Lead levels in two-year-olds have hit a 10-year high in the South Australian city of Port Pirie, according to the state’s health department.

Key points:

  • SA Health says Port Pirie’s blood lead figures are “disappointing” but “not unexpected”
  • Smelter owner Nyrstar says it is spending tens of millions of dollars in a bid to address the problem
  • Nyrstar was penalised by the EPA last year for breaching its licence after vowing to halve lead emissions

Measuring levels in the blood of children of that age is considered to be the most accurate way to gauge lead exposure in the general population.

Last year the average in two-year-olds reached a high of 7.3 micrograms per decilitre of blood — two micrograms higher than the lowest yearly average in the past decade, which was recorded in 2014.

National health guidelines state that levels above five micrograms per decilitre should be investigated.

The World Health Organisation says there is no safe level of exposure.

Lead exposure in children is linked to slowed intellectual development — according to a 2019 Macquarie University, some 13 IQ points are lost with every 10 micrograms per decilitre of lead in the blood.

The study found that Port Pirie’s smelter, owned by Nyrstar, needed to reduce its lead emissions by about 80 per cent to protect children from developmental problems and behavioural disorders.

Nyrstar had promised a $291 million upgrade of its smelter, underwritten by state government, that would halve the smelter’s lead emissions.

But emissions increased in the second half of last year and Nyrstar was found to have breached its Environment Protection Authority (EPA) license.

Port Pirie has battled community lead exposure for more than 100 years.(Supplied: Carl Saville)

‘Very disappointing’

SA Health’s director of scientific services, David Simon, said the latest figures were “very disappointing” but “not unexpected”.

He said the lead-in-air levels, as reported by the EPA, had continued to trend upwards in 2020 compared to 2019.

“The increased lead-in-air contributed to the amount of lead contaminated dust deposited in homes and public spaces across Port Pirie during the year, meaning more people were likely exposed,” Dr Simon said.

“Young children absorb lead very quickly and spend much of their awake time in areas that can be easily contaminated such as floors and soil.

“We have been routinely monitoring the blood lead levels of children in Port Pirie since 1984 and this 2020 report provides a snapshot of the past 10 years, where we can see the recent deterioration in blood lead levels begin.”

The annual report showed nearly 40 per cent of children tested had blood lead levels of five micrograms per decilitre or below, which was almost five per cent less than last year.

The number of tested children with blood lead levels exceeding the very high measure of 20 micrograms per decilitre increased from 13 children in 2019 to 16 in 2020.

The multi-million dollar operation was supposed to halve its lead emissions.(ABC News: Glen Moret)

Nyrstar ‘committed’ to reduction

Last year the EPA lowered the smelter’s allowable average annual emissions by 20 per cent under a new licence agreement, which the company subsequently breached in 2020.

A formal investigation into the breach is ongoing, but the agency says it is continuing to require ongoing changes from the company to mitigate emissions in the interim.

Nyrstar said it was “disappointed with the results” and remained “committed” to reducing community blood lead levels.

The company said it had spent more than $25 million identifying operational and environmental improvements to deliver reductions this year.

It said it had already recorded “an improvement in lead-in-air emissions … observed for January 2021 when compared to the corresponding period in 2020”.

Nyrstar said it was working with the city’s multi-agency Targeted Lead Abatement Program (TLAP), which included supporting an initiative to “identify and remove lead exposure pathways” that contributed to “elevated blood lead levels in homes occupied by young children”.

“While the focus in the initial stages will be on children most at risk, over time the program will form the foundation for a wider TLAP focus aimed at removing broader exposure pathways across the community and improving the program effectiveness,” Nyrstar said.