A number of children at Yarralumla Primary School – including one child who is in remission from cancer – have been pulled out of the school following revelations of high lead contamination levels, prompting the Canberra Liberals to call for an urgent inquiry.
Parents at the school, along with Shadow Education Minister Elizabeth Lee, say they have been raising concerns about lead paint in classrooms with the Education Directorate for the last 15 months and the response from the directorate has been inadequate.
“I have been involved in this school for over nine years and this is not a new issue. Mould, asbestos and lead have been ongoing issues for this school at least from my time,” said Elizabeth Christiansen after pulling two of her children out of the school.
“I was aware when you walk into old schools you are going to have old issues that need to be resolved, but what I did not expect was not having an adequate safety plan in place.
“Steps were not taken properly because results have proven it is 200 times the recognised limit of safety. That is, children being exposed to lead paint pollution.”
Lead paint was common in Australian buildings constructed before 1970, and Education Minister Yvette Berry said the lead paint at Yarralumla Primary School was managed with “expert advice over time”.
“Where areas are deteriorating, remediation works are undertaken,” she said.
Two lead management plans were carried out in 2019, one in April which included the painting of surfaces to seal the lead paint from flaking, and then a second in November which set out longer-term remediation.
During the recent school holidays windows in eight classrooms were replaced as part of lead paint remediation works. Cleaning at the end of this work involved testing for lead contamination.
The Directorate said it did not undertake lead-safe works because the demolition of structures containing lead paint was not considered a “lead process” by work health and safety laws. A further three classrooms were then closed after unsafe lead levels were found.
“My middle child did not want to be at school as she has sensory issues and found it too noisy and too disruptive. My youngest one cannot be here, she is recovering from cancer, she is now in remission but she has a weakened immune system and therefore I cannot put her at risk,” Ms Christiansen said.
“There are no temporary classrooms available while the remediation work is going on, therefore children are packed into tight areas and during COVID restricted guidelines, how can they be followed?
“The cleaning failed and they had to do it again, and they are now doing more remediation, so do I have faith in it? No.”
Ms Lee said it was unacceptable that children were being locked out of classrooms and forced to use portaloos in the middle of winter.
“There are lots of concerns we have had from families, parents and teachers over the years about ageing and dangerous infrastructure,” she said.
“Given the school classrooms were closed again this year, and even though the Government stands by a rehearsed line of ‘we followed all the advice and we have done everything that needs to be done’, it is absolutely clear that it was inadequate.
“We have also seen instances of asbestos, of mould, of leaks and of plumbing issues so it is not just limited to lead paint and it is not just limited to Yarralumla Primary.”
Ms Lee said the Canberra Liberals would address the issue if they won the forthcoming Territory election.
“In addition to establishing an independent inquiry, we will also undertake a thorough and full infrastructure audit of every single ACT Government school.”
Further information about lead exposure, asbestos and mould can be found at the ACT Health website under the Environmental Health heading.
If you suspect that you or your child has been exposed to lead, consult your doctor.