Calls to monitor threat of lead in food

Active measures need to be taken on an ongoing basis to prevent potentially dangerous levels of lead from entering the food chain in the Silvermines area of Tipperary, a new report has recommended.

An inter-agency group, comprising health and environmental experts, has called for regular monitoring of group water schemes and milk from dairy herds around Silvermines for high lead levels.

The group was established after two dairy cows died from lead poisoning on a farm near Silvermines in early 2017. Bulk tank milk from the herd from which they came was found to contain lead above the maximum safety level which resulted in restrictions being placed on milk supplies.

Subsequently, milk from two other dairy herds in the area was found to have lead levels above recommended limits.

An investigation of all three herds established that an environmental source was the most likely cause of the problem with cattle exposed during the winter feeding season to silage that had been contaminated with lead-enriched soil and/or river sediment.

The Silvermines area has naturally occurring concentrations of lead at above-average levels. Although the last lead mine in the area closed in 1993, the industry has left a legacy of open pits, mine shafts, large waste dumps, tailings, and derelict structures.

The group said it believed that the area was “a safe place in which to grow up, live, work, and produce food”. However, it said it is important that farmers, the local community, and relevant agencies continue to implement active management measures on an ongoing basis.

The group said it was broadly recommending the same active management measures recommended by a similar group in 2000 which had been established following a lead poisoning incident of cattle in the area the previous year.

It has proposed that dairy farmers around Silvermines should be provided with maps of their holdings showing the distribution of lead and other heavy metals in soil.

The report said the investigation had highlighted a specific challenge for milk production on farmland with naturally lead-enriched soil as there had been a 50-fold reduction in maximum safety levels of lead since 2000.

The inter-agency group, which included representatives from the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Communications, Climate Change and the Environment, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, the HSE, Teagasc, and Tipperary County Council, met five times since May 2017.

The group has recommended extending the area for monitoring activities from the 1999 study area by approximately one kilometre to the east of Silvermines village.

The 2000 report made 39 recommendations in relation to public and animal health, food safety, soils, and rehabilitation of mining works in the Silvermines area.

By 2002 all but three recommendation which related to a programme of works for the remediation of mine-related sites had been implemented. The final phase of the remediation project — the construction of a mine waste management facility — is the only phase that remains to be completed.

The latest report said its findings reflected the fact that the risk has not substantively changed since 2000.

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