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Toxic heavy metals in Tasmania

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Mining pollution in Tasmania is one of the priority areas of Pollution Information Tasmania, a community network dedicated to investigating and documenting pollution in the state of Tasmania, Australia.[1].

TPEHN joined the Lock the Gate Alliance in April 2013. Lock the Gate Alliance (The mission of the Lock the Gate Alliance is to protect Australia’s natural, environmental, cultural and agricultural resources from inappropriate mining and to educate and empower all Australians to demand sustainable solutions to food and energy production).

PROPOSED MINING POLICY FOR TASMANIA

Toxic Heavy Metals Taskforce Tasmania (THMTT) and Tasmanian Public & Environmental Health Network's Mining Policy is underpinned by a call for a moratorium on all new mines in Tasmania. A future Mining Policy will require the Tasmanian Government to:


  • Ensure that government undertakes regular independent monitoring, audits reports submitted by companies and investigates complaints regarding mining practices. The government must also commit to taking appropriate enforcement action where companies are not complying with regulatory requirements.
  • Resource, staff and fund the Tasmanian Environment Protection Authority,Mineral Resources Tasmania and the Contaminated Sites and Groundwater Units to regulate, monitor and police activities by mining companies.
  • Resource, staff and fund the Public and Environmental Health Service within the Tasmanian Department of Health and Human Services to conduct independent and thorough public and environmental health investigations in areas affected by mine pollution.
  • Ensure that Licences for mining companies require them to operate under world's best practice emission standards.
  • Reform of environmental assessment of mining projects to provide for Environmental Impact Assessments to be conducted by federally funded panel of independent experts.
  • Refer applications for Mine exploration or mining leases on land that has Aboriginal heritage to the Tasmanian Aboriginal Land and Sea Council for assessment and determination.
  • Prohibit mining of uranium, coal seam gas and further expansion of coal mining.
  • Protection of all good farm land from mining.
  • Protection of all National Parks, protected areas and reserves from mining.
  • Protection for all Geodiversity and Geoheritage Sites from mining.
  • Review in consultation with farmers and communities all areas subject to exploration licenses and mining leases on land where communities could be affected and consider the impacts on these communities prior to any decision to renew existing tenements.
  • Ensure minimum separation distances to sensitive uses set out in the Code of Practice are maintained.
  • Reject mine exploration licenses or mine leases to companies that breach human rights during their operations in other countries or do not comply in those countries with environmental guidelines operating in Australia.
  • Mineral Resource Rent Tax on 50% of all Mining company profits over $50million to fund:
 *  Government regulation, monitoring and policing of mining activities. 
 *  Independent population based public and environmental health research at abandoned and 
    existing mine sites where people's health or aboriginal heritage is at risk or 
    environments, fauna and flora threatened. 
 *  Additional independent health services for miners and former miners and their families 
    whether living in  mining towns or other areas. 
 *  Update to parity with United States EPA Health Investigation Levels, Environmental 
    Investigation levels, trigger and remediation levels for metals and chemicals. 
 *  Conduct a Review of security deposits to fund the effective remediation of legacy 
    mine sites to protect human and environmental health.
  • Return to 8 hour shifts for mine workers and mandatory routine blood and urinary testing for multiple metals and chemicals.
  • Establish world best practice performance standards for the rehabilitation of all mine sites.

1st December, 2013

Tasmanian drinking water supplies contaminated with heavy metals

[To be developed]

As at May 2013 the following towns drinking water supplies have been found to be contaminated with lead and in some cases arsenic and cadmium or other metals: Avoca, Royal George, Pioneer, Ringarooma, Whitemark (on Flinders Island), Rosebery and Gormanston.

Tasmanian waterways contaminated with heavy metals

[To be developed]

On the PIT website we are developing a data base on Contaminated waterways, areas and sites in Tasmania A-Z. As at May 2013 we have listed over 60 waterways and towns with drinking water supplies that are contaminated with heavy metals in Tasmania.

Arsenic in Tasmania - Public Health Investigations - Rosebery and Royal George Case Studies

[To be developed]

Acid Mine Drainage in Tasmania

[To be developed]

Do It Yourself Heavy Metal Testing kits

The LEAD Group Incorporated has designed test kits to test houses, gardens and play areas for toxic heavy metals. You take the samples (soil, house dust, suspicious paint flakes off household surfaces or childrens' toys, etc) and send them to be tested.

The basic 2-sample kit will test for lead Pb ($A50 per sample) with an extra $A9 per sample for each extra heavy metal test requested - e.g. arsenic, chromium, cadmium and copper. You pay the postage back to the testing lab; there is usually less than 2-week turnaround time for results.

The DYI testing brochure with information on the 2-sample and 8-sample kits are available.[2]

The Toxic Heavy Metals Taskforce Tasmania (THMTT) was set up by a group of Rosebery residents and other concerned Tasmanians

Rosebery Heavy Metal Poisoning investigation 2008-2010

[Being Developed]

Rosebery is a small town tucked under Mount Black on the west coast of Tasmania, Australia. The Municipality of West Coast Council incorporates several towns including Rosebery, Renison Bell, Zeehan, Queenstown and Gormanston.

Government response to residents' claims of contamination and poisoning

In October 2008 three residents of Rosebery contacted the Rosebery mine owner Oz Minerals after they had received results from testing for heavy metals of ground water and soil by a Government laboratory. The residents asked Oz Minerals to relocate them away from Rosebery to similar standard homes in a safe environment. After Oz Minerals refused to relocate or compensate them the residents were contacted by the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).

Subsequently the DHHS and Environment Protection Authority (EPA) commenced an investigation into five Rosebery residents' claims of heavy metal contamination of their properties with arsenic, lead, cadmium, copper and manganese etc., and of their numerous chronic health problems. High levels of various metals were found in soil on three properties. These results included Lead, 4,590 mg/kg – 16 times the Health Investigation Levels (HILs), and Arsenic, 646 mg/kg – over 6 times the HILs. In ground water samples, Manganese levels were as high as 15,100 µg/L; all Manganese measurements over 3 times the HILs. Three more Rosebery residents who were ill applied to the DHHS to be included in the investigation. The DHHS rejected them. By this stage the blood and urine tests of nine residents (only five of whom were in the investigation), showed various high levels of heavy metals. The DHHS appointed Professor Brian Priestley from Monash University as the toxicologist to provide expert advice concerning the investigation.  Professor Priestley's PhD is in Pharmacology.  The residents were very angry that the Government had appointed an expert in pharmacology only and who was not a medical doctor. The investigation was somewhat complicated by the DHHS appointment of a Specialist Physician (Internal Medicine), who only examined two of the residents from a medical point of view. For some reason, this doctor did not release his reports on these two patients nor was he named in the Final Report. On 2nd April 2009, the Confidential Public and Environmental Health Service and Environment Protection Authority Final Report: “Investigation into Concerns Regarding Seepage Water in a Rosebery locality 2008-2009” was released. In essence, the recommendations from the Final Report can be summarised:

  • The three residents' properties involved were not contaminated.
  • The chronic health problems of five residents could not be attributed to heavy metal poisoning.
  • That no further medical examinations, biological testing or environmental testing relating to heavy metals was required.

Professor Brian Priestly stated in his Final Report: “Recommendation 1. My recommendation is that any further environmental sampling around the properties in question is not warranted…that further biological monitoring would not necessarily be helpful to resolve the issue of whether significant exposure to heavy metals has occurred from sources related to soil and water on these properties”. Recommendation 2. My recommendation is that these health concerns be pursued by appropriate consultation with medical practitioners and that DHHS do whatever it can to facilitate this health follow-up.  However, this follow-up should be based on the premise that the strongly held beliefs of the residents that their health problems are related to heavy metal exposure is not supported by the empirical evidence gathered in this investigation”. The residents were appalled with this prejudicial recommendation. In effect, Prof Priestley appeared to be giving advice about the psychological status of the patients to any medical practitioner treating them.

Residents' response

The five residents involved in the investigation categorically rejected the findings in the DHHS/EPA Final Report, and called on the Health Minister, Lara Giddings, to establish an independent population-based public and environmental health survey into heavy metals in Rosebery. The Minister rejected this call. Several of the affected Rosebery residents joined forces with other concerned Tasmanians and medical and environmental professionals to form the Toxic Heavy Metals Taskforce Tasmania (THMTT – the 'Taskforce'). With assistance from a Contaminated Sites expert, the Taskforce released the Critique of the ‘Investigation into Concerns Regarding Seepage Water in a Rosebery locality - Final Report from the Project Team’ (DHHS, EPA 2009), which outlined serious flaws in the DHHS/EPA methodology, analysis and conclusions.

Qualified medical specialist

Several people, including the original five, sought further medical advice from the most appropriate and qualified specialist in Tasmania: Dr Andreas Ernst, an Occupational Health and Musculoskeletal specialist with many years of experience in the mining industry both in Tasmania and elsewhere. Dr Ernst formally assessed ten patients in detail and made a diagnosis of heavy metal poisoning. He subsequently provided a confidential medical/'occupational health' report to Dr Roscoe Taylor, Director of Health. Since the release of the DHHS/EPA Final Report in April 2009, the revised recommendations for residents on reducing their risks of heavy metal exposure in Rosebery were not made publicly available. Taskforce members could not find any copies of these recommendations from a number of community facilities in Rosebery, including the library and the hospital. In November the Taskforce produced a pamphlet “Reducing Your Exposure to Heavy Metals in Rosebery – Health Risks and Heavy Metals - Your Right To Know”, which included the sixteen precautionary measures outlined in the Final Report. This pamphlet provided nine additional precautionary measures to those outlined in the Oz Mineral's pamphlet “What you should know about Lead”. The Taskforce letterboxed all residences in Rosebery, as well as a broad distribution in other towns on the West Coast.

Legal action flagged and further investigations commence

The residents sought the advice of law firm Slater and Gordon. By late December 2009 Slater and Gordon announced that they were representing several residents from Rosebery. At the same time the DHHS announced it would conduct an assessment of the diagnosis by Dr Andreas Ernst. Additionally, Minerals and Metal Group (MMG), the new mine owner, announced that Gutteridge Haskins and Davey (GHD), their environmental consultants, would conduct another environmental sampling program in Rosebery, and that MMG would also conduct a biological testing program for mine workers and their families. In early January 2010 the Rosebery Community Reference Group Committee was established. Represented in this group are government departments, the mine, local council, unions and selected members of the community. The Committee was established to act in an advisory capacity and provide input for the environmental and biological investigations underway. As the design and planning phase for these investigations had already been decided upon by MMG and the DHHS, and because of the condition of confidentiality, the Taskforce declined to participate on the Committee. Later in February, the Taskforce was contacted by a representative of the Rosebery Technical Advisory Group (TAG), an additional body established to advise the reference group. The Taskforce was invited to join this Committee, but again declined, because of the confidentiality requirement. Nevertheless, the Taskforce did provide the TAG with a detailed submission on “Proposals for Action on Heavy Metal Contamination and Health Risks in Rosebery.” The Taskforce was very concerned about the independence of the DHHS and GHD investigations and the testing and assessment methodologies being used. In late February the Taskforce publicly released proposed “Terms of Reference” for an “Integrity Commission Inquiry into the DHHS, EPA and EPA Rosebery Investigation 2008/2009/2010.” At the first Community Reference Group Meeting held in Rosebery, the Taskforce circulated information updates for Rosebery residents including the THMTT Rosebery heavy metals Table 2008 which included the data from biological tests from 8 residents and and environmental test results from 4 properties. Also included was an information sheet on “The Need for Expert Clinical Assessments in Diagnosis of Heavy Metal Poisoning.”

DHHS appoints toxicologists

In February 2010 the DHHS appointed two clinical toxicologists, Professor Frank Daly and Professor George Braitberg. Significantly, the DHHS did not require them to conduct patient consultations and clinical examinations of any of the people diagnosed by Dr Ernst. Based on the information provided only by the DHHS, Professors Daly and Braitberg concluded that the ten patients health problems could not be caused by heavy metal poisoning. In collaboration with eight patients diagnosed by Dr Ernst, the Taskforce produced a “Critique of Toxicology Reports from Professor Frank Daly and Professor George Braitberg”,dealing with each patients' assessment by Professors Daly and Braitberg. On the 14th April 2010, before Professors Daly and Braitberg’s “Summary Findings” were released by the DHHS, the Taskforce publicly rejected the conclusions of Prof's Daly and Braitberg.

Failure to provide previous environmental test results

Previous Rosebery mine owner Oz Minerals, and the current owner MMG, have not released any data from their tests of soil, water or dust from their environmental sampling programs since 2007/08. Numerous properties tested for heavy metals in Rosebery from several investigations over a period of years have returned very high levels of heavy metals (especially lead and arsenic). Despite this, MMG are conducting more tests. Slater and Gordon have been conducting their own investigations into the presence of heavy metals in the environment and their effect upon the residents. The law firm believes that it will be in a position to commence legal proceedings in the near future.

The need for urgent change

Several residents have felt it necessary to evacuate from their heavily contaminated homes in Rosebery but continue to suffer from serious chronic health problems. Those people diagnosed with heavy metal poisoning by Dr Ernst who remain in Rosebery have steadily deteriorating health problems. Tragically, for economic reasons, they are unable to leave their homes. The Rosebery case highlights the need for urgent reform of State-based legislation relating to Health Department regulations on blood/urine metal levels and Contaminated Sites. In addition, there is an urgent need for updating and reviewing national guidelines for Health Investigation and Remediation Levels, especially for arsenic, lead and levels of metal mixtures. There needs to be a shift within the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) and State Health Departments' attitudes concerning the issue of synergism and chronic health effects from low levels of complex chemical or heavy metal mixtures. This concept of the synergistic effect of more than one toxic agent is now well accepted in scientific literature. Many of the heavy metals in question are linked to cancer. The President's Cancer Panel's recent statements about the need to act on environmental causes of cancer needs to be acted on in Australia as a matter of urgency. Rosebery is an example where thinking and action on preventative health strategies needs an immediate response.

The NHMRC

“The National Health and Medical Research Council was first constituted in September 1936. The current legislative basis of the Council is the National Health and Medical Research Council Act 1992 (NHMRC Act). The NHMRC is responsible to the Commonwealth Minister for Health and Ageing. NHMRC's functions come from the statutory obligations conferred by the NHMRC Act. The Act provides for the NHMRC to pursue activities designed to: raise the standard of individual and public health throughout Australia; foster the development of consistent health standards between the various States and Territories; foster medical research and training and public health research and training throughout Australia ; and foster consideration of ethical issues relating to health.

Summary

The Toxic Heavy Metals Taskforce Tasmania consider that it is essential that on ongoing independent, population-based public and environmental health survey be conducted in Rosebery. Just compensation is being pursued by some of the people whose health has been so severely affected as a result of being exposed via several pathways to multiple toxic heavy metals and gases. None of the people diagnosed with heavy metal poisoning knew about the potential health risks of living in Rosebery when they first purchased their homes through real estate agents and the THMTT is working towards having new legislation adopted to make mandatory disclosure of any contamination investigation on properties to purchasers or renters.

Serious issues concerning children’s health

Considering the history of high lead levels reported in children since 1992, and the severe health consequences for health and learning ability, it is vital that effective preventative measures are taken to minimise potential harm to children in the future. Information on cumulative exposure public health risks from heavy metals in Rosebery needs to be made available to potential new residents of Rosebery, so that people will have the right to choose to live or work in Rosebery based on a right to know the real facts available.

Articles and resources

Related SourceWatch articles

References

  1. "Telling the Truth about Toxics in Tasmania", Tasmanian Times, August 2, 2009.
  2. Do It Yourself sampling and lab test kits for heavy metals, The Lead Group Inc. [1]

External resources

  • Don't drink the water, Ian Townsend, ABC Radio National, Background Briefing, 31st March, 2013, [2]
  • The LEAD Group Inc. campaigns for the removal of lead from petrol and other products and conducts an advice,& information and counseling service about lead.
  • Childhood lead exposure linked to crime in adulthood, Professor Mark Taylor et al, The Conversation, 10th April, 2013, [3]

Reports

Reports for THMTT are listed below:

External articles

Media releases on Rosebery

Toxic Heavy Metals Taskforce Tasmania and TPEHN, Media releases for THMTT and TPEHN are listed below:

Media releases on Royal George and the St Pauls's and South Esk Rivers

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