November 27, 2013 at 11:22 pm #1454MikeKeymaster
Birds fell out of the sky as a whole town was poisoned by lead dust
By Kathy Marks in Sydney
Published: 05 April 2007
A strange silence was the first clue that something was wrong. The
dawn chorus that usually woke residents of the picturesque coastal town
of Esperance, in Western Australia, had stopped. Then birds began
falling out of the sky.
Local people were alarmed when they came across dead lorikeets,
wattlebirds, honeyeaters and silvereyes in their parks and back yards.
Health officials told them not to worry. But they tested their
rainwater tanks, the main source of drinking water, and found
dangerously high levels of lead or nickel in more than a third.
The authorities still insisted there was no cause for concern. Then
they tested the seabed at the Esperance port, through which nickel and
lead carbonate mined inland are shipped to Asia. Some samples contained
130 times the recommended health levels of the two metals. It was also
established that 4,000 birds had died of lead poisoning.
There was lead in the air, lead in the drinking water, and lead in the
sea. And when health officials finally admitted that there might cause
for concern and began testing the population, they found lead in their
Out of 900 people tested, 12 – including two young children – had
higher levels than those deemed acceptable by the World Health
Organisation. Lead is a particular hazard for small children and
The West Australian government has now ordered an inquiry. The port
authority has halted exports of lead carbonate, and the mine, Magellan
Metals, has suspended operations. Residents have been warned not to
drink water from their tanks and to avoid eating fish, shellfish or
crustaceans caught locally.
But residents fear that their long-term health has been damaged and
they are furious with local authorities for playing down the risks. It
was December when the birds began to die. Only in the past fortnight
has the situation been treated with due seriousness.
Meanwhile, it has emerged that the port authority did not report two
“spikes” in lead dust emission levels, recorded in February and May
Graham Jacobs, a GP and local politician, said: “I think it is
appalling. Lead is a serious heavy metal pollutant, and it has enormous
implications for the vulnerable people, particularly, in our
Dr Jacobs said earlier official advice that the lead levels that killed
the birds did not pose a threat to humans had been premature.
“It’s a bit like me saying my patient is not having a heart attack,
without looking at the blood test or the ECG (electrocardiogram),” he
told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
More than 100,000 tons of lead carbonate – by far the most toxic form
of lead, if inhaled or ingested – have been shipped through the port
over the past 18 months. The birds were poisoned by lead dust from the
The high levels of nickel and lead at the port were found in rocks and
sediment next to the loading wharf, and the state’s director of
environmental protection, Robert Atkins, said they were, “most likely
to have arisen from drainage off the port wharf area and the loading
The mining company has suggested that the lead be exported in sealed
containers, or turned into pellets. Previously it was transported in a
granulated form. But Esperance residents want the shipments halted
completely. There is speculation that lead dust escaped during loading
and was blown over the town where it settled on roofs and was then
washed into rainwater tanks.
Jim McGinty, the state health minister, called the situation in
Esperance, “very worrying from a public health perspective”.
Jim Dodds, a health department spokesman, told ABC that unsafe lead
levels in blood had not been found across the entire population, or
even throughout families, so the cause was not clear.
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