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Lead level review

Saturday, 31st March, 2012

By Andrew Robertson

Almost half of all Broken Hill children who had their blood lead level tested last year would be above anticipated new national guidelines which could come into effect this year.

The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) is considering lowering the blood lead level considered acceptable in people to below five micrograms per decilitre, or half the current level of 10.

According to Far West Local Health District data, 87 per cent of Broken Hill children who were tested last year had a blood lead level below 10 micrograms per decilitre.

But 45 per cent recorded a blood lead level over five.

A member of the BH Lead Reference Group, Frances Boreland, said yesterday she expected the new guidelines to be introduced eventually, and possibly as early as this year.

She said in recent years Germany had lowered its blood lead level benchmarks, and the United States was following suit.

“It’s hard to tell for certain but my feeling is it’s much more likely than not (to be introduced),” Ms Boreland said.

“I think once the international guidelines start turning over then ours tend to follow on.

“Many US states have a blood lead level goal of five or lower.”

Health authorities have been working to reduce high blood lead levels among Broken Hill residents since the early 1990s when the full extent of the problem was discovered.

Work began to remediate dozens of contaminated homes at the same time awareness campaigns were run warning people of the dangers of exposure to lead dust on their children.

Regular testing of children also started and continues today.

But research was now finding blood lead levels once considered acceptable did have an effect, said Ms Boreland, who is a research fellow and Phd candidate with the Department of Rural Health.

“So ... over the last few years (there’s been) more and more evidence that blood lead levels we thought were okay have an effect at a population level.

“The evidence is starting to look like there’s not really any safe level.”

She she there was evidence that lead effected children who had levels regarded as acceptable today.

“If you compare a group of kids with a blood lead level of around 10 with a group of kids whose blood lead level is below five, on average the higher lead level group has a slightly lower IQ ... and you’d have a few more kids with learning difficulties and few less really bright kids.”

Ms Boreland said a change in the guidelines might require a similar response to the one initiated in the early 1990s.

“There will be a much bigger demand for services, so there will be a need for much more funding to help deal with that,” she said.

“I think part of it would be around making people aware again that lead is still an important issue in Broken Hill because there are lots of people who think it’s kind of gone away or no as important as it used to be.

“It changes everything really.”

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