Moanataiari Concerns
Wednesday, April 4, 2012 at 10:52PM
Bill Barclay

Residents of Moanataiari will surely be relieved to read Scott Simpson’s assurances:

“While I understand that people will inevitably be concerned at the findings, I believe the health advice given by the District Health Board is completely appropriate at this stage in the investigations”. 

Unfortunately, this reassurance tends to be overshadowed by the comments of Dr Mike Fitzpatrick – an environmental toxicologist with a world-wide reputation (easily verifiable on the internet) who in Tuesday’s Hauraki Herald presented disturbing evidence to the contrary. Dr Fitzpatrick described the District Health Board response as “pathetic”.  He warned that only a small oral intake of contaminated soil by a child could exceed chronic arsenic levels, and he pointed out pregnant women were also particularly at risk.  He also flatly contradicted the Health Board by stating that health checks of residents for arsenic was neither hard nor that expensive.  Six weeks ago Denis Tegg called on the Moanataiari Governance Group to push the Health Board to undertake human health checks (PP 23 Feb), but there has been no action todate. 

This is the important part of the Press Release from the District Health Board:

"Health authorities are reinforcing current advice to Thames residents of the suburb of Moanataiari to avoid coming into contact with soil and dust following the results from more soil testing.

Levels of both lead and arsenic have been found at higher than recommended levels.

Thames Coromandel District Council, Waikato Regional Council and the Waikato District Health Board have been working together on providing information as a result of the tests.

Both the Waikato District Health Board and the Ministry of Health recognise the public concern from the confirmation of high levels of these substances.

Medical Officer of Health Dr Dell Hood (pictured) says questions about the availability and value of testing are to be expected.

Blood testing for lead is available via GPs where individuals have particular reason to be concerned about their exposure, but it is probably unnecessary and unhelpful for most residents.

Even when levels are elevated, for most people the first step to take will be reducing exposure, which is the advice which has from the outset been given to all residents.

Our advice, confirmed with the Ministry of Health, is that individuals who are concerned about their exposure, or who have symptoms which may be linked to exposure to lead or arsenic should talk with their family doctor.

Thames residents do not feature to an unusual degree in a recent review of all notifications of raised lead levels. High blood lead levels are required by law to be notified to the medical officer of health.

Measurement of arsenic is much more complex. Arsenic levels in urine reflect consumption in the last few days only, and include the non toxic form of arsenic that is present in seafood. It is the long term level that is important in increasing the risk of some diseases.

Hair and nail arsenic measurements are not available via the public health system because they are too subject to contamination from the environment. It is the regular swallowing of small amounts of arsenic which can, over time, increase the risk of some diseases.

Health officials are waiting until the second round of soil tests have been completed within the next few weeks and the results analysed before reviewing that advice. The properties believed to have the higher levels were tested first.

Dr Hood says that local medical practices, midwives and well child providers are being kept informed, and that anyone who is concerned should seek health advice that relates specifically to their own circumstances.

The arsenic and lead are believed to have come from waste rock from mining used to reclaim land for the Moanataiari subdivision in the early 1900s through to the 1960s.

Soil testing is being coordinated by the Thames Coromandel District Council and final results are due with all residents of Moanataiari by June 2012. Remedial action plans will be ready by the end of September".

Clearly, residents have been sent the raw test results, whether for just their own property, or the whole lot is not clear. They have apparently been told to wait for the “full report” in May that will “include management and remediation options”.

For my part, I am left confused as to which view should be given the greater credence.

The other concerning new development is that the latest soil tests carried out on eastern properties confirm not only high levels of arsenic but also of lead, zinc and antimony.  All these heavy metals are highly toxic to humans.

They are all also strongly associated with gold mining.  The information can be quickly accessed on the internet that indicates that when gold mining operations dig up rock and expose it to oxygen and water a process known as acid mine drainage (ARD) occurs which leaches out these toxins into soil and streams.  ARD is modern mining’s greatest environmental challenge (hence the tailings dam at Waihi Gold) and historic mining’s greatest environmental legacy issue (which is why the Tui mine is NZ’s most contaminated site). But you will search in vain for any mention of ARD as a potential cause of the contamination on Councils’ website?  You will however find reference to lead being a “naturally occurring phenomenon” and lead paint being a possible cause of the lead contamination.  

Is a pattern emerging here?  First we had the Regional Council and Ministry for the Environment keeping secret a 2006 report which had Moanataiari top of the priority list for investigation.  Now we have the Health Board providing apparently incomplete advice on the health risks and dragging the chain on health tests, and the District Council massaging the information on the likely causes of the contamination.

The information provided to the HH by Dr Mike Fitzpatrick is immensely concerning, alarmist or otherwise. He should perhaps be aware of the likelihood of an attempt being made to question either his credibility, or the veracity of the evidence that he has provided.

Perhaps instead, our local politicians would be better advised to seek further information from Dr Fitzpatrick as a counter to whatever spin may be being accumulated along the way from the Hamilton health authorities in which they clearly have so much confidence. This matter is simply too serious for politics to be played out in any way - keeping people informed as to the dangers that they and their children may be incurring from living within this environment should be front and centre. At the very least, consideration should be given to Dr Fitzpatrick’s call for individual arsenic  tests to be undertaken without further delay – at least the children deserve this measure even if adults remain sanguine, and the contrary Health Board argument is not simply not sustainable.

As I have indicated in my post, dated 23 November, Thames residents need to prepare themselves for a substantial financial “hit” arising from the cost of remediation of Moanataiari, let alone the remainder of the town.  Mr Leach’s promise at the meeting on 23 November to undertake tests in other areas of the town when those at Moanataiari are completed will surely come back to bite him, and us financially, but now that the Genie is out of the box, there is no going back.





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