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Second Mine Reports High Lead Levels, This Time in Children

May 22, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP

Concerns over lead contamination forced one international mining company, Ivernia Inc. of Canada, to shut down its Magellan lead mine in Western Australia after lead residue was blamed for killing thousands of birds.  Now, 45 children living in the Australian mining town of Mount Isa, near the Xstrata Plc, have been found to have blood lead levels over World Health Organization standards.  The Mount Isa Xstrata mine produces four percent of the world's lead.  The town of Mount Isa is about 800 miles—1,300 kilometers—northwest of the Queensland city of Brisbane and is adjacent to Xstrata's zinc, lead, copper, and silver mining operation.

Swiss-based Xstrata and local and state governments now face legal action from the parents of a six-year-old Mount Isa girl who has suffered injuries to her brain and nervous system which seem to be linked to lead exposure from the town's mine.  Also, a Queensland state health department study of 400 children confirmed preliminary findings that identified high lead levels in the Mount Isa children.  The study was released last month.

Xstrata acquired the Mount Isa operations—a complex of mines and smelters that mass-released millions of metric tons of copper, lead, zinc, coal, and silver when it bought MIM Holdings Ltd. in 2003.  In 2006, Mount Isa produced 210,000 metric tons of zinc in concentrates and 120,000 metric tons of lead in concentrates.  London-listed Xstrata said it does not expect to cease or curtail lead mining operations at Mount Isa and claims that it is committed to reducing lead emissions from its mine and currently operates 15 lead monitoring stations around the town.  Xstrata is removing old mine sediment that has contaminated the nearby Leichhardt River.

Many consider lead poisoning to be one of the most important chronic environmental illnesses affecting children today.  Exposure to lead in children and unborn children can cause brain and nervous system damage, behavioral and learning problems, slowed growth, hearing problems, headaches, mental and physical retardation, and behavioral and other health problems.  Lead is also known to cause cancer and reproductive harm and, in adults, lead can damage the nervous system.  Despite efforts to control lead and the success in decreasing lead poisoning, serious cases still occur.  Once poisoned, no organ system is immune.  Of particular concern is the developing brain because negative influences can have long-lasting effects and can continue well into puberty and beyond.

Lead poisoning is difficult to recognize due to its subtle symptoms and that no pathognomonic—or definitive—indicators exist or point to contamination.  Children with lead poisoning may experience irritability, sleeplessness or excess lethargy, poor appetite, headaches, abdominal pain with or without vomiting—and generally without diarrhea—constipation, and changes in activity level.  Affected children can also be iron deficient and pale due to anemia and can be either hyperactive or lethargic.  There may also be dental pointers, such as lead lines on gingival tissue.  In adults there may be motor problems, an increase in depressive disorders, aggressive behavior, and other maladaptive affective disorders as well as problems with sexual performance, impotence and infertility, and increased fetal wastage and sleep disorders.

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