WasteMINZ’s residential lead working group is calling for people to be aware of the risks of potential lead contamination in residential properties, ahead of International Lead Poisoning Prevention Week (23-29 October).
Residential lead working group chair Michelle Begbie said considering the number of houses built before lead-based paint was phased out in 1965, approximately 450,000, there could be a number of residents unaware of the potential contamination of their properties.
Maintenance, removal, repair or general deterioration can contaminate the surrounding area with lead concentrations in the soil sufficient to impact health. People who live in houses with lead-based paints can be exposed to lead when they handle the soil, eat vegetables grown in it, or track dirt and dust into the house.
Thirty-eight cases of childhood lead absorption were reported in New Zealand between 2013 and 2017, but the residential lead working group, which is comprised of contaminated land specialists with an interest in assessing and managing lead contamination at residential properties, is concerned that this is the tip of the iceberg.
“There is no safe level of lead exposure without harmful effects,” Ms Begbie said.
“Lead exposure affects human health, but the most vulnerable to these effects are our children. Even low levels of lead exposure may cause lifelong health problems.
“However, it is difficult to determine the scale and extent of lead absorption from soil, because moderate lead absorption usually has no visible effects; clinical symptoms only occur following severe lead poisoning, and there is no systematic blood lead testing programme in New Zealand.”
Ms Begbie said there were significant gaps in the understanding of elevated lead levels in soil.
“Given how often we find elevated lead levels in soil, and the numbers of potential properties involved, our current soil standards indicate we would expect a significant health impact. Nonetheless, we do not have a comprehensive picture of which properties are contaminated or to what extent. We do not know what proportion of children are affected or how badly.”
The solution requires a combined and coordinated effort between the central and local governments, and the public health services of district health boards.
“No one can address this issue alone,” Ms Begbie said.
To find out more about how to avoid lead poisoning when renovating, go to the Ministry of Health website.
If you are concerned about the metals in your soil, go to SoilSafe Aotearoa, which provides free soil testing.