A research paper prepared by RMIT University has assessed lead levels in inner Melbourne residential gardens and community gardens, reporting that up to 21 percent of soils tested had lead levels above applicable Health Investigation Levels.

The elevated lead levels are thought to be caused by leaching from lead based paints, which were widely used in older housing stock. Lead levels were found to be higher below the drip line of houses than elsewhere.

The Victorian EPA has published guidance for residents and those operating community garden schemes to mitigate risks posed by lead.

Councils need to consider what they can do to assist ratepayers to better understand and manage these risks. This is particularly relevant where ratepayers participate in community garden schemes that are supported by local government. However, it also poses town planning questions for inner urban areas where lead paint was extensively used.

Armed with this knowledge, councils should consider whether they should apply the Environmental Audit Overlay (EAO), or another planning control to regulate land use and development in areas where lead paint was extensively used. Young children with developing immune systems are more vulnerable to elevated lead levels, meaning that access to contaminated soils can pose significant health risks to young children, in particular.

Whereas the presence of asbestos in buildings does not justify application of the EAO, it has its own discrete regulatory regime. The issue of lead in urban soils does not.

We recommend that councils encourage landowners to have their soil tested, in circumstances where there is reason to believe that lead paint was previously used. The EPA guidance identifies low cost testing options available to residents. However, councils must also consider their duty as planning authorities to comply with the Ministerial Direction on Potentially Contaminated Land and State Environment Protection Policy (Prevention and Management of Contaminated Land).