Department of Health officials have identified potential problems with the testing process of recent antimony tests.BARBARA SUNGAILA August 14, 2014 3:32am
There has been a dramatic fall in the number of people testing above the reference range for antimony since testing procedures were reviewed in late June and early July. At this stage an exact date for the change in testing methods is not available. Image: Department of Health, Victoria
The results of district residents’ antimony tests have been thrown into question after Department of Health officials identified potential problems with the testing process.
More than 300 Heathcote and Costerfield residents have undergone urine testing for antimony since late March after concerns about environmental contamination from Mandalay Resources’ Costerfield crushing plant were first raised.
DOH senior medical advisor Danny Csutoros said there had been a dramatic fall in the number of tests above the reference range in late June and early July.
‘‘(Previously) 80 per cent were above the reference range and this changed to 2 per cent above,’’ he said.
‘‘So we could see something had happened.
‘‘On the one hand, we can say people have had diminished exposure, (but) we’ve looked a bit closer and we know that some of the tubes the labs were using actually leaked antimony.’’
Where patients were being tested for more than one metal — the urine sample was split and sent in brown-stoppered test tubes, to Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney, for antimony testing.
The brown-stoppered tubes were found to leak antimony into the sample.
Dr Csutoros stressed officials were still uncertain about the number of affected samples.
‘‘It may account (for half the raised results) or it may account for lots of them,’’ he said.
‘‘We’re still looking for the smoking gun.
‘‘We’re not at a point where we can say for sure (all of the elevated results) were all normal.
‘‘Unfortunately, we can’t retest the original samples.’’
DOH officials first realised there was a potential problem when they looked at the geographical spread of test results.
‘‘We had a couple of samples that didn’t quite make sense — a couple of people who were way out of the area, with high antimony,’’ Dr Csutoros said.
‘‘And compared to other results it just wasn’t quite right.’’
Professors Malcolm Sim and Brian Priestly from Monash University’s epidemiology and preventative medicine department ran a review of literature on antimony for the Health Department.
‘‘And they suggested ‘make sure there’s nothing going on in the lab’,’’ Dr Csutoros said.
At this point, DOH officials revisited the testing process and discovered the problem with the test tubes as well a number of invalid test results.
Seventeen invalid test results were returned to GPs — in these cases the urine was either too diluted or too concentrated to give a reliable result.
‘‘The lab didn’t make it clear that they were outside the range and invalid,’’ Dr Csutoros said.
He said it would be appropriate for residents who had registered elevated antimony levels to retest.
‘‘If you’re not concerned then there’s no need,’’ he said.
‘‘But if you’re concerned then the easiest thing to do is to collect a sample and retest.’’
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