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Communicating results of community blood testing

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Statement from Dr Susan Jack, Medical Officer of Health, Southern DHB

We are testing residents of the Waikouaiti, Karitane and Hawksbury communities, as Public Health South looks to see whether the community may have experienced chronic exposure to lead in the drinking water.

Over the next week, people’s results will be returned, and care needs to be taken when communicating about these publicly to avoid misunderstandings.

It is important to be aware that we expect most, if not all, people to have detectable levels of the lead in their blood, as they will right across New Zealand. So being advised that lead is present in the blood is not in itself a cause for concern.

Further, we expect a number of people may have elevated blood lead levels as a result of other exposure, for example working with lead-based paint or other activities. Again, we cannot draw conclusions about the exposure to lead from the Waikouaiti water supply based on individual elevated results

The process Public Health South will use for communicating the results are as follows.

  • All individual results will be looked at and reported back to each individual or parent. If any blood lead levels are above the internationally accepted notifiable level of 0.24 umol/L then our public health unit staff will undertake a more detailed risk assessment and provide advice to the person or family.  We would seek to understand and provide information about removing the lead exposure source, and may follow up with a repeat blood test after 6 months. If there are higher levels in  children, they  would be referred to a paediatrician for assessment and management. Very high levels for children or adults would need an emergency assessment and management at hospital.
  • We will not communicate publicly on individual cases.
  • The combined results will then be analysed. This analysis will consider overall levels in comparison with the result of the population based on other studies, and taking into consideration other possible reasons for elevated results including people’s age, occupations and hobbies. This will help us understand if the results suggest there has been any going exposure to lead from the water supply in the affected communities. This might also suggest if there are higher risk areas of the water reticulation system.
  • These combined results will be shared with the community at a public meeting, and with the media. We expect this process to take two to three weeks.

We ask media to respect the privacy of individuals in the community who are participating in this blood testing programme.

Thank you for your continued support in communicating responsibly about this important public health issue.