Alarm over high lead contamination of Esperance sea food

The presence of high concentrations of lead found in fish in a part of Western Australia has prompted a warning to people living in the Esperance area to avoid eating some local seafood.

According to Dr. Nic Dunlop from the Conservation Council of WA, lead concentrations hundreds of times higher than Australian recommended standards have been found in shellfish collected near the port in October.

Dr. Dunlop says there is an urgent need to expand the sampling program because the discovery shows that lead carbonate has shifted away from the loading berths and is being absorbed by marine animals.

This is not the first lead scare in the region as in 2007 lead exports from Esperance Port suspended studies when it was revealed that dust had contaminated the town.

Dr. Dunlop warns that eating shellfish or bottom-dwelling fin fish in the general area of Esperance between the port and the tanker jetty should be avoided at present and he believes the current position of the Health Department on the consumption of seafood from the area is understated.

Michelle Crisp who first raised alarm about lead contamination at the port last year says the latest news is not a surprise as two independent surveys have already shown high toxic lead levels at the port.

Ms Crisp is concerned that health authorities have cleared as fit for consumption seafood from the area and denied there is a problem and she suggests the majority of the community are totally unaware of any potential risks.

The survey of shellfish at Port Beach, several hundred metres from the contamination source, found "alarmingly high" concentrations of the toxic heavy metal.

Dr. Dunlop says the most contaminated razorfish in the area had kidney lead concentrations more than 1500 times the national standard for human consumption and around 80% of shellfish in the sample area were dead.

Dr. Dunlop says the contamination could also have spread to oysters, mussels and fish such as bream, snapper or whiting and the Health Department should issue much stronger warnings advising people not to eat any seafood caught in nearby waters.

According to the Health department's standard advice eating wild shellfish in any area should be avoided because its safety could not be guaranteed.

The survey which was funded in part by the Department of Environment and Conservation, was part of a study of the fallout from the port's contamination with toxic lead carbonate dust.

The razorfish were collected more than 700m from the main area where dust had entered the water and though razorfish are not a major seafood species, the contamination could also be present in filter-feeding shellfish.

Lead poisoning is caused by increased levels of the metal lead in the blood and can lead to irreversible neurological damage as well as renal disease, cardiovascular effects, and reproductive toxicity.

Blood lead levels once considered safe are now considered hazardous and most exposure in developed countries is the result of occupational hazards, leaded paint, and leaded gasoline -which continues to be phased out in most countries - lead poisoning interferes with the normal development of the brain.

The symptoms of chronic lead poisoning include neurological problems, such as reduced cognitive abilities, or nausea, abdominal pain, irritability, insomnia, metal taste in the mouth, excess lethargy or hyperactivity, chest pain, headache and, in extreme cases, seizures, comas, and death.

Lead poisoning can also lead to gastrointestinal problems, such as constipation, diarrhea, vomiting, poor appetite, weight loss.

Children are at greater risk from lead exposure and even very low levels has an effect on children's mental and cognitive abilities of children.


The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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