Calls for lakes mercury tests

A CAMPAIGNER for the health of the Gippsland Lakes says mercury has contaminated lakes’ fish stocks at levels which are a cause for concern and warrant more testing.

Ross Scott, a retired mechanical and civil engineer who worked for the Latrobe River Improvement Trust and founded the Lake Wellington Rivers Authority in 1995, said there was an estimated 120 tonnes of mercury in the Gippsland Lakes and feeder streams.

“East Gippsland is a fish eating area, and so there is a sizable risk to the community,” he said.

Gippsland East MLA Tim Bull, however, disagrees.

He said on the advice of experts, neither the mercury levels in sediment or mercury levels in fish were of concern.

“On the first point, I note the comments of the acting chief medical officer, Dr Michael Ackland, who has denied mercury levels in the Gippsland Lakes are any sort of human risk,” Mr Bull said.

He said the mercury level in sediment and in the water of the Gippsland Lakes was an organic form which could not get into the bodies of fish and did not have an effect on humans.

Mr Bull said of 10 fish samples recently sent away for testing, the maximum level that came back at less than half of maximum residue limits of Food Standards Australia New Zealand, the national food regulator.

“The test results of the 10 fish ranged between 0.01 to 0.21mg/kg, levels far below 0.5 maximum residue limits for mercury in fish,” he said.

Mr Bull said he had also been advised the EPA had “ongoing monitoring being undertaken in relation to the matter”.

Mr Scott, however, claimed mercury testing was not taking place in the lakes system.

“The EPA is not testing no-one is testing,” he said.

“Mercury in the lakes has not been tested for the last 15 years, in spite of (a number of) reports warning of the risk and recommending further studies,” he said.

Mr Scott also pointed to a 2008 Monash University study into dolphin deaths in the Gippsland Lakes linked to mercury.

The research into heavy metal contaminant levels in dolphins from Port Phillip Bay and the Gippsland Lakes concluded high mercury levels may have contributed to dolphin deaths.

Three Gippsland doctors have also written to Health Minister David Davis outlining mercury concerns.

Paediatrician Dr Jo McCubbin of Sale and Lakes Entrance doctors Jane Graecen and David Campbell are all urging comprehensive testing of mercury levels in the Gippsland Lakes system.

Dr McCubbin said the 10 bream eluded to by Mr Bull were from a Lakes Entrance fish shop and were sent by concerned locals to a nationally accredited testing laboratory in Melbourne.

She said the results for mercury were variable.

“Some were quite high and some were acceptable,” she said.

But Dr McCubbin said the results highlighted the need for more studies.

“We need studies to find out if these are just a couple of one-off high levels or are consistent, and whether there should be health warnings issued, particularly to children and pregnant women,” she said.

Dr McCubbin said mercury could have a detrimental effect on brain development in unborn babies and produce cerebral-palsy like symptoms.

Older children could suffer learning difficulties.

In adults, Dr McCubbin said mercury had been linked to evolving concerns about Parkinson’s Disease and Alzheimer’s Disease and could affect the kidneys and other organs.

Dr McCubbin, who is also an environmentalist, said once mercury was released from deep within soils from activities such as mining it entered the air, water, sediments and soils.

She said it was likely high levels of mercury were released into the atmosphere during the Hazelwood mine fire which began in February this year and burnt for more than 40 days.

“(Mercury) is sucked up in trees, it is released in bushfires, it just keeps going around and around,” she said.

“Governments take the line that there is no evidence of mercury in the Gippsland Lakes, yet there is no testing,” she said.

Mr Scott said mercury-contaminated waste had been discharged into the Latrobe River and Latrobe Valley sewerage system from Australian Paper Manufacturers, and mercury had also come from old gold mining activities and via airborne particles from Latrobe Valley power stations, and these sources were all likely to have affected the lakes system.