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Wednesday, 18 August 1993
Page: 203

Senator HARRADINE —My question, which is directed to the minister representing the Minister for the Environment, Sport and Territories, refers to the action taken by the government on environmental grounds, amongst others, to increase the price of leaded petrol viciously. As the Treasurer said last night, this measure recognises the harmful effects of lead in petrol, particularly on children in Australia. Can the minister kindly inform us whether there is a problem with chemical emissions in South Australia, Tasmania and regional Australia to the extent that that action is warranted? Further, can the minister indicate how many children have blood lead levels above the proposed new health standard in both those states?

Senator SCHACHT —I have been advised by the minister for the environment, Mrs Kelly, that the National Health and Medical Research Council has concluded, on the best available national and international scientific information, that intellectual impairment in children occurs at much lower blood lead levels than previously thought, thus exposing many more children to this risk. The NHMRC has recommended a reduction of the safe levels of lead in blood from 25 micrograms per decilitre to less than 10 micrograms per decilitre. The NHMRC has called for immediate action to reduce exposure to lead, particularly in children aged one to four years. If no action were taken, it has been estimated that the percentage of children up to four years with blood levels in excess of the new goal would be 33 per cent in 1996 and 24 per cent in 1998.

  About 90 per cent of lead in the air comes from lead in petrol. Australian vehicles are estimated to have the highest per capita level of lead emissions in the world. There is overwhelming evidence amongst OECD nations that decreases in average levels of lead in air are largely attributable to reductions in the use of lead in petrol. Most other OECD countries have introduced a price differential to encourage motorists to switch from leaded to unleaded petrol.

  The current phase-out of leaded petrol by the year 2002 is still not quick enough to meet the new NHMRC standards. That is why the government has announced the phasing in of a price differential for leaded and unleaded fuel. I do not have available an answer to Senator Harradine's specific question about numbers of children. However, I will refer it to Mrs Kelly and see whether she has that information.

Senator HARRADINE —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. I asked the minister a question to which he has not responded. He talked about the National Health and Medical Research Council report, which is not yet publicly available. He indicated that the minister has advised him that 33 per cent of children may be over that standard. Is the minister aware that a study of 130 children at the Royal Children's Hospital in Melbourne has shown that 96 per cent of those children were actually under the proposed very strict new standard? Is this not a revenue collecting decision which will impact on the poorest people, particularly people in his state and in my state? For example, the average age of cars in my state is 11.1 years compared with the national average of 9.8 years.

Senator SCHACHT —I would have thought, Senator Harradine, that the number one issue in this country is the health of our children, not whether a particular state could be affected by particular levels of lead or whether it is a states rights issue. I believe that the government has taken a decision to address the issue of lead in petrol as it affects our children. As far as the differential is concerned, that is not an issue which has motivated the government.

  Judging by Senator Harradine's long history in this place of expressing his concerns about families and children, I would have thought he would have been the first to support us in protecting the health of children. I will refer to Mrs Kelly the request for the information that I do not have available and will report back later.