Children in Port Pirie are being exposed to the highest levels of toxic airborne lead and sulphur dioxide in Australia, causing respiratory problems and risks to cognitive development. According to a new study, these serious risks to human health have accelerated in the last few years despite decades of warnings about the health impacts of pollution from the nearby smelter.
The study found that almost half (47 per cent) of children under five years old have dangerous levels of lead in their blood, with levels increasing in tandem with smelter emissions. In addition, presentations to the local emergency department for respiratory issues are occurring at more than double the rate of other areas of regional South Australia, with children being disproportionately affected.
Lead pollution across the city from the smelter at Port Pirie continues to remain close to the national annual guideline of 0.5 Î¼g/m3, with daily peaks and annual concentrations in some parts of the city exceeding this level.
This guideline in itself is however inadequate to protect Port Pirie’s children. The study led by Macquarie University experts and published in Environmental International found that the levels of lead in air need to be 80 per cent lower than the current national guideline to ensure that children’s blood lead levels stay below the national intervention threshold of 5 Âµg/dL.
The national one-hour standard for sulphur dioxide of 0.2 ppm has been exceeded in Port Pirie more than 1000 times since 2003. The study presents the first systematic analysis of sulphur dioxide emissions on respiratory outcomes in Port Pirie despite it being a known health risk for decades.
The researchers showed a clear link between elevated levels of pollution and the number of children presenting in emergency departments with respiratory conditions.
Professor Mark Taylor from Macquarie University’s Department of Environmental Sciences who led the study said the findings show a clear and extended risk of harm to children in Port Pirie from the increased smelter emissions.
“Current smelting emissions must be lowered significantly to limit adverse childhood health outcomes including respiratory illness, reduced IQ, academic achievement and socio-behavioural problems that are associated with lead exposure at levels experienced by Port Pirie children,” said Professor Taylor.
“Given that the source and extent of the problem in Port Pirie has been well documented and solutions are well known to industry and government, there is no justifiable reason to not prevent, as a matter of urgency, further adverse exposure to toxic pollution.
“It is shameful that such exposures have been allowed to continue for such an extended period and then to be elevated when the evidence of harm to health, particularly with vulnerable children, is incontrovertible.”
Taylor, M.P., Isley, C., Glover J. March 2019. Prevalence of childhood lead poisoning and respiratory disease associated with lead smelter emissions. Environmental International. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envint.2019.01.062