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Lead Exposure and Health effects in Australia – NHMRC position

Lead is a heavy metal used in manufacturing batteries, alloys, plastics and protective coatings.

It is not required for human health, and can be toxic when ingested or inhaled.1

Over the last 40 years, a number of measures have been introduced that have, over time, reduced community exposure to lead. These changes have led to a decline in blood lead levels in the community. 2 3 4 5

The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) maintains an ongoing interest in new and emerging scientific evidence on the impact of environmental lead on human health.

The NHMRC 2009 Public Statement is designed to help families minimise their exposure to this toxic substance. It provides practical advice on measures such as management of lead based paint removal, hobbies which may expose people to lead, nutritional information, and strategies for those families who live in lead exposed environments such as near a smelter or mine.

It also advises that “all Australians should have a blood lead level below 10 µg/dL”. This should not be interpreted as suggesting that 10µg/dL is a ‘safe’ level of exposure or a ‘level of concern’. Rather, it is the level at which sources of exposure to lead should be investigated.6

Research suggests that even small amounts of lead can be toxic when ingested and are particularly hazardous for children, with impacts on development, behaviors and learning.7 The 2009 NHMRC Public Statement advises that all children should have their exposure to lead minimised.

Work Underway

The NHMRC is commissioning an independent evaluation of the evidence relating to individual lead exposure in Australia to inform a revision of the 2009 Public Statement and Information Paper (if required) and the development of a guideline on the management of individual exposure to lead in Australia for health practitioners.

The 2012-14 Lead Working Committee has been established to consider and provide comment on the evaluation of the evidence, and advise on the development/revision of the three documents.

Public consultation on the draft documents is anticipated to occur in the first half of 2014.

The NHMRC is aware that in 2012, the United States Centers for Disease Control agreed to the recommendation from their Advisory Committee on Childhood Lead Poisoning and Prevention (ACCLPP), that all children with confirmed blood lead levels equal to or above 5 µg/dL should have their health status monitored until all recommended environmental investigations and mitigation strategies have been completed.8

The 2011-12 Lead Working Committee considered this report and noted that it emphasises the critical importance of primary prevention to reduce the incidence of lead exposure among American children. It should be noted that the United States has a blood lead level screening program (as many sources of exposure to lead in the United States are unknown) as opposed to Australia’s risk based approach (which is the focus of the NHMRC’s 2009 Public Statement),where sources of exposure to lead is generally well known, and that reference values based on population studies (like the USA program)  do not identify levels at which individual intervention is either desirable or effective.

In environments where lead is endemic, e.g. in communities where lead is mined or smelted, environmental aspects of lead are considered by enHealth (The Environmental Health Committee—a subcommittee of the Australian Health Protection Committee) which reports to the Australian Health Ministers’ Advisory Council.

NHMRC Information Paper and Public Statement 2009 (Under Review)

In 2009, the NHMRC published a public statement and an information paper reiterating the message that it is important to limit exposure to lead in the community.  The evidence review will inform a revision (if required) of the public statement and the information paper. 

NHMRC Lead Working Committee (2012 - 2014)

Providing guidance on managing individual exposure to lead in Australia remains a priority for the NHMRC.  A new Lead Working Committee has been established and will consider the available evidence on lead toxicity and management strategies for minimising individual exposure to lead. This will inform a revision of the 2009 NHMRC public statement and information paper and the development of a guideline for health practitioners on managing individual lead exposure.


1  2009 NHMRC information paper.
(DSEWPC (2009b) National Phase out of Leaded Petrol. Canberra: Department of Environment, Sustainability, Water, Population and Communities.
DSEWPC (2009a) Lead Alert Facts: Lead in House Paints. Canberra: Department of Environment, Sustainability, Water, Population and Communities.
4  Van Alphen M (1998) Paint film components. National Environmental Health Forum Monographs General Series No. 2.; Lansdown R & Yuill W (1986) (Eds) The Lead Debate, The Environment, Toxicology and Child Health.  London and Sydney: Croom Helm).
5  Donovan J (1996) Lead in Australian Children: Report on the National Survey of Lead in Children. Canberra: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.
6  2009 NHMRC information paper.
7  National Toxicology Program (2012) NTP Monograph on Health Effects of Low-level Lead. National Toxicology Program, USA Department of Health and Human Services.
8  What Do Parents Need to Know to Protect Their Children? Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Page reviewed: 11 December, 2013