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Did you know that:
- Many parts of the Victorian Goldfields were intensively mined for gold. Historically, these activities generated a waste, often referred to as mine tailings or mining wastes.
- Mine tailings from historic mining activities can be found in the Goldfields region.
- Mine tailings often contain arsenic and other contaminants that may be harmful to health.
- The effects of prolonged exposure to small amounts of arsenic may not be immediately noticeable, so it is best to reduce your exposure.
- Children, pregnant women, and people with medical conditions are more susceptible to health effects from arsenic.
- You can limit your risk by reducing your contact during everyday activities, such as gardening and children’s play activities.
- Following these guidelines will also help protect you from other contaminants found in mine tailings.
Mine tailings and contaminants
Many parts of the Victorian Goldfields have been intensively mined for gold. Before regulation, waste generated through mining was often left at or just below the surface. Known as mine tailings, calcined sands, or mining waste, they can contain arsenic, lead and other contaminants that can be harmful to your health.
How to recognise mine tailings
EPA's reference guide Understanding the types of historic mining waste in the Goldfields region includes images and descriptions of common types of mine tailings.
Arsenic and health
Arsenic can be harmful to health, however, just because arsenic is in the environment, does not mean you will be exposed at harmful levels.
Some of the health effects associated with arsenic are summarised here.
Short term health effects: Arsenic poisoning
Swallowing a large amount of arsenic, in a short period of time (hours or days) can cause severe health effects. Large amounts of arsenic can irritate the stomach and intestines and may damage the heart, liver, kidneys, nerves, and blood.
Someone with arsenic poisoning may suffer from:
- Stomach pains, nausea (feeling sick), vomiting and diarrhoea (runny bowel actions).
- Extreme tiredness, weakness, abnormal heartbeat, and bruising.
- A feeling of numbness or ‘pins and needles’ in the hands and feet.
Long term health effects
If people frequently swallow smaller amounts of arsenic every day over many years, they may show long term health effects such as:
- Skin changes such as light and dark spots and thickened skin on the palms, soles, and trunk
- Stomach pains, nausea (feeling sick), vomiting and diarrhoea (runny bowel actions)
- Lung irritation, cough, sore throat
- Damage to the heart, liver, kidney, nerves, blood, and blood vessels
- Cancers, including those of the skin, lung, stomach, kidney, and prostate
- Learning, behavioural and coordination problems.
How arsenic in mine tailings enters the body
Arsenic in soil is not easily absorbed through the skin. Simply touching it is not a concern.
Arsenic can enter the body by inhaling or swallowing dust or soil from mine tailings. Everyone normally swallows or breathes in very small amounts of dust and soil every day. Young children take in more dust and soil because they frequently put fingers or toys in their mouths.
However, not all arsenic in soil is absorbed by the body, some stays attached to the soil particles and passes through your system.
Other contaminants that may also be present, such as lead, in mine tailings can enter the body in similar ways.
Exposures and Health risks of arsenic in mine tailings
People living or working in areas with high levels of arsenic in soil or mine tailings may absorb more arsenic than people in other areas.
Soil and dust ingestion is the largest exposure and the most important to manage. Environmental conditions may increase exposure to arsenic. For example, windy conditions and air pollution from bushfires may increase exposure from uncovered soil.
Fruit and vegetables can take up small amounts of arsenic, but not at levels that will cause health problems. The amount of arsenic that plants absorb depends on soil acidity (also known as pH), nutrient content, iron, organic matter. Chickens and other animals can also take up arsenic, which may be found in meat and eggs.
Except in rare poisoning cases, harm occurs when people are exposed to small to moderate amounts of arsenic over a very long period of time. Some studies have reported possible health effects in people living in areas with high arsenic in soil.
The risk (or chance) of health effects from arsenic in mine tailings depends on many factors. These include:
- The level of arsenic and other metal contaminants
- The amount of soil and dust that is inhaled or swallowed
- The age and size of the person, and if they are pregnant or have other conditions
- The lifestyle of the person (e.g. time spent outdoors, digging, or playing)
- The length of time that they are exposed.
What you can do
Steps you can take if you are worried about your health
If you have concerns about your or your family’s health, speak to your doctor. EPA works closely with the Department of Health and can connect your GP to additional medical advice for undertaking these tests and interpreting results, if requested.
Steps to take if there are mine tailings on or near your property
- Do not let children play on mine tailings or put sand from mine tailings in your child’s sand pit.
- Cover children’s play areas with:
- 30cm of clean soil that is covered with grass, mulch, or woodchips,
- thick plastic sheeting with a covering of soil or woodchips
- Impermeable pavers.
- Place mats at the door, or leave shoes outside, to stop tracking soil into the house.
- Do not use mine tailings in landscaping works or dig in areas with grey or calcined sands. If unsure, wear a disposable dust mask that fits snugly over your nose and mouth and throw it away after use.
- Reduce dust by:
- covering mine tailings
- dampening soil prior to landscaping or gardening work.
- After gardening:
- Keep dedicated gardening clothes, gloves, and shoes outside the house
- Wash hands and face
Home-grown fruit, vegetables and poultry
Garden fruits and vegetables are unlikely to contain high arsenic levels, but you can further reduce your exposure by:
- Washing home grown fruit and vegetables to remove soil and dust before eating
- Keeping chickens in pens with sealed floors or replace topsoil in their area with 30 cm of clean soil.
- Growing vegetables with clean soil in raised garden beds or pots that are at least 30 centimetres deep and are sealed at the bottom.
- Keeping soil in the neutral pH range of between 6 and 7, and adding organic matter (compost or manure), iron (if in an area with low iron soil) and nutrients, when growing fruit and vegetables in the ground.
Using dam water or rainwater tanks
Dust and soil from mine tailings can be found in dams and rainwater tanks. Testing is recommended before using water from these sources. This can be arranged through a commercial laboratory.
It is also recommended that you:
- Do not swim or fish in dams
- Review the Department of Health’s advice about water tanks.
Inside the house
Dust and soil from mine tailings can enter your home through the movement of people, animals, or the elements.
To reduce this:
- Wash yours and young children’s hands, particularly before eating and sleeping
- Wash children’s toys regularly to remove soil and dust
- Wash family pets often if they play outdoors and live indoors
- Reduce dust in your home by moping and dusting with a damp cloth, or using a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filter regularly
- Close windows and doors when it is windy
- Consider sealing gaps and cracks around windows and doors or walls.
An indoor HEPA air purifier can also reduce indoor dust.
What to do if you think you may have mine tailings on your property
If you think that you may have mine tailings on your property and want to have them assessed engage a suitably qualified person, such as an environmental consultant.
People living at properties with mine tailings have a Duty to Manage the contamination and should let anyone, including trades people, future property owners or renters know mining wastes may be present on the property.
Removing mine tailings
There are laws that define how mine tailings must be removed.
If you decide to remove mine tailings from your property, contact the Environment Protection Authority for advice.
Reviewed 10 May 2022