Pirie blood lead peaks
Blood lead levels for Port Pirie children have hit a decade high.
SA Health data shows the mean blood lead level for two-year-olds in Port Pirie is now 7.8μg/dL - an increase of 1.6 micrograms since 2020.
National health guidelines call for blood lead levels above 5μg/dL to be investigated. Lead is a neurotoxin that affects the developing brain. A 2019 Macquarie University study for that around 13 IQ points are lost with every 10μg/dL of lead in the blood.
Children aged under four have meanwhile recorded the second-highest blood lead levels in the decade, at 5.7μg/dL.
That level has only been higher when Port Pirie's smelter operator, Nyrstar, was found in breach of its Environment Protection Authority (EPA) license in 2019.
Nyrstar's lead emissions increased in the second half of 2020, despite a $291 million smelter upgrade intended to halve the lead-in-air pollution.
SA Health director of scientific services David Simon says the increase in blood lead levels among young children is directly linked to the higher atmospheric lead levels recorded over those years.
“The increase of lead-in-air over that period certainly undid much of the downward trend we were seeing in the past 10 years,” Dr Simon said.
EPA data suggests there has been a drop in lead-in-air levels in Port Pirie since then.
SA Health has been tracking blood levels since 1984, which were far higher than the latest levels.
“Back in 1987, only 2 per cent of the population in Port Pirie had a blood lead level below 10 micrograms,” he said.
Dr Simon elevated blood lead levels will linger even as emissions decrease.
“The report shows – like in the last quarter of last year – that our children are growing up in an environment that is being completely inundated with lead,” he said.
“If Nyrstar can get their emissions under control and keep them under control for a prolonged period, then our children will win that battle.”
Nyrstar admits that “further work is required to reduce blood lead levels”, but the company says it is making progress.
“As at June 30, 2021, Nyrstar Port Pirie had recorded the best average lead-in-air results across Nyrstar's community monitoring stations in more than 10 years,” a spokesperson said.
“This reflects a 31 per cent reduction in lead-in-air across the whole monitoring network, which is the same reporting period as the First Half 2021 Blood Lead Report.
“Nyrstar is optimistic there will be reduced blood lead levels in the future.”