Port Pirie lead smelter operator Nyrstar urged to reduce emissions to protect children

Updated April 09, 2019 08:08:34

Port Pirie’s smelter needs to slash its lead emissions by about 80 per cent if children are to be protected from developmental problems and behavioural disorders, according to new research.

Key points:

  • Lead emissions from the controversial smelter are continuing to endanger children
  • A new report has found airborne sulphur dioxide is also a problem in Port Pirie
  • Nyrstar says it remains committed to reducing emissions

The Macquarie University research also found the Nyrstar plant’s sulphur dioxide emissions had breached national and international standards, which the report’s author said could be linked to spikes in hospital admissions for breathing problems.

Lead exposure in children is linked to slowed intellectual development, with the Macquarie study suggesting about 13 IQ points are lost with every 10 micrograms per decilitre of lead in the blood.

“Current smelting emissions continue to pose a clear risk of harm to Port Pirie children,” the report concludes.

“Allowable emissions must be lowered significantly to limit adverse childhood health outcomes including respiratory illness and IQ, academic achievement and socio-behavioural problems.”

Local mother Trixie Slee said she followed public health guidelines to protect her children from lead.

“I damp dust every day — so benches, places where we’ve got food, tables, kitchen benchtops — we wipe them every day. I vacuum everyday, we don’t wear shoes on carpet,” she said.

But the routine did not stop her eldest son Bailey from recording high lead levels when he was two.

“When he had a high lead level I was a bit shocked because I’m a bit of a clean freak,” Ms Slee said.

“Being my first [child], he actually didn’t even play in dirt.”

The new research suggests the approach used by Ms Slee is not protecting children from lead exposure because it put too much of the onus on parents.

The data shows an increase in the blood-lead concentration of Port Pirie’s children, while the number of children with “harmful” concentrations of lead in their blood has almost tripled.

“There’s a range of studies that show educational advice for people to clean homes doesn’t work,” report lead author Mark Taylor said.

“In the case of Port Pirie, there’s such an onslaught of lead in the air — that’s becoming deposited in homes, in gardens, and in public places — that it’s impossible to keep track of it, and it’s virtually impossible to escape exposure.”

Professor Taylor said his research backed up previous studies that showed the only way to protect children was stopping the emissions in the first place.

“We calculated that the allowable amount of lead should be at least 80 per cent lower than the current standard,” he said.

“At present, over 50 per cent of the children exceed that national standard, and that puts them at significant risk of harm.”

According to the World Health Organisation, there is no safe level of lead exposure.

Sulphur dioxide levels drive hospital visits

Professor Taylor’s research also found the air concentration of smelting by-product sulphur dioxide breached the one-hour standard 30 times last year.

The report suggests rises in sulphur dioxide are linked to increased presentations at hospital emergency departments by Port Pirie residents with respiratory illnesses.

Sulphur dioxide causes “coughing, mucus secretion, aggravation of asthma, chronic bronchitis and increased susceptibility to infection”, the report says.

“The fact that current regulatory frameworks impose no licence limits on [sulphur dioxide] exceedances in Port Pirie also needs to be addressed.”

But Environment Protection Agency director of science and information Keith Baldry said sulphur dioxide levels had peaked following a smelter upgrade, and were in fact in decline.

“Emissions of sulphur dioxide substantially reduced in 2018, and we’ve seen with the new acid plant further reductions,” he said.

The recently completed upgrade of the smelter was also supposed to limit emissions.

Lead levels continued to rise because its operator Nyrstar was forced to run the old and new plants at the same time.

But when the old smelter is turned off completely by the end of 2019, it said, both lead and sulphur dioxide emissions should halve.

Data released yesterday showed Port Pirie’s average air lead concentrations for the March quarter had decreased slightly, after the company nearly breached its licence last quarter.

“Nyrstar is undergoing the most significant transformation of the Port Pirie smelter in its history and is committed to reducing emissions as a result,” the company said in a statement.

“That is the focus of the company and its entire workforce and Nyrstar has been working closely with the community through the decommissioning process.

“When complete it will be among the world’s most advanced facilities of its kind.”

Port Pirie children carrying lifelong burden

Port Pirie Mayor Leon Stephens said the redevelopment, which the South Australian Government co-funded, was in the interests of everyone in the city.

“It’s getting tuned up as we speak, and I think I can only look to the future for our community to say that this isn’t going to be a problem going forward,” he said.

“If it is, well then maybe we have to rethink what we’re doing.”

The ABC spoke to several parents who said the burden of protecting children from lead fell too heavily on parents.

But Ms Slee said she had faith in Port Pirie’s targeted lead abatement program. Her younger children have all recorded lead levels within national guidelines.

“We all know that too much lead in your system is not good for you, but we also know and are given the tools to reduce it. And in a lot of cases it works, but not all,” she said.

Professor Taylor said he was still concerned.

“We’re seeing children in Port Pirie who are being significantly exposed, and it puts them at a significant risk of harm,” he said.

“The evidence shows that risk of harm does not decrease with age.

“As those children age they carry the burden of lead exposure right the way through for the rest of their lives.”

Topics: family-and-children, health, health-policy, rural, mining-environmental-issues, port-pirie-5540, port-broughton-5522, port-augusta-5700, whyalla-5600, adelaide-5000, sa, australia

First posted April 09, 2019 07:00:07

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