[ASC-media] Media release: Contamination threat 'larger than thought'
Science & Arts Media
jca-media at starclass.com.au
Wed Mar 24 08:25:59 EST 2004
CRAR Media Release 04/01
March 24, 2004
WARNING ON NATIONAL CONTAMINATION PERIL
Australia's building boom and enthusiasm for redevelopment is exposing tens of thousands of people to a growing health risk from contaminated sites, a leading environmental scientist warned today.
Professor Ravi Naidu of the University of SA's Centre for Environmental Risk Assessment & Remediation (CERAR) says it is clear the contamination problem in Australia is far larger and more complex than previously thought.
Prof. Naidu is calling for all political parties to address the issue of the threat to human health from past and current soil pollution among their priorities for the coming Federal Election.
"The exact number of contaminated sites in Australia is not known," he says. "While some states have made estimates, there has never been a thorough nationwide assessment of the scale of the problem.
"A study made seven years ago estimated there were 80,000 polluted sites across Australia. Yet, another study found there could be 60,000 in NSW alone, suggesting a far higher national total.
"These estimates do not include the hundreds of thousands of homes and other buildings treated with organochlorine pesticides for termites between the 1960s-80s. These chemicals have long been banned, but their residues continue to reach the environment, water and people."
The pollution is the legacy of 150 years of industrial development - old factory sites, petrol stations, mines and metal plants, sheep and cattle dips, tanneries, dry cleaners, storage dumps, timber treatment plants, print shops, landfills, gasworks, incinerators and general use of pesticides.
The main sources of contamination include toxic heavy metals, pesticides, petroleum and organic chemicals, biological waste - and in some cases possibly even disease from human or animal remains.
"The fact that a chemical or microbe is buried does not make it safe, though it may be out of sight and forgotten," Professor Naidu says.
"Many of these substances remain highly mobile and can reach humans by various routes including the food chain (via plants, animals and fish), water, inhalation of vapours or dust, skin contact or ingestion of soil - a particular risk for infants."
The redevelopment of former industrial areas as inner-city residential suburbs, the spread of the urban fringe across old industrial, gasworks, petrol and landfill sites and the urbanisation of former mining and farming sites mean that more and more Australians are being exposed to past industrial pollution unless the sites are remediated.
"The more we re-develop our cities, the greater the risk of exposure to dangerous pollutants from the past. Many of these have the potential to cause cancer and other diseases, to impair the immune system or cause genetic damage, to cause sensitivities and allergies and to affect the nervous system, especially in the very young, whose intellectual development may be at risk."
Professor Naidu says the nation's Environmental Protection Agencies have a very good grasp of major sites such as old gasworks, refineries, big factories and landfills - but it is far beyond their resources to trace all the pollution that has been buried in the last century and a half.
"Also there has never been a national study of the range and concentrations of contaminants in Australian soils, whether from natural sources or from human activity. So we don't know what's what.
"This makes it far harder to assess the risks posed by different soil conditions, which we have to do if we are to clean them up effectively," Professor Naidu adds.
"Because we cannot assess these risks, we continue to add to them. Burying our pollution remains our primary method of dealing with it and, while landfill designs have improved, you can never be sure that contamination will remain where you put it."
Plants can re-mobilise heavy metals into the food chain, microbes can modify industrial chemicals making them more toxic and accessible, groundwater can dissolve them and carry them to distant places where they may enter food or drinking water.
"In its 2001 election policy, the Howard Government placed justifiable emphasis on supporting industry to address the severe problem of remediating contaminated sites - and useful steps have been taken.
"But the problem is far larger than we thought then, and affects a far greater number of Australians.
"All political parties should consider placing it among the highest priorities of their health, environmental and urban development policies," Prof. Naidu says.
"We have simply no way of knowing how much disease and ill-health today is related to exposure to contamination of this sort, but commonsense would suggest that the level must be increasing - because the exposure is certainly growing."
Professor Ravi Naidu, CERAR, University of SA,
phone 08 8302 5041, 0407 720 257
ravi.naidu at unisa.edu.au
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