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Question: Lead levels in children's blood at 10-year high

The Hon. T.A. FRANKS (15:18): I seek leave to make a brief explanation before addressing a question about the lead levels in children's blood in Port Pirie to the Minister for Health and Wellbeing.

Leave granted.

The Hon. T.A. FRANKS: We have heard the disturbing news reported today that the average amount of lead in the blood of children living in Port Pirie is at its highest point in 10 years, which the latest testing data has recently revealed. South Australia Health's full-year testing for the past year, 2019, shows that the average blood lead level in children who are aged under five is 5.4 micrograms per decilitre of blood. This is a 20 per cent increase on the results for the previous year and the worst since 2010. As we know, the World Health Organization has noted and repeatedly warned that there is actually no safe level of exposure to lead. My questions to the minister are:

1. What actions will SA Health take in response to this latest news?

2. What is the framework that we can expect that SA Health will implement to work with Port Pirie's Targeted Lead Abatement Program?

3. Are any additional moneys to be expended on addressing this serious health concern?

The Hon. S.G. WADE (Minister for Health and Wellbeing) (15:20): I thank the honourable member for her question. The analysis of children's blood lead levels in Port Pirie has been released. The analysis shows improvement in two of the reported blood measure levels and ongoing deterioration in five of the measures, despite lower average airborne lead emissions in 2019. These trends are attributable to a combination of high lead emissions in three years prior to 2019, including unprecedented dry windy weather patterns, the physiological delay in absorbed lead being excreted from the body and improved laboratory precision in test results.

SA Health's primary response to lead levels is through the environmental health program and it was my privilege to visit there recently and see the excellent work being done with families and children, not only to test in terms of monitoring but also in terms of education and support. The fact that we have had deteriorating blood lead levels soon after there have been improvements at the plant highlights that the lead burden on the city is substantial and it will take time to recover. In terms of each individual child, once the lead is absorbed it takes time for the lead levels to come down again.

It is a long-term project. When I was visiting Port Pirie to discuss the issues with public health clinicians, they highlighted the diversity of issues. Certainly, there are issues in terms of the emissions from the plant, but Port Pirie is not alone compared with other South Australian families who might be living in a house with lead-based paint. There are also issues in terms of supporting families to maintain practices around the home, both inside the house and in the surrounds, and in terms of public spaces to make sure that we use environmental strategies to minimise the presence of lead and the absorption of lead.

SA Health will continue with its environmental health program approach. My understanding is that SA Health is not a formal member of the Targeted Lead Abatement Program (TLAP), but we are there as observers. We will certainly be continuing to advocate within government to support Nyrstar and the Port Pirie community in a long-term lead abatement program. This isn't an issue that's arisen overnight. My understanding is that the smelter has been in operation for more than 100 years and it certainly won't be fixed overnight either.

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