Nine-month-old Berkeley crawls around the floor, playing with some car keys placed next to the front door of his Gisborne home.
By Rebecca Moore and Tania Page
Like any little boy, he’s curious about the world and anything interesting goes straight in his mouth.
But his parents, Ananda and Graeme Card, are oblivious to an invisible threat dusting onto the carpet and window frame.
Now, two years on, they’ve since taken drastic measures to protect the family from their own home.
After discovering dangerous amounts of lead in their windows, carpet, walls and soil, the family were forced to stay in a caravan while their dream home was stripped apart.
“It's awful looking around and thinking your entire house is poisoning your kids, it's really upsetting,” Berkeley’s mum, Ananda, says.
“We were just lucky to be able to buy a house, period. But we also were just really excited to be able to get one in a nice neighbourhood and a really beautiful old house.
“It's a great size with a great yard. There's just so many good things about it.”
But that dream quickly turned to a nightmare.
Concerned about the lead in their house, the couple decided to get their kids’ blood tested but in 2019, the notifiable level in New Zealand for lead in blood was 0.48 micromoles per litre – twice as high as Ananda’s homeland, the US, where it is 0.24.
Berkeley, then just a baby, came back with a reading of 0.23.
“At the time, nobody cared. But we knew that that was not OK,” Ananda says.
New Zealand finally lowered its notifiable level to 0.24 in April this year.
Most Kiwis probably know - somewhere in the back of their minds at least - that lead isn’t good for you.
But, apart from the bits that still flake off really old houses, New Zealand basically got rid of it once we stopped painting our houses with it and it was no longer being used in petrol, right? Wrong.
Lead is still an environmental and public health problem. In fact, it makes the World Health Organization’s toxic top ten.
So what is lead?
Lead is a naturally occurring element found in small amounts in the earth’s crust. While it has some beneficial uses, it can be toxic to humans and animals, causing negative health effects – especially for babies and children.
As children grow, their bodies absorb more lead than adults do and their brains and nervous systems are more sensitive to its damaging effects.
Widely used in house paint until the 1960s, lead was gradually phased out and, by the 90s, licks of paint didn’t come with a side of lead.
Lead can be found in the windows and soil of some older homes and neighbourhoods. But it can also be found in new tapware and – as we found out earlier this year – it can even be in our drinking water.
Ananda stumbled across the poisonous substance hidden out of sight in her home when she was looking into how she could replace her beautiful leadlight windows if they broke.
“I was wondering what would happen if a ball came through that window? Like how would we fix it, like, is it catastrophic? Do we have to replace it?”
What she discovered shocked her.
“I started finding out about leadlight windows when I realised that those dark lines in the leadlights are actually lead. And then I realised that we have some right next to our front door that my baby at the time, Berkeley, he would play right there next to the windows and he could actually just easily reach out and touch the lead that was right there.
“I freaked out about that and I started researching more and more and learning so much - it opened my eyes.”
The concerned mum got out her vacuum and picked up some samples.
“Graeme, my husband, thought I was being a bit paranoid about the whole thing. So, I'm like, ‘OK, we'll send some samples off and we'll see what happens’.
“When they came back really high, then Graeme realised, like, ‘whoa, like, yeah, we definitely have a problem here that we have to deal with’.
“We found it in our carpet. That was a big one,” she says.
“We found it in our doorframes and our doors, it was in our window frames, it was in our ceiling and behind our walls, it was in concrete, an old fireplace hearth, it was under our carpets on the floorboards, it was obviously in the leadlight windows, it was in our porch, it was in a lot of places.”
Ananda, a molecular biologist, and Graeme, a structural biologist, used their scientific skills to methodically collect samples from in and around their home.
“In our house, where do we find it? Everywhere! It's just so much,” Ananda says.
“We did a grid of the entire lawn and all of it was contaminated.”
While Berkeley, who is now aged two and has passed the age of wanting to mouth everything, and his older brother Francis, five, are free to enjoy the backyard, their one-year-old sister Rosemary stays in Ananda’s embrace inside, watching her brothers have fun through the window and banging on the glass in protest.
“She can't play out there until she's past that stage of wanting to put everything in her mouth, it's just really sad,” Ananda says.
A danger to kids
The sweet taste of lead in paint is also attractive to babies, Professor Sally Gaw, director of environmental science at the University of Canterbury, says.
But it can have damaging effects.
“It can affect their IQ, it may impact on their hearing, and it may impact on how tall they grow, it has also been linked with some behavioural difficulties in children as well because of the impacts on their brains,” she says.
When lead is ingested or inhaled, it enters the blood stream and is stored in bones. Lead is a cumulative poison, meaning it can build up in the body over time. In rare cases, lead poisoning can kill.
New Zealand's Director of Public Health Caroline McElnay says these risks were the reason why the lead notification level nationwide was lowered from 0.48 micromoles per litre of blood to 0.24 this year.
“The Government takes lead exposure seriously,” she says.
“Lowering the notification level helps identify children who may be exposed to lead above the usual background levels because it enables an investigation by public health officers who will work with the family to identify and manage the source of exposure.
“For anyone with a lead blood level of less than 0.24 micromol/L of blood, no action is required unless there is another reason to investigate a possible environmental lead hazard.”
McElnay agrees young children are most at risk, adding those under age six are more likely to have greater exposure through putting things in their mouth. Young children also absorb 50 per cent more of ingested lead compared to the 10 to 15 per cent absorbed by adults.
She also says their developing nervous system is sensitive to lead and their diet may be low in calcium or iron, which could increase absorption into their body.
“We expect some traces of lead in all of our communities. People can be exposed to lead through their occupation, physical environment - such as paint on older homes - and lifestyle activities, such as indoor shooting ranges,” she says.
“However, elevated blood lead levels in children may have longterm health consequences.”
McElnay says exposure may also delay sexual maturity or puberty onset in adolescents and increased blood pressure and risk of hypertension among adults and pregnant women.
A recent reminder
There are lots of ways people can be exposed to lead and have no idea.
But Waikouaiti, Karitāne and Hawksbury residents in East Otago know better than most the consequences of high levels of lead in their water.
The issue was brought to light in February when lead spikes were detected detected in the water, and later, in some of the local residents’ blood.
Now, months on, locals are still not able to drink their tap water.
One of those residents – Mick Lewis of Waikouaiti – was drinking the water but his wife Averill wasn’t because ever since they moved there three years ago, she always felt it tasted “muddy”.
After tests, Mick’s lead blood level was elevated. Averill’s wasn’t.
“I've been poisoned by the council, I didn't pick this fight, this fight picked me,” he says.
Sunday understands Dunedin City Council plans to release its report into the cause of the lead spikes this month. Work to replace old water pipes and joints has already been fast tracked and is well underway.
Gaw says it is important to get to the bottom of where that lead came from.
“If it's an infrastructure issue, then that helps with identifying and taking those out. If it's come from another source, then that would be really useful to know as well because then someone can say, ‘well hang on, if that's the source here, then we think this could be a problem somewhere else’. So we can then transfer that knowledge.”
However, McElnay assures the risk from heavy metals in drinking water is small.
She added the Ministry of Health recommends people run a cold tap for about 30 seconds each morning to flush out at least 500ml of water and so reduce the risk of drinking water containing metals.
“The drinking water that comes from our network supply is safe. However, metals such as lead can leach from your pipes and fittings into the water if it’s been sitting overnight.”
New lead imported
However, as Sunday discovered, new lead is entering Aotearoa in tapware.
Master Plumbers CEO Greg Wallace says this has been an ongoing issue. His organisation has been testing the water from a range of taps bought online with results, revealed in the Sunday programme, that he says are shocking.
“We’re asking consumers to waste water by running the tap 30 seconds every day of their life before they use that tap. The solution to us is very simple. We just remove lead from tapware and brass plumbing items so that contamination cannot occur.”
He wants New Zealand to follow Australia which has a system of third party verification and auditing of all tapware to ensure it is not leaching too much lead into the water.
“We got lead out of petrol, we got it out of paint, surely we’d really want it out of our drinking water.”
The Minister for Building and Construction Poto Williams is open to the idea of moving towards zero lead in tapware.
“It does speak to our real intention to have safe drinking water.”
She says the recently updated Building Amendment Act will provide Kiwis with the right level of assurance that their taps are safe by “requiring manufacturers and suppliers to disclose what is exactly in their products”.
But she adds the ministry will not be taking any pre-emptive action, nor implementing a mandatory scheme similar to that in Australia.
For Wallace, who says three out of the five taps bought online failed to meet our drinking standard, that’s unacceptable.
“Plumbing products deal with public health, we’re not the same as a screw, a nail or a piece of plaster board. This is drinking water.”
Gaw says the more we learn about lead and its potential effects, the harder it is to say what is safe.
“More recently, international authorities like the World Health Organization, some of the food safety agencies who work on a global level have moved toward what they call the ALARA principle, A-L-A-R-A, as low as reasonably achievable. So they've been unable to set a safe threshold.”
How worried should New Zealanders be?
“I think cautious, rather than extremely worried,” Gaw says.
“There will of course be some situations where it's identified that people's exposures are unacceptable, but all of our urban areas will have lead in them. It was used in paint, it was used in petrol, in stained glass windows.
“So it's more around mitigating that risk, practical things that you can do to minimise your exposure.”