Home' Nova National : NOVA NATIONAL NOVEMBER 2011 Contents human health. Particles below 0.1 micron
in size can pass into the lower parts of the
lungs where they do most damage.
Automotive exhausts were the major
contributors to lead emissions in most
cities around the world, although
other sources include paint and factory
emissions. In the US, it is estimated
that between 90 and 98% of total lead
emissions are from car exhausts. In
Australia, it has been estimated that about
98% of lead emissions came from lead in
petrol, though the lead added to petrol
only represented 14% of total lead usage.
Australia was one of the last developed
countries to remove lead from petrol
(almost 20 years after the US). This was
despite the toxic effects of lead being
known as far back as the 1950s. Leaded
petrol was phased out in Australia
between 1986 and 2002. Australia has an
influential lead industry (the largest lead
mines in the world) that fought tooth
and nail alongside the petrol industry
and certain government departments to
keep the lead in petrol. Shamefully, the
health of the average person is usually
not a consideration when weighed
against the "health" of the economy when
large amounts of money are at stake. The
result of this reluctance to act means
that even still more Australians now have
elevated levels of lead in their bodies and
many children have been unnecessarily
exposed to this toxic metal.
Although the amount of lead has
decreased in road dust and soil, this metal
is still found as a contaminant in the dust
in our homes, usually near the entrance
where it is brought in on people's shoes.
This contaminated dust will accumulate in
carpets, where the possibility of it being
ingested or being transferred to the skin
is increased, especially if the dust particles
are stirred. When we studied the amount
of lead in carpets, we found the highest
levels near the front door. The closer the
house was to a busy road or a petrol station,
the higher the level of lead.
Lead can cause very serious health
problems, including damage to the
nervous system, leading to behavioural
changes and a decreased mental ability,
inhibition of enzymes, interference
with the growing foetus, colic, anaemia
and kidney damage. Infants and young
children are the groups most susceptible
to lead exposure. Even at low levels, lead
poisoning in children can cause significant
IQ deficiencies, reading and learning
disabilities, impaired hearing, reduced
attention spans and hyperactivity and other
behaviour problems -- a lot like ADHD
symptoms. Pregnant women poisoned by
lead can transfer lead to the developing
foetus, resulting in adverse developmental
effects including increased levels of
spontaneous abortion and stillborn
babies. One study found a strong
correlation with prenatal lead exposure
and violent offences and arrests later in
life. Lead exposure in utero will result in
poor intellect in children, especially when
exposed around 28 weeks of gestation
when development is most crucial.
Schizophrenia has also been associated
with exposure to lead in the foetus.
continued page 32
burnt. Before the Industrial Revolution,
lead poisoning commonly occurred due
to adulterated food or wine, or from
occupational hazards such as mining or
Naturally, lead is slowly released into
the environment through the weathering
of rocks, igneous (volcanic) activity and
through radioactive decay of naturally
occurring radon gas to form the isotope
210Pb. It is heavy, pliable and resistant
to corrosion and weathering. These
characteristics, as well as its plentiful and
accessible supply and ease to smelt, have
enabled humans to use it for thousands
of years. Some lead artefacts have been
dated back to 6500 BC. The Romans
© NOVA NOVEMBER 2011
Peter Dingle PhD presents a
case study of the toxic impact
of the most pervasive of heavy
Lead is the most widely used heavy
metal and a deadly toxin that
has become widespread in our
modern world. It is a neurotoxin
with a long history of causing damage to
the human brain, from Roman times due
to its presence (Pb -Latin name plumbum)
in drinking vessels, through 18th century
'Devonshire colic' where cider was
poisoned with lead in its manufacture, to
present day occupational exposure in the
lead additive and battery manufacturing
industry. Some historians put the demise
of the Roman Empire down to the high
levels of lead in the aristocracy of Rome,
which may have contributed to madness
such as Nero playing the fiddle as Rome
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produced approximately 80,000 tons of
lead annually and were known to increase
the environmental lead approximately
five times the background level. As far
back as 4,500 years ago in South East
Asia, when methods of smelting for lead
sulphide ores and cupellation of silver
were developed, widespread atmospheric
lead contamination occurred.
Lead is the only heavy metal whose
open ocean concentration has been
measurably influenced by civilisation.
The lead content of the open ocean
(Mediterranean and Pacific) has increased
three to five times since the introduction
of lead-based gasoline additives and 10
times since pre-industrial times. The
significance of these increases in global
lead concentration is very difficult to
assess. There is a growing concentration
of lead found in the tissues of fish,
especially shell fish, and in other food, but
the effect on global ecosystem processes
would be nearly impossible to assess as
there are huge problems in determining
what is 'normal' when the global eco-
system is now relatively drenched in lead
compared with pre-industrial times. The
extent of global lead is best seen in the
fact that an emission product has been
diluted into the open oceans and
increased in concentration dramatically,
yet most lead emissions do not normally
reach the oceans but are deposited on
the land, particularly in cities where most
of us live.
Traditional uses of lead have included
building, plumbing, printing, fishing,
shooting and as weights. Additional present
day uses include radiation and electrical
insulation, battery manufacture and
various compound in paints, plastics,
ceramics, glass and, unfortunately, petrol.
Historically, there have been three major
sources of exposure of large populations
to lead -- lead paint in older homes, lead
in products like jewellery and crystal, and
lead added to petrol.
While lead was slowly removed from
petrol over 25 years, it will remain as an
environmental contaminant in the form of
fine dust for many more decades and the
controversy around it will last even longer.
Lead was added to petrol as tetra ethyl
and tetra methyl lead (two highly toxic
forms) primarily to boost octane ratings.
Lead was emitted to the atmosphere from
motor vehicle exhausts as volatile lead
compounds, unburnt tetra-ethyl lead and
as particulates such as lead oxide. Around
70% of these particles are less than 0.1
micron in size, easily dispersed over large
distances and the size most dangerous to
'Lead is the only heavy
metal whose open ocean
concentration has been
measurably influenced by
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