WasteMINZ’s residential lead working group is calling for a single agency to steer a proactive cohesive approach to residential lead contamination.
It’s apt timing, as the theme for this year’s International Lead Poisoning Prevention Week (22-28 October) is End Childhood Lead Poisoning.
Lead is a naturally occurring element used in petrol, paints, plumbing, batteries, ceramic glazes, and cosmetics. Lead paint is the dominant source of exposure and lead dust particles can be inhaled or ingested from peeling or degrading older paint on cladding, roofs, skirting boards, windowsills, and furniture. 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.
At low concentrations lead can affect the brain, kidneys, blood and reproductive systems. Lead exposure in children and pregnant women is particularly concerning as it can cause irreversible changes in behaviour and development that continue into adulthood.
Residential lead working group chair Michelle Begbie said the working group included representatives from the health and public health sectors, lead awareness advocates, and the water, paint, retail and trade industries.
Ms Begbie said the solution to the issue required a cohesive, proactive approach led by a single agency, with oversight of relevant sectors and agencies across New Zealand to manage lead exposure in residential settings.
“Regulations, legislation and guidance to do with managing lead exposure in residential properties are driven by a number of different agencies with no clear direction,” Ms Begbie said.
“To address this issue and reduce the risk of lead exposure for our vulnerable children, we need a government agency to step up and lead this work. No one can address this issue alone.”
The working group identified three areas that require urgent action, highlighted in a position paper recently published:
- Leadership and coordination: Several entities and individuals have some role in lead exposure management. They are guided by a myriad of legislation and guidance, with no agency accountable for ensuring the whole system works, and no stated goal to protect New Zealanders against exposure to lead.
- Research and monitoring: High level surveillance alongside prevalence testing (in high-risk areas with older housing or other risk factors) is needed to assess children’s current lead exposure. Blood lead level data is poor, almost solely occupational, and completely absent for children under 5.
- Advocacy and proactive measures: Regulation and guidance is sporadic and often outdated. There are opportunities to raise awareness of lead to empower and protect tenants, homeowners, painters and most importantly children.
Approximately 450,000 houses in New Zealand were built before lead-based paint was phased out in 1965, and many residents are unaware of the dangers they could be facing.
“There is no safe level of lead exposure without harmful effects,” Ms Begbie said.
“Lead exposure affects 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.”
To find out more about how to avoid lead poisoning when renovating, go to the MoH webpage.
For more information about International Lead Poisoning Prevention Week, go to the WHO website.