Thousands Of Birds Now Dead, Fears Of Mass Lead Poisoning Rock Esperance
Lead Shipments Banned As Investigators Move In
A beach close to the port facility at Esperance.
Are thousands of children in a West Australian town now at risk of brain damage from lead poisoning?
This is one of the chief questions on the minds of locals in Esperance,where some 5000 birds have died from what is now believed to be lead poisoning since late last year. Increased levels of lead have also been found in water supply storage tanks around the town.
Birds are continuing to die at the rate of more than 100 a week in the West Australian seaside town of Esperance, and lead poisoning has been confirmed by the state government as the reason why.
Locals are becoming increasingly alarmed about the possibility that home water tanks have become dangerously contaminated by lead carbonate dust from the massive port loading facility that dominates the town's seafront.
Doctors in the town are now inviting locals to be tested for lead poisoning, and a number of people have been warned not to drink rain water collected in the tanks attached to their homes, due to lead levels found to "excessive" in early testing.
The majority of the birds that died were nectar-eaters, including lorikeets and wattle birds, giving credence to a popular theory that fine lead carbonate dust from the port facility, where it is transported for shipment across the world, had been blown back over the town and settled on trees and flowers used by the birds.
Anger is growing in the town that the state Health Department has been too slow in responding to the concern expressed late last year by the locals, when Esperance fell quiet after virtually the entire local song bird population died out in only a few weeks.
One local GP said the widespread testing for high lead levels should begin with area's children.
Many of the thousands of dead birds were found near the town's schools.
"(Children) absorb lead much faster than grown-ups, particularly with their constant hand-to-mouth contact. The fact that they hardly wash their hands doesn't help," Dr Howard has been quoted as saying.
"Many children affected by lead suffered serious behavioural problems and are usually nowhere near as bright as other kids."As part of the growing investigation, pigeons are now being shot around the town. Investigators want to find out why the pigeons have been immune to the lead poisoning suffered by thousands of other birds.
The West Australian Department of Environment has begun a full-scale review of the Esperance Port Authority's loading practises, and its licence is now under review.
The Department of Environment has now banned the port facility from handling lead carbonate, which has been brought into the small town at a rate of 10,000 tonnes a month for almost two years, from a mine nearly one thousand kilometres away.
The lead carbonate loaded at the facility has the texture of fine sand and could have easily been blown back into the town on the strong winds that regularly sweep the sea front.
Shire President, Ian Mickel told the ABC fears in the town over the extent of the lead poisoning were becoming increasingly serious.
"Everyone is asking the same sort of questions - when will we find out, what the extent is and when will we know the problem's finished," he said.There are now very real concerns, according to this report that the toxic heavy metal has contaminated the town's drinking water.
"There is a real sense of urgency about this now," said Ian Mickel. "We really need to know what's happening and what the dangers are, if any, to the community."
Investment in the town's tourism has been growing in recent years, and Esperance is gaining an international profile for having some of the most beautiful beaches in Australia, if not the world.
The area occupied by the port facility is coveted by developers, who see potential for the site to be converted to sea front housing developments and holiday accommodation. If the port facility was relocated, it would substantially change the view from the sea front, making the area more picturesque.
When I visited Esperance three weeks ago, local shop owners said that the port was holding back the town from becoming a booming tourist destination.
Unless there is hugely negative fallout, and lawsuits, resulting from the lead contamination scare, it is unlikely the facility will be closed any time soon.
BHP Biliton now has an enormous nickel and cobalt mine at Ravensthorpe, valued in the billions of dollars, to the west of Esperance, and will use the port facility to ship out hundreds of thousands of tonnes of minerals in the coming years.
Professor Brian Gulson, from the Graduate School of the Environment at Macquarie University, and a recognised expert in lead poisoning in humans, has been brought in by the WA government to "to help with the Esperance problem."
He told ABC Radio that recent studies have found links between anti-social behaviour and high levels of lead in the blood :
Now that the export of lead concentrate from Esperance has been banned, a 12,000 tonne heap of the powder, worth more than $23 million, has been stockpiled inside"an old shed" at the port.
"The most important ones these days that are coming out of the studies - especially that have been carried out in the US - are behavioural problems, and they've actually been associating high blood lead levels with delinquency and even... and crime," he said.
"The biggest concern, or one of the big concerns, is the neurological effects, of course, which can affect the learning… give rise to learning difficulties in children.""The most sensitive people, of course, would be young children, who would be crawling around in the dirt and getting the material on their hands and then putting it in their mouth."
Locals are now concerned that the fine lead powder will continue to contaminate the town.
The shed is reported to have a small hole in one side, and a multimillion dollar concrete building is being built to fully contain the shed and the lead carbonate inside. Clearly the port facility owners are now treating the massive stockpile of lead carbonate as a dangerous threat to the town.
The lead carbonate was headed for China, where it was used to be in car batteries.
The Esperance port facility is one of the busiest in Australia, with more than eight million tonnes of minerals, coal and other products passing through the port in the past year.
Officers from the Department of Environment and Conservation were seen around Esperance in recent days, taking swabs of windows from at least 50 buildings, including six schools. These swabs were sent to Perth for comprehensive testing.
Lead carbonate becomes soluble in the stomach, meaning the powder is far more easily absorbed into the bloodstream than most other forms of lead.
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