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Current blood lead levels "too high"

Monday, 17th January, 2011

The publication of two new studies on the effects of so-called "low" levels of bloodlead in children challenges the levels now regarded as acceptable in this country, according to a health group.

The annotated bibliographies, which were published last month, have been presented by The LEAD Group to the federal Health Minister, Nicola Roxon, and the federal Minister responsible for occupational health, Senator Chris Evans.

The LEAD (Lead Education and Abatement Design) Group is a nongovernment organisation and a health promotional charity, located in Sydney, that has been running for 20 years.

It was started by parents who were worried about lead levels and the group has now gone global, according to its president Elizabeth O'Brien.

Over the years, it has campaigned to remove lead from petrol and paint. It has 140 volunteers that research the effects of blood-lead levels to providean information and referral service.

The LEAD Group believes the blood lead levels which the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) and Safe Work Australia consider "acceptable" are too high, and it is calling for a fresh examination by both authorities of the evidence.

According to Ms O'Brien, the NHMRC is suggesting that any lead level over 10 micrograms per decilitre is of concern.

Safe Work Australia regards 50 micrograms per decilitre as the level at which intervention is required. Ms O'Brien said that a review of the latest research "could not fail to convince" the NHMRC and Safe Work Australia that a change in Australia's policy on lead is imperative.

"I don't see how they can ignore what the research is telling us," she said, "unless there is some policy reason which we don't know about but can only guess at.

"Lowering the so-called 'acceptable' level of blood lead would have implications for the public health system and for occupational health.

"Under the public health system, environmental testing for the source of the elevated blood lead levels would be required for more individuals.

"More workers would have to be removed from the source of the lead exposure, and employers would have to spend more on prevention of leadexposure at work.

"It is now acknowledged by health professionals that there is no such thing as a 'safe' level of blood lead." 

Ms O'Brien said every atom of lead in the blood stream can do damage and zero was the only safe level.

In the meantime, The LEAD Group is recommending that doctors order blood-lead tests for every child with learning difficulties, and for every adult with hypertension.

"This would be a start to revealing how widespread the impacts of lead are. Hypothecated state lead mining royalties and federal lead export earnings could help cover the costs."

Canada and the USA are reviewing their policies on lead, and the UK and Ireland are collecting data on elevated bloodlead levels.

Ms O'Brien said Australia should be leading the way in the protection of children because it was the world's largest exporter of lead.

(The bibliographies may be found at <http://www.lead.org.au/fs/fst67.html> and <http://www.lead.org.au/fs/fst68.html>).

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