Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Arsenic and New Homes

With the much-appreciated volunteer assistance of a colleague, I conducted a few pilot interviews in the Laurimar community centre yesterday, testing questions about the local knowledge and use of adult and child education facilities, child care services, travel patterns, and similar issues. This work will eventually feed into the development of a survey that will be administered in a more systematic fashion, in this and other developments in the region.

The community centre also hosues a Maternal and Child Health facility, which was closed the day we were interviewing, but which posts fliers and brochures in the hallway for people to browse. Most of the material was what you would expect to see in any MCH facility – information about immunisation schedules, numbers for after-hours health hotlines, tips on feeding, advice for getting young children to sleep. One brochure, however, warned of a more local health concern: arsenic from mine tailings left behind by Victoria’s gold mining industry. According to the brochure:

“Mine tailings that contain arsenic are spread over large areas of land, including land now used for housing… In many gold mining areas, mine tailings have been used for landscaping instead of normal soil.” From Arsenic and Health: Are You Living in an Area with Mine Tailings? – State Government Victoria, Department of Human Services, pp. 1-2

The publication then goes on to note that arsenic does not tend to build up in the body over time, and that small daily exposure therefore appears to have no ill effect, but that long-term health effects can result from higher levels of exposure over a long period of time, and that immediate acute poisoning can occur if a child consumes a handful or so of mine tailings. The publication offers practical advice for recognising mine tailings – they “look like clay or sand”, and “are usually white, pale yellow or grey in colour” (p. 2). It then warns you not to allow babies or small children to put dirt or sand in their mouths, as this could result in arsenic poisoning, to wash children’s hands often to clear away traces of arsenic – oh, and, while you’re at it: “Do not put mine tailing sand in your child’s sand pit” (p. 6).

If you’ve already made the mistake of filling your child’s sand pit with mine tailings, however, be sure to contact the EPA before removing the offending substance: there are special rules you’ll have to follow in the disposal process.

A toddler contemplates whether to sample the mine tailings...What struck me most about the publication, though, were the illustrations. The publication features a cheerful nuclear family – parents, four children and a dog – all demonstrating the right and wrong ways of dealing with mine tailings. The idea, I think, is to present the information in a non-threatening way. Maybe it’s just because I have a toddler myself, but some of the images seemed unintentionally macabre… This image, for example, portrays a smiling toddler contemplating a handful of sand. It was captioned in red bold ink in the text: “Eating small handfuls of mine tailings containing high levels of arsenic could be dangerous.” (p. 5)

I’ll never look at a sand pit the same way again…

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