Aboriginal children’s blood lead level double that of other children in Broken Hill, study finds
More than 75 per cent of Aboriginal children under five in Broken Hill have unsafe levels of lead in their blood, according to a new report.
The Western NSW Health Intelligence Unit 2017 Lead Report released on Thursday found that only 22 per cent of Indigenous children had a blood lead level below the safe level of 5 micrograms per decilitre (g/dL).
- The latest report into children’s blood lead levels in Broken Hill has been released
- While the blood lead levels are a concern, health workers are pleased with an increase in the number of children being tested
- Exposure to lead can result in a number of health issues, including a detrimental impact on cognitive ability
The average blood lead levels of Indigenous children rose to almost double that of all other children in Broken Hill (8.7 g/dL versus 4.6g/dL), despite a reduction in that number last year.
“It could be that the increase in the mean is a result of more Aboriginal children getting tested, but overall it does demonstrate a disparity,” Far West Local Health District health protection manager Priscilla Stanley said.
A total of 221 Aboriginal children presented for blood screening — more than ever before.
Maari Ma Aboriginal Health Corporation director of corporate services Cathy Dyer said the increase in regular testing was a step in the right direction.
“The statistics show over 100 per cent of the children in our region who identify as Aboriginal in the census are coming in for checks and being tested regularly,” she said.
Minimising the effects
The history of lead in Broken Hill has been well documented and is largely attributed to the mining works of BHP, which started in the city in 1885.
Exposure to lead, especially in children, is generally caused by ingestion and can lead to a number of health implications.
Lead contamination spreads across Broken Hill via windblown dust from the slag heap of the original BHP mine. (ABC Broken Hill: Rhys Carman)
Lead Report key findings:
- Only 22 per cent of Aboriginal children tested had blood lead levels below 5 g/dL
- 58 per cent of non-Indigenous children had blood lead levels below 5 g/dL
- The average blood lead level for Aboriginal children was 8.7 g/dL
- The average blood lead level for all other children was 4.6 g/dL
- 221 Aboriginal children were tested, a record number
“Across Broken Hill, not just for Aboriginal children, the issue with lead is that it has the potential to impact on cognitive ability while the child’s brain is still growing,” Ms Dyer said.
“Under the age of five it’s important to be as protective of the brain as possible.
“That’s why we do the testing and try to keep lead out of a child’s environment as much as possible.”
The Broken Hill Environmental Lead Program has offered household remediation in the past, but only for the homes of children who have recorded high lead levels.
A Household Dust Survey conducted earlier this year analysed indoor dust samples from the general public for the first time.
Researchers from Macquarie University recorded lead readings of up to 24 times the “safe” level of 300 milligrams per kilogram, and noted lead levels were often higher indoors than outdoors.
“We’re spending 90 per cent of our time indoors, so children are going to be contaminated by household dust far more than they would from outdoor dust these days,” researcher Amelia Dani said.
The researchers said lead ingestion could be minimised with good hygiene practices and regular cleaning.
“If you don’t vacuum your house regularly, lead will accumulate,” study coordinator Kara Fry said.
“In Broken Hill, you might need to wipe down your surfaces every day, you might need to vacuum every day to minimise your exposure.”
An x-ray fluorescence spectrometer shows readings of lead, zinc and manganese that far exceed the ‘safe’ level of 300mg/kg. (ABC Broken Hill: Sara Tomevska)
More work to be done
The 4.1 microgram difference between the average blood lead levels of Indigenous and non-Indigenous children is cause for concern, those involved said.
It is almost twice as much as the gap present in 2016, but consistent with 2015 statistics.
Ms Stanley said there was no simple answer as to why Indigenous children were more affected.
“It could be living conditions, or the education that’s been provided about lead, or the level of understanding of strategies to protect children,” she said.
Ms Stanley praised the work of Maari Ma and the Child and Family Health Service in encouraging regular lead testing and spreading awareness.
Maari Ma believes the message from the Healthy Start Lead Testing Program is getting through to mothers across the whole far-west community.
“The close liaison with mum while she’s pregnant, and then regularly seeing the baby until they turn five has been effective,” Ms Dyer said.
“Combining that with testing children earlier and more often, it becomes part of the normal health routine in the community and part of the relationship with the family.”