level is 10 micrograms. Using the US standard, many more children would have recorded dangerous levels.

While mining company spokespersons have claimed the high readings could be due to naturally high levels of lead in the local environment due to erosion from the ore body over centuries, local residents say in recent years the town has frequently been showered with a grey, lead-laden, windborne dust from open cut mines, particularly after blasting. Winds still raise dust storms from the pits, some of which are now abandoned.

A similar discovery of high blood-lead levels at Port Pirie in 1988 led to a $30 million SA government-financed clean-up of the industrial town. Broken Hill residents say a similar clean-up may be necessary in their city.

Lead poisoning can cause brain disorders, including learning difficulties, hyperactivity and poor concentration. Lead can also affect other body tissue, including bones, teeth and kidneys. It is thought lead levels might be particularly high in very young children because they are more likely to put their fingers in their mouths after playing in the dirt.

The Broken Hill Ratepayers' Association has been fighting for two years for action on dust from the open cuts and associated dumps.

Meanwhile, children living near the Boolaroo lead-zinc smelter in Newcastle have also recorded high blood-lead levels. The tests on 140 children averaged 15 micrograms, five points above the US safety level. Twelve children recorded levels higher than 25 micrograms, the inadequate Australian standard.