Life with a one-year-old is hectic in any household, but South Australian mum Karen Davis must stay especially vigilant.
She doesn’t take her son, Macen, out on windy days, allow him to go to the beach or play at certain playgrounds, or even remove his shoes in some areas of their hometown, Port Pirie.
The family does not drink tap water or hang their washing to dry outside, and Macen’s clothes are changed as soon as they become dirty – sometimes up to five times daily.
It’s all part of Karen’s constant effort to reduce the level of lead in her son’s blood.
Just kilometres from their home, Port Pirie’s smelter is coating the city in tiny particles of the toxic metal.
It means children can’t do things that would be common anywhere else.
But, despite his mum’s diligent precautions, Macen’s blood lead levels are still too high.
“There’s no way his lead levels should be like this,” Karen, a mother-of-four, told NCA NewsWire.
“The emphasis is not on the children … it’s got to change.”
Port Pirie, 230km north of Adelaide, is home to one of the world’s largest primary lead smelters, which has been in continuous operation since 1889.
The smelter, now operated by metals company Nyrstar, is the backbone of the city’s economy and a major employer for the 15,000 people who live there.
It’s also affected the health of generations, with concerns about contamination dating back to a royal commission into plumbism, the technical term for lead poisoning, held in 1925.
Nearly 100 years later, the problem remains. Port Pirie’s children are still put at risk by the lead they ingest in their homes and communities.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) says there is no safe level of blood lead concentration, and even readings as low as five micrograms/decilitre (100ml) can be linked to decreased intelligence in children, as well as behavioural difficulties and learning problems.
Leaded petrol was completely phased out in Australia in 2002 due to its effects on human and environmental health.
Nowadays, federal health advice says any blood level above five micrograms/decilitre should be investigated and reduced, particularly if the person is a child or a pregnant woman.
The South Australian government’s own data showed that, in results released last September, lead levels in Port Pirie’s two-year-olds were the highest they’d been since the testing regime began in 2011.
Of the 68 two-year-olds tested, an average lead level of 6.6 micrograms/decilitre was recorded.
In that reporting period, nine of the total 551 children aged four or younger had blood lead levels at or exceeding 20 micrograms/decilitre.
The results have some asking the question: why hasn’t this problem been fixed? And why, despite the efforts of parents, health authorities and smelter operators, are lead levels going up?
Lead is a sensitive issue in Port Pirie, where the livelihoods of many depend on the smelter.
The state government last year imposed a ban on recreational fishing in the local harbour, after testing revealed fish, crabs and mussels were not safe to eat – but some still refuse to acknowledge the problem.
Health officials have been working to lower blood lead levels for more than three decades, with a string of public health programs put in place to help achieve various targets.
Over that time, significant progress has been made – but as lead levels have dropped, so too have the benchmarks considered acceptable.
In 2006, the launch of the “10 by 10” program aimed to reduce the lead levels in 95 per cent of young children to 10 micrograms or lower by the end of 2010.
That target was not reached and the program continued as “10 for Them”, but in 2014 the government and smelter announced a different strategy.
Nyrstar would replace part of its operation with a modern, lower-polluting technology called a top submerged lance furnace.
The government would partly underwrite the deal, which also included a jointly funded 10-year community education program called the Targeted Lead Abatement Program, or TLAP.
That program also undertakes cleaning and greening projects to remove and suppress lead, and supplies breakfasts and healthy snacks to childcare centres and primary schools.
But the redevelopment encountered technical setbacks and, by 2018, the plan was still not complete and Nyrstar was in financial trouble.
That year, emissions were so high that the smelter was forced to shut down for six weeks to ensure it did not breach its Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) licence.
The company was struggling with large debts and a floundering share price when it was eventually taken over by global commodities trader Trafigura in 2019.
The deal ensured better job security for workers at the smelter, but decades-old environmental issues continued to linger.
When it renewed the company’s licence in July 2020, the EPA included a condition that the smelter reduce its emissions by 20 per cent.
At the end of December, the authority said Nyrstar was forecast to narrowly breach its new limit.
Port Pirie mayor Leon Stephens acknowledged the breach but said the company had cut a considerable amount from its emissions over a short period of time.
He said there has been improvement in the operation of the smelter since the 2019 takeover, however it would take some time for results to be reflected in blood lead test results.
Mr Stephens, who raised his own children in Port Pirie, said the smelter’s current leadership had shown a genuine willingness to work with the community.
He said part of the process going forward would include changes to TLAP, as well as a longer-term strategy beyond the program’s 2024 expiry.
But Mark Taylor, a professor of environmental science and human health at Macquarie University, says the focus on community education does not address the cause of the problem.
“It pushes the onus of responsibility onto mums and dads, and I think that is extremely unfair,” he said.
“It’s not a mum and dad problem. It’s emanating from a polluter, we all know who the polluter is, we all know what the risk is associated with that polluter.
“The reason why there’s lead there … is because of the smelter. Therefore, it’s pretty clear where the responsibility lies.”
Professor Taylor was the lead author on a 2019 study that found emissions “pose a clear risk of harm” to local children, and recommended limits be “significantly” lowered.
Analysing SA Health data, the study also found that Port Pirie residents visited emergency departments for respiratory conditions at more than twice the rate of other South Australians.
Of those presentations, 30 per cent were in children younger than 10 years old.
“Children are our future, and we have a duty to protect our future, we have a duty to protect the children,” Professor Taylor said.
“They’re trading the outcomes of these children’s lives for the profits of a private company.”
A different study, published in 2015, found that 13.5 IQ points were lost when a child’s blood lead level rose from 1 to 10 micrograms per decilitre.
In a statement to NCA NewsWire, a spokesman for the Department for Energy and Mining said Nyrstar’s multi-million dollar investment in its Port Pirie facilities would, over time, enable the company to reduce lead and other emissions substantially to improve environmental and health outcomes for the community.
The spokesman said the state government was working with Nyrstar to develop an improvement plan for smelter emissions and a longer-term focus on daily cleaning of public spaces to reduce community exposure.
“While unforeseen delays in the commissioning of the new plant and recent environmental factors have proved more challenging than expected, regulators remain confident that the major investment in Port Pirie will significantly improve the environment and health of the city,” the statement said.
“The reduction in emissions made possible by the government-supported investment in this regional centre will also allow the Targeted Lead Abatement Program to step up its critical role in addressing legacy lead issues in the community.”
The statement highlighted that the number of case workers at the city’s Environmental Health Centre has been doubled in the past three years.
It also said an extensive air monitoring program implemented by Nyrstar would improve day-to-day ability to track further progress in reducing lead exposure.
In a separate statement, a Nyrstar spokesman said the reduction of blood lead levels in children in Port Pirie had always been a “major priority” for the company.
“Nyrstar remains committed to working with a range of government and community stakeholders to improve health outcomes in Port Pirie,” the statement said.
The company said it undertook numerous initiatives in 2020 to improve air quality in the community.
“These included the completion of significant capital works during maintenance stops, upgrading of its air monitoring network, initiating new road and materials handling improvements and purchasing new street sweepers to deliver an improved and expanded site cleaning program,” the spokesman said.
“These programs will continue in 2021, with substantial investments ($25M+) planned to improve plant operations and thereby improve air quality in the community.”
While she was pregnant with Macen, Karen Davis moved to a different part of the city in an effort to reduce her baby’s lead exposure.
But she says it shouldn’t be that way – and she’s calling for radical action.
“I think moving the town is the only solution, if they really want to make a difference,” she said.
“There’s no way they’re going to shut it … but I think move the town, the shopping precinct so that a non-smelter worker won’t have to go into the town.”
Her son’s last blood lead reading was nine micrograms/decilitre – down previously from 10.
“Every time I get a letter letting me know what his lead levels are, straightaway it’s like, ‘You, as a parent, what are you not doing?’” she said.
“It’s really starting to irritate me because they’re not taking responsibility for it.
“We do everything we can.”