Australia has a long history of metal mining and smelting. Extraction and processing have resulted in elevated levels of toxic metals surrounding mining operations, which have adverse health effects, particularly to children. Resource companies, government agencies and employees often construct ‘myths’ to down play potential exposure risks and responsibility arising from operating emissions. Typical statements include: contaminants are naturally occurring, the wind blows emissions away from residential areas, contaminants are not bioavailable, or the problem is a legacy issue and not related to current operations. Evidence from mining and smelting towns shows that such ‘myths’ are exactly that. In mining towns, the default and primary defence against contamination is that elevated metals in adjacent urban environments are from the erosion and weathering of the ore bodies over millennia—hence ‘naturally occurring’. Not only is this a difficult argument to unravel from an evidence-based perspective, but also it causes confusion and delays remediation work, hindering efforts to reduce harmful exposures to children. An example of this situation is from Broken Hill, New South Wales, home to one of the world’s largest lead–zinc–silver ore body, which has been mined continuously for over 130 years. Environmental metal concentration and lead isotopic data from soil samples collected from across Broken Hill are used to establish the nature and timing of lead contamination. We use multiple lines of evidence to unravel a ‘miner’s myth’ by evaluating current soil metal concentrations and lead isotopic compositions, geological data, historical environmental assessments and old photographic evidence to assess the impacts from early smelting along with mining to the surface soils in the city.
- Broken Hill