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Indigenous health workers say lead education failing Mount Isa kids

Staff at the Aboriginal medical service in Mount Isa say children with dangerously high blood lead levels are being treated with hygiene advice and colouring books, and that the campaign to promote lead safety among the public is not working for Indigenous children.

The Gidgee Healing staff members said lack of resources meant children with lead levels exceeding the recommended national minimum were being returned to the same “high-risk environment” and risked being re-exposed to the heavy metal.

It is the first time staff at the centre have spoken out against the lead education campaign, which is an initiative of local and state government as well as the mine owners, and has been a central part of the response to high lead levels in Mount Isa children.

The staff said the campaign was a “perfect white man world” solution to the problem of lead. Indigenous children have higher lead levels than non-Indigenous children in Mount Isa.

Lead is a neurotoxin that can stunt growth and lead to learning disabilities. There is no known safe level of lead exposure for children.

The National Health and Medical Research Council recommends action to reduce exposure when a child tests above five micrograms of lead per decilitre of blood.

Julie Branford, a child health nurse at Gidgee Healing in Mount Isa, said when the clinic tested a child with levels between 4-50ug/dl it treated them with hygiene advice.

“It has to be extremely high to have medical intervention,” she said.

Blake Fagan, a senior health worker at Gidgee Healing, said he was concerned children were being repeatedly exposed to lead at home.

“It seems a process that’s going around in circles.”

He said he had noticed an increase in levels of anaemia in the last three months among Indigenous children. Anaemia is a symptom of high lead levels.

Since its staff spoke to Hack, Gidgee Healing has declined other interviews, and said the employees’ comments do not reflect the views of the organisation.

Gidgee was also given the opportunity to respond to the points made by its staff.

‘A perfect white man world kind of solution’

Both Blake Fagan and Julie Branford said the ‘Living Safely with Lead’ education campaign – an initiative of government and industry to educate the public – was not working for many of their Indigenous clients in the remote Queensland mining town.

Jule Branford said the only resources she had been given by the Lead Alliance were some pamphlets and colouring books.

The books feature white kids eating spaghetti, and the instructions to avoid lead are in English, which is a second or third language for many of Julie and Blake’s clients.

A Lead Alliance colouring book featuring 'Squeaky the Mouse'

A Lead Alliance colouring book featuring ‘Squeaky the Mouse’.

Supplied

A Lead Alliance colouring book featuring 'Squeaky the Mouse'

A Lead Alliance colouring book featuring ‘Squeaky the Mouse’.

Supplied

Julie said Gidgee clients had more pressing, immediate concerns, such as dealing with the high rates of overcrowding, and treating infectious illnesses.

The town was last year named a hotspot for diseases such as angina, emphysema, bronchitis, diabetes, tooth decay, and ear, nose and throat infections.

The education campaign includes television ads encouraging people to wipe down surfaces and give their children a healthy breakfast, a ‘Squeaky the Mouse’ mascot, and a program that awards electric verge trimmers to people who grow lawns to reduce dust.

Widespread drought and water restrictions have not helped this initiative.

“I think that’s a perfect white man world kind of solution,” Julie said.

The winners of the 2016 Lead Alliance backyard improvement program

The winners of the 2016 Lead Alliance backyard improvement program.

Supplied: Lead Alliance

Bare dirt verges in Mount Isa

Mount Isa.

triple j Hack: James Purtill

A bare dirt front yard in Mount Isa

Mount Isa.

triple j Hack: James Purtill

Play equipment in a bare dirt front yard in Mount Isa

Mount Isa.

triple j Hack: James Purtill

Queensland Health told Hack the exact proportion of Indigenous children who have been tested for lead is not known. This is despite Queensland Health’s own lead health management committee publishing average lead levels for Indigenous children.

The average blood lead levels among Indigenous children in Mount Isa has been higher than non-Indigenous children since testing began.

Julie estimated the rate of testing of Indigenous children would be “very low”.

Less than 10 per cent of the Mount Isa population of children under five were tested for lead last year, despite an education campaign that has been running for six years in day care centres, kindergartens and schools, as well as the regular TV ads.

Isa lead testing far lower than other smelter towns

In other Australian towns with lead smelters the testing rate is far higher.

More than half of children under five in Port Pirie in South Australia were tested for lead last year, and in Broken Hill in New South Wales it was over 80 per cent.

Queensland Health said the average blood lead level recorded in children under five has gradually declined since the initial survey in 2006-2007.

That survey tested 400 children. About 170 children were tested for lead in 2016. There are about 2000 children in the under-five age group in Mount Isa.

The 2006-2007 survey found 11 per cent of children under five had elevated blood lead levels (at the time defined as more than 10ug/dl, but now half that). The revelation led to a massive investment in emissions reductions and the launch of the Living with Lead Alliance.

The Alliance’s committee includes members of state and local government, and the owner of Mount Isa Mines, the Swiss-based mining giant Glencore.

Glencore told Hack it had spent more than $500 million on dust suppression, air-monitoring systems and other measures since it bought the mine in 2003.

Emissions are down by more than 90 per cent.

The chairman of the Lead Alliance, state MP Robbie Katter, (son of the federal MP Bob Katter), told Hack the people of Mount Isa were able to judge the risk of lead exposure and had concluded there wasn’t a problem, and therefore it was insulting for out-of-towners to ask questions.

“We’re the stakeholders, we’re the ones affected by it,” he said.

“The only conclusion you can draw from [questions about lead] is people saying we’re so ignorant here we don’t know there’s a problem, or secondly we don’t care about our kids’ welfare or thirdly we care more about money than we do our kids’ health.”

Mount Isa MP Robbie Katter

Mount Isa MP Robbie Katter and the 270m high lead smelter chimney.

triple j Hack: James Purtill

Residents never ask me about lead: Katter

The low rates of blood lead testing in Mount Isa appear to confirm the risk of poisoning is not a huge concern for many parents in the town.

Although 150 children under five were tested for lead in 2015, that figure may overstate the level of interest in getting tested, as it includes routine health checks at the hospital. The number of children who were taken to the local clinic for a free blood test is a third of the overall figure: 49.

That’s about the same number of people in 2014-15 who phoned the 1800 hotline that appears on Lead Alliance ads on TV: 53 people in a town of 20,000.

While the residents may not be too concerned about lead, the lack of data on blood lead levels makes it hard for anyone to accurately judge the risk.

Families in the town have relied on lead mining and smelting for generations. The town was built entirely for mining 90 years ago. The main street leads directly to the mine gates and the industrial plant is within a stone’s throw of the nearest houses.

Royalties from the mine have helped build the state and the mine remains the backbone of the local economy. The business of mining and processing lead, silver, copper and zinc has created a strange mix of economic prosperity and deep isolation.

Flights from Mount Isa to Brisbane are among the most expensive in the country.

The road through Isa and the lead smelter chimney

The four-lane Barkly Hwy through Mount Isa leads directly to the lead smelter chimney and the mine gates.

triple j Hack: James Purtill

Mr Katter, who has been in local and state politics for the past eight years, said his constituents almost never asked him about lead.

He said lead was not a problem, but lead safety was proving hard to teach to the disadvantaged parts of the community, and this was a problem.

“We acknowledge that and that’s where the effort goes,” he said.

“We’ve got the backyard improvement program and we work with public housing and they’ve got some good programs, trying to get people to water lawns and do up yards.”

The Lead Alliance’s backyard improvement program had a dozen members in 2013. It was then cancelled in 2014-15 due to drought.

There are bare dirt yards all over Mount Isa, some of them with play equipment, especially in the poorer suburbs where there are higher rates of overcrowding.

“The kids are outside most of the time, but that’s better than having 20 kids in the house. We know they’re out playing in the dirt and we know that’s a problem,” Julie Branford said.

“But it’s just time constraints.”

Article source: http://www.abc.net.au/triplej/programs/hack/mount-isa-indigenous-health-workers-say-lead-education-failing/8453810