Children at Yarralumla Primary School in Canberra have been forced to learn in hallways and the gym for over two weeks while work has been underway to remove unsafe levels of lead in their classrooms.
But, despite multiple letters to parents, lead contamination has been found in additional classrooms as recently as this week.
- Unsafe levels of lead have been found in 11 classrooms at Yarralumla Primary School
- An expert says depending on where the readings were taken, recordings of lead at the school could be up to 220 times higher than the acceptable measurement
- The Education Directorate says regulations did not require lead-safe practices for the school works
The ACT Education Directorate told the ABC that it did not undertake lead-safe works to replace old windows at the school, because the demolition of structures with lead paint was not considered a “lead process” by work health and safety laws.
Many buildings built prior to 1970 — like Yarralumla Primary School — often have lead-based paint on their windows, walls and doors.
As a result, professional painters undertake precautions when working on older buildings, like getting regular blood tests, using special stripping methods during remediation, and ensuring rigorous disposal of affected material.
“Unfortunately, it was used back in the day, just like asbestos. You cannot either drill at it, cut it or sand it,” long-time professional painter Paul Papas said.
“It is a very deadly material.”
Recent renovation work undertaken at Yarralumla Primary School, however, resulted in unsafe levels of lead being found in 11 classrooms.
Several letters from the school to parents and carers since July 22 have tried to explain the situation: old windows with deteriorating lead-based paint across eight classrooms had needed to be replaced, and following that work, unsafe levels of lead were found.
According to those letters, eight of the classrooms have been shuttered for specialised cleaning and further testing since July 17, but a further three rooms were only closed up this week.
Until they are declared safe, many children at the school are being forced to take their lessons in any spare space available, including the gym, and even hallways.
Some parents have told the ABC their children are being rotated out into the playground for hours longer than usual.
Teachers at the Montessori school, which sits within Yarralumla Primary School grounds, have lost access to their kitchen, and primary school toilet blocks have also been declared unsafe.
The school has repeatedly reassured its community they were doing everything they could to ensure the safety of teachers and children — but unsafe amounts of lead have continued to be measured within the building.
Directorate says lead-safe works were not required by health and safety laws
The ACT Education Directorate told the ABC the initial work undertaken on July 6 to replace windows in eight classrooms was not considered an activity that needed lead-safe paint management.
In an email, the ACT Education Directorate said:
“The works undertaken were done so in accordance with advice from Robson Environmental who have confirmed: ‘The mechanical demolition of structures and objects painted with lead paint do not fall under the category of a ‘lead process’ as defined by the ACT Work Health and Safety Regulations 2011 (Section 392).'”
Instead, the school said, the process used “included the use of drop sheets and standard project cleaning”.
Following the work, the Directorate said lead levels — measured in milligrams per square metre (mg/m2) — were monitored on surfaces and in the air of each classroom.
It said prior to cleaning, lead levels ranged between 0.09 mg/m2 to 24 mg/m2 but dropped to between less than 0.1 mg/m2 to 1.1 mg/m2 after initial cleaning by Canberra firm International Asbestos Removals.
Parents and carers were advised by the school on July 24 that there was a low risk of exposure from the lead found in the rooms — but they were not advised of the actual reading.
Scientist and lead expert Elizabeth O’Brien has campaigned for decades to raise awareness of the dangers of lead-based products.
She said the highest lead level found at the primary school’s classrooms was more than 22 times higher than what was deemed acceptable in the United States — a country Australia looks to for guidance on lead contamination issues.
“But if the highest levels were floor dust results, they were actually more than 222 times the US guidelines pre-cleaning, and 10 times post-cleaning,” she said.
Expert who helped phase out leaded petrol says Australia still unsafe
Ms O’Brien founded The LEAD Group some 30 years ago after finding her three sons had lead poisoning due to paint and petrol vehicle emissions.
She is responsible, in-part, for seeing leaded petrol phased out of Australia and has worked closely with local and international bodies, including the World Health Organization and the United Nations, in efforts to eliminate lead from paint and petrol globally.
She wants legislation around lead-based products and testing in Australia changed and said she was not surprised the window replacement operation at Yarralumla Primary School had gone ahead using what she deemed as unsafe practices.
“Rather than plastic drop sheets, they should have been using specialised and preventative lead contamination processes,” she said.
“In Australia, it’s just everywhere that there are unsafe practices.
“You can see painters with their canvas cloths on the ground and then getting out a dry sander or grinder.”
Her strong recommendation for parents with concerns about their child’s exposure to lead contamination was to get a blood lead test from a doctor as soon as possible — a move that has also been recommended by Yarralumla Primary School.
But she also has further warnings.
“The Government says that it’s only necessary to take action if the blood lead level is above 5 micrograms per decilitre, but [we] recommend that you take action when the blood lead level is above 1 microgram per decilitre,” she said.
Ms O’Brien said it was unfortunate there was no legislation in Australia stipulating what lead paint lead levels should be before lead-safe methods were required.
She also strongly believes buildings constructed prior to 1997 — not just 1970 — should be treated with special care.
In 1997 lead levels in new pots of paint were limited to 0.1 per cent.
“I would love to see some proper legislation to actually protect the environment, too,” Ms O’Brien said.
“It’s all very well … to protect workers from lead … but as the dust settles, you will definitely also get a lead contaminated environment left behind when the worker goes home.”