While the ACT’s education system might be leading the nation, too many of its schools have residues of lead.
On Monday, parents at Richardson Primary School were notified that toxic lead dust was found in the school’s heating system over the school holidays.
Built in 1984, the school is one of almost 70 ACT schools built before 1992 that contain hazardous materials such as lead paint, asbestos, and aluminium composite panels, Yvette Berry, Minister for Education and Youth Affairs, stated at a press conference this morning.
Licensed assessors have cleaned all the affected spaces and declared them safe to use, Ms Berry said.
“That means there is no disruption to students or staff in this important first week of school.”
During routine maintenance, lead dust was found in Richardson’s boiler room and in the heating ducts. The heating system has since been sealed and will not be used until safe to do so.
Licensed assessors have tested to see if the dust flowed into the adjoining hall, library and learning spaces, and have deemed those areas safe to occupy.
“Many buildings, including schools, were built with materials that we didn’t know were hazardous at the time,” Ms Berry said. “We know more now, and as buildings age, we need to manage those materials actively.”
Lead paint was widely used in Australia in the late 20th century as a colour pigment, and because it was durable, fast-drying, and water- and crack-resistant. Lead, however, can cause intellectual impairment; damage to the kidneys, nervous, reproductive and cardiovascular systems; and even death.
Before 1965, lead paint contained up to 50% of the soft metal; between 1970 and 1992, up to 1% – still a dangerous level. The amount fell to 0.25% in 1992, and to 0.1% in 1997, before it was banned in 2010. (Modern paints still contain negligible trace levels.)
More than two-thirds of the ACT’s public schools were built before 1992; in them, lead paint is most typically found on painted timber surfaces including window frames, eaves, and handrails, but has also been found in storage and equipment rooms, an ACT government spokesperson said.
Every public school with known hazardous materials has a Hazardous Materials Register, so that people doing maintenance or upgrades know where any potentially hazardous materials are before they start work, the spokesperson said.
During last year’s elections, both ACT Labor and the Canberra Liberals promised to remove hazardous materials from affected public schools, after lead paint contamination was found at Yarralumla Primary School, North Ainslie Primary School, and Alfred Deakin High School.
The government has committed $15 million to remediate schools that contain hazardous materials.
In December, the ACT Education Directorate formed an expert panel of health officials, academics, and safety experts to advise on removal of hazardous material in public schools. The Education Directorate regularly reviews all school buildings to make sure they remain safe for students, staff and school communities, the government spokesperson said.
“The safety of students and staff is our priority,” Ms Berry said. “This includes making sure that families and students feel comfortable and confident that schools are safe.”
In the last two months, the Directorate has reviewed hazardous material registers in every school; assessed the condition of lead paint in every public school where the substance was known to have been used; and developed a plan to deal with hazardous materials.
Lead paint can be encapsulated (painted over with lead-free paint) to seal it and render it inert. Lead paint, Ms Berry explained, is only dangerous when disturbed (like asbestos sheeting), or when it becomes old and needs to be removed.
Jeremy Hanson, Shadow Minister for Education, said the number of public schools in Canberra found to contain toxic contamination was alarming, and the result of 20 years of neglect from the Labor-Greens government.
“The response from the government has been slow and inadequate. We continue to call on the Education Minister to immediately publish the full list of schools affected by lead paint and asbestos issues.
“There are many Canberra parents, staff and children who are deeply concerned; however, there does not appear to be any real action from the Labor-Greens government to rectify the situation,” he said.