QUESTION: Health impacts of lead pollution in Port Pirie

In Question Time today, Mark asked the Minister for Health and Wellbeing about the ongoing health impacts of lead pollution from the smelter in Port Pirie.


The Hon. M.C. PARNELL: The ABC Radio National's Background Briefing program on the weekend revealed some disturbing new information about the ongoing health impacts of lead emissions from the Port Pirie lead smelter. As members would know, the Targeted Lead Abatement Program for Port Pirie, known as TLAP—a joint program between the State Government and Nyrstar—promised to improve the lead levels in the community and thereby improve the health of Port Pirie's children in particular.

The TLAP's goal was to have 95 per cent of children below 10 micrograms of lead per decilitre of blood within 10 years. However, the latest results show that they are further away from that target than when the program began. According to cabinet-in-confidence documents leaked to the ABC, the TLAP program was known to be unlikely to have any major impact and the only way to continue to improve health in Port Pirie is to reduce emissions from the smelter. As one official told the ABC, the program was in reality an expensive PR exercise. As a result of the failure of the lead smelter upgrade, the level of lead contamination in the blood of Port Pirie's children is the worst it has been in 10 years.

Back in 2013, the previous government, with the support of the current government, passed legislation that prevented the EPA from modifying the lead smelter's pollution licence to strengthen lead emission standards unless the company agreed. That legislation still has three years to run.

My questions to the Minister are:

1. What action will the Government now take to reduce lead pollution in Port Pirie to protect the health of children and the population generally?

2. Given that the smelter upgrade has not been achieved in the last seven years and is unlikely to be achieved in the next three years, will the Minister recommend to his colleague, the Minister for Energy and Mining, and his other cabinet colleagues that the Port Pirie Smelting Facility (Lead-In-Air Concentrations) Act 2013 be repealed so that the EPA might have a free hand in setting pollution licence standards that properly protect the community of Port Pirie?

The Hon. S.G. WADE (Minister for Health and Wellbeing): I thank the honourable member for his question. I must admit that I wasn't aware of the ABC program on the weekend. I gather it was broadcast on either 30 or 31 May, but it didn't seem to take account of results which I understand were released on 28 May. The first quarter 2020 analysis of children's blood levels in Port Pirie, I'm advised, reported a decrease in the number of children with highly elevated blood levels above 20 micrograms per decilitre, so the results the honourable member referred to must have been earlier results. I admit that there have been some disappointing results in recent times.

The improvements we have seen in the first quarter 2020 blood lead level trends indicate a reduction in the exposure of children to lead after an extended period of high lead contamination at Port Pirie between 2016 and 2018; however, the number of children with blood lead levels above the national lead exposure level remains a concern.

My understanding is that the Targeted Lead Abatement Program is about halfway through its life and is being reviewed. I am happy to take on board the concerns that the honourable member believes it is not meeting its purpose. I can assure you that this Government is determined that the health and wellbeing of South Australians in Port Pirie and particularly children is continued to be enhanced.