MAC: Mines and Communities

Xstrata mining emissions causing lead poisoning in Mount Isa children: report

Published by MAC on 2013-06-19
Source: Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC)

Xstrata mining emissions causing lead poisoning in Mount Isa children: report

By Donna Field and staff

Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC)

17 June 2013

New research says mining emissions are a cause of lead poisoning in children in Mount Isa in north-west Queensland.

The research, published today in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Pollution, has found lead levels in dust from Xstrata's operations "form a significant pathway" for exposure.

Key points

And it accuses both government and industry of misleading the public about the cause of the lead poisoning, which can cause irreversible brain damage in children.

Team tested lead levels inside and outside homes

The study was partially funded by lawyers acting for residents, and claims to be the first complete assessment of the impacts of mining on Mount Isa's natural and urban environment since ore extraction began in 1931.

Researcher Professor Mark Taylor tested soil, dust and air near the mine between 2005 and 2008 - both inside and outside homes and public places like parks.

"The data in the study tells us that it is absolutely clear ... that those emissions are reaching the town and are the source and cause of lead that we find in the urban area of Mount Isa," he told the ABC.

"That pollution then resides in soils, dusts and aerosols whereby it can expose children to elevated blood lead levels."

Professor Taylor says immediate action is needed.

"Soils, sediments dusts are remediated in the town - there'll be no chance of really reducing and mitigating the significant risk that remains within the urban environment for their children," he said.

Lead's 'signature' matches Xstrata

Glencore-Xstrata has long argued that lead levels in the city result from nearby natural deposits and says the area remains a safe place to live and work.

The global mining giant is conducting its own research in the field, which it says is the most comprehensive study of its kind, investigating the natural and industrial pathways of lead and assessing the potential risk to people.

The company says scientific research supports the approach promoted to Mount Isa residents that a healthy, nutritious diet, personal hygiene, and a clean home support living safely with lead in the community.

But Professor Taylor says he found lead with a distinct chemical signature matching Xstrata's mining operations.

"I think nobody's done this sort of work before because nobody's been commissioned to do the study, nobody's wanted to find out necessarily the answer," he said.

"I was perplexed when I started looking at Mount Isa over a decade ago why there were no environmental studies of this nature."
2008 study found 11 per cent of local children had elevated lead levels

The report's findings raise the possibility of serious health issues for Mt Isa's youngest inhabitants.

Even relatively low levels of lead exposure can cause serious and in some cases irreversible brain damage.

Professor Taylor says his findings help to explain why a 2008 survey found 11 per cent of children in Mount Isa had elevated lead levels, including some so high they caused serious developmental problems.

"Our data show it - our previous research studies show it," he said.

"There is no other reasonable or feasible explanation for the source and cause of the lead poisoning in Mount Isa children."

Professor Taylor says lead emissions should be cut and better controlled.
Mayor questions report's findings

Mount Isa Mayor Tony McGrady says there is nothing new in the report and is critical of Professor Taylor's history with writing similar reports.

"We should not dismiss anything at all - but before people start getting excited they should understand and realise where this gentleman is coming from," he said.

"This gentleman has a history over many many years of furnishing similar reports to the one that he's done now."

Queensland's Mines Minister Andrew Cripps says a committee investigating lead levels in Mount Isa will review the new research.

"Obviously I think those matters will need to be followed up by the committee that's been appointed to the ongoing monitoring of that issue," he said.

'We have to be aware of it'

Mount Isa's Living with Lead Alliance says it does not believe residents will be deterred by the report.

The group works with the Queensland Government, Mount Isa Mines, and the local council to educate residents.

"People are very comfortable living here in Mount Isa and the issue - and we do have to be aware of it - it is an issue," chairman Rob Katter said.

"That's why we've got the Living With Lead Alliance to educate people living with it.

"It's always been here and it always will be here and I think everyone's very confident on the issue."

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