Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Seanad Éireann díospóireacht -
Thursday, 3 Feb 2005

Vol. 179 No. 4

Hazardous Waste.

I thank the Cathaoirleach for allowing me to raise this matter today. I may be stretching his indulgence because it may appear to him that I have raised this matter on many occasions recently. Last week I raised the urgent need for the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources to come up with a plan for the rehabilitation of old mining sites. While the matter I am raising today is related, I ask the Minister of State to take account of the fact that it is also quite distinct.

Gortmore environmental action group, a local community group that is campaigning for the clean-up of the local environment in the Silvermines area of County Tipperary, recently commissioned a scientist, Dr. Rory Finnegan, to produce a report on the matter. Dr. Finnegan specifically examined the figures which have resulted from the monitoring of dust emanating from the tailings pond at Silvermines. That monitoring was jointly conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency and North Tipperary County Council, which are reputable bodies. Dr. Finnegan examined the figures and the synergistic impact of the lead and arsenic dust emanating from the tailings pond.

The Minister of State may not be familiar with the tailings pond, which is a 147-acre site containing tailings, or spoil, from an old mine at Silvermines. The pond is the subject of major concern in the area because its surface is considerably eroded, but I will not rehearse that argument. I urge the Minister of State to examine the urgent need for an epidemiological study to be conducted in the Silvermines area. The study should arise not only from Dr. Finnegan's report, but also from the fact that the incidence of cancer in north Tipperary, particularly in the Silvermines area, is very high.

The Minister of State may have been listening to "Today with Pat Kenny" last Monday morning when a reporter, Valerie Cox, reported on this issue for the RTE. If he was listening to the programme, as I was, he would have been struck by the stories told by a number of residents of the area, who spoke about the incidence of cancer not only in their families, but also in their communities. No family in the area has been untouched by cancer, including some quite rare cancers. A woman in the area started radium treatment this week for cancer of the tongue. There have been many unusual cancers in the area. When the former health board in the region studied the level of lead in the blood of local children, it found that there were elevated lead levels in the area. It is likely that such high levels have been reduced as a result of advice given to the local community. I spoke to the health authorities about the matter.

The matter I am raising this afternoon is entirely separate, however. It relates to the synergistic or combined effect of lead and arsenic, working together in the human system. The combined impact of lead and arsenic is much different from the impact of either on its own because of a chemical reaction between them. The synergistic effect of lead and arsenic can be to damage or suppress the immune system of the person, or to have an impact on his or her haemoglobin levels. I am not a scientist or a medical person, but I have read the report. I have a copy of the preliminary report with me. There are major concerns in this regard.

The people of the Silvermines area are in a unique position. They live in a community in which there is a tailings pond that is so eroded that there is a growing amount of dust in the area. The analysis conducted by Dr. Finnegan showed that the amount of dust being sent into the atmosphere is increasing every month and every year. The figures show there is a major problem in the locality.

I appeal to the Minister of State to take this issue seriously and to allay the concerns of the local community. I ask him not to say that there is no evidence, but to see whether there is something to be examined. An epidemiological study would involve an assessment of the incidence of cancer in the local area, in order to establish whether there is a cluster. I would be the first person to welcome any finding that there is not a cluster — I would be absolutely delighted. I am not saying there is a cluster, but there is a concern that there may be a cluster arising from the impact on human health of all the airborne toxic materials in the atmosphere around the Silvermines area. Such materials have been a feature of the locality for the past 20 years, but they have been particularly severe for the past five or six years. Those who monitor such matters in the area have found that the acceptable levels of lead, arsenic and other heavy metals are exceeded on a constant basis. This must be a matter of concern.

I hope the Minister of State will tell me that this issue is being taken seriously. I demand that the incidence of cancer in the Silvermines area be examined. A comparative study should be conducted to allay our concern that there may be a cancer cluster in the area. I hope the Minister of State will take a positive view of the matter. I thank the Cathaoirleach for his indulgence in allowing me to raise this important matter again.

I thank Senator O'Meara for giving me an opportunity to provide an update on the human health aspects of this important environmental and health issue. It is obvious that Senator O'Meara is familiar with the tailings pond about which she spoke.

In June 2000, an interagency group, chaired by the then Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development, presented a report of its investigation into the presence and influence of lead in the Silvermines area of County Tipperary. The investigation covered issues relating to human health, animal health and the environment. The then Mid-Western Health Board was one of the agencies involved in the investigation.

The human health component of the study concentrated on ascertaining concentrations of lead in humans living in the area. Blood sampling was directed at children, in particular. Screening found that lead concentrations in the population were within acceptable international concentrations and generally below those found in urban areas in the developed world. On the basis of the results of the blood testing programme, the group found that the high lead concentrations in the local environment were not, at that time, being transferred to the human population. It indicated the potential for such transfer, however, particularly to children. It recommended that appropriate monitoring should be conducted, particularly in so far as children in the area are concerned.

The interagency group's report concluded that risks arising from particular characteristics of the area must be managed to ensure the safety of local people. It stated that potential risks arise from historic mining operations and the naturally occurring lead and other metals on which such operations were based. It recommended that the local population should avoid exposure to potential risks and that particular care should be exercised in areas of the locality accessed by young children. It advised that those living in the area should follow advice given to them by the public health authorities.

The report contained 39 recommendations, six of which related to human health. It recommended the resurfacing of the local school's play area. It said that children should be discouraged from accessing areas of high lead content. It called for annual blood surveillance for pre-school and school-going children. It recommended internal and external environmental sampling. It proposed that awareness of the presence of lead should be maintained. It asked for the participation of the community in addressing lead exposure and developing specific prevention strategies.

A multi-agency implementation group for Silvermines was established to report on the progress being made in implementing all the recommendations. The then Mid-Western Health Board participated in the group, which was chaired by the Environmental Protection Agency. In its final report in July 2002, the implementation group indicated that all the human health recommendations had been completed. The report also indicates that all the interagency group recommendations had been implemented, except those concerning the rehabilitation of the mining sites, which was a matter for the then Department of the Marine and Natural Resources. I am advised that the former Mid-Western Health Board was continually involved regarding this issue to ensure public health protection. The Health Service Executive mid-western area has advised that throughout the period 1999 to 2004, a series of annual blood tests was carried out to determine the lead level in children in the area. These tests indicate levels well below the accepted norm. They also indicate that the levels had been declining over the period of testing.

The Senator mentioned the incidence of cancer and stated that a number of families in the community appear to be affected and that there is genuine concern about a cluster. I am advised by the Health Service Executive mid-western area that data provided by the National Cancer Registry do not indicate any excessive cancer rates in the Silvermines area. However, if there is genuine concern, it is important that we are conscious of it and that the matter be kept under review. I understand that ongoing discussions with GPs and public health nurses concerning health issues in the local population did not reveal any issues of concern. The former Mid-Western Health Board, in conjunction with North Tipperary County Council, developed a public health contingency plan in the event of a major dust blow from the Gortmore tailings management facility. The plan contains guidelines and practical advice for the management of the home environment in the unlikely event of a major dust blow. It provides recommendations on how to eliminate or minimise exposure to lead by undertaking simple measures that will get rid of contaminated dust. It is intended to assist in achieving a safe environment for children and adults exposed to lead, thereby limiting any adverse health effects. I am advised that this plan was made freely available in the area.

In June 2001, an expert group, chaired by the Environmental Protection Agency and including international experts, was established to formulate guidelines applicable to Ireland on the management of lead in the environment. During the course of its work the expert group recognised the need to consider guideline values and guidance on other relevant metals associated with lead in the Silvermines area. In 2004, the expert group presented the overall finding and recommendations pertaining to these metals.

The expert group considers the current guidance on human health in the environment of Silvermines to be adequate. The education and awareness campaign implemented by the former Mid-Western Health Board should continue to be provided through the ongoing work of local health care workers and guidance documents should be reviewed regularly and should take account of the results of human health monitoring as they become available. I am advised that the former Mid-Western Health Board provided advice to the local population based on the best international advice and the Environmental Protection Agency's international advisory group in heavy metals and soils. This advice concerns hygiene and avoiding hazardous areas in the Silvermines area.

While there is no evidence of a health impact on the local population from the local environment, the state of that environment is such that significant rehabilitation is required to remove that risk. This issue is being dealt with by the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources. The public health department of the Health Service Executive mid-western area has recently received a copy of a report produced by Professor Finnegan on blood lead levels in children in Silvermines. It is currently reviewing the report and I await its conclusions. Against this background of very comprehensive involvement by the appropriate agencies, I do not consider the action suggested by the Senator to be required at this stage. However, the matter will be kept under review.