Ministry of Health says lead contamination report due soon

A do not drink notice has been in effect in Waikouaiti, Karitane and Hawksbury Village since...
A do not drink notice has been in effect in Waikouaiti, Karitane and Hawksbury Village since February 2. Photo: File
A report outlining health authorities handling of East Otago's lead contamination scare is now with the Director-General of Health.

A do not drink notice has been in effect in Waikouaiti, Karitane and Hawksbury Village since February 2, and will remain so for the foreseeable future.

East Otago residents were shocked to learn the Dunedin City Council and Public South Health - the Southern DHB's public health unit - knew about spikes in lead levels in the water supply since mid-August.

Six concerning levels were recorded in the water supply between July and January, though none have been detected since.

A Ministry of Health (MOH) spokesperson said Director-General of Health Doctor Ashley Bloomfield had received the report detailing the health response and the MOH was finalising its public release.

A request for an interview on the subject was declined, and the spokesperson said no further details would be provided until it was made public.

The MOH said that would be soon.

Water New Zealand chief executive Gillian Blythe said the lead scare had underlined the importance of regular heavy metal testing.

"Water services managers across the country will be looking at the report when it comes out to see whether they need to change current practices and to change the sampling frequencies that they follow today," Blythe said.

The scare had highlighted the dearth of knowledge around metal contamination in drinking supplies.

The Dunedin City Council was not specifically testing for lead at the time but was measuring the corrosivity of the supply's water and using metals as a proxy for that.

Changes needed to be made as a result and Taumata Arowai, the new drinking water regulator from 1 July, would have to ensure the safety of New Zealand's water, Blythe said.

"The conversation around East Otago has brought the topic of drinking water more clearly to the general population and the general population will be looking to Taumata Arowai to hold drinking water suppliers to account," she said.

The Dunedin City Council declined an interview request and Mayor Aaron Hawkins did not respond to attempts to contact him.

The council said in a statement it hoped to provide an update in about a fortnight, including information on their own review.

The MOH review would only deal with the public health response.

The Southern DHB's Medical Officer of Health, Dr Susan Jack, said - also in a statement - the DHB was meeting with the council regularly, though the do not drink notice would continue until they were confident there was no public health risk or potential risk from drinking the water.

"Taumata Arowai will become the new drinking water regulator from 1 July. The Water Services Bill will be the underpinning legislation for the new drinking water regulator. A new set of operational compliance rules will accompany the new legislation and will supersede the current Drinking Water Standards of NZ. It is expected the new legislation and operational compliance rules will have much clearer guidance on testing of drinking water," Jack said.

Frustration remains

In the meantime residents continued to take drinking water from tankers around the three settlements.

Waikouaiti Coast Community Board chair, Alasdair Morrison, said that was the remaining frustration.

"After that last public meeting that put people's fears to rest a little bit regarding the blood tests and there actual health. I think there's an understanding that the council and the health people are doing their best to give them safe drinking water, but I think they're just totally frustrated with how long it's taking," Morrison said.

However, East Otago residents told RNZ they were not keen to return to the previous water supply unless its quality, in terms of taste and colour, was much improved.

Lynn Scott's home was right across the road from a council-supplied water tank and so was not worried about the inconvenience.

The reticulated supply would have to be better than what they got in the past, she said.

"I don't think they would dare to bring it back until it was absolutely perfect," Scott said, of lifting the do not drink notice.

"The taste and the colour - that really does put you off at times. Before we lived out here permanently - which we shifted about seven years ago - we've had this place for about 30 and we used to, like a lot of people, bring our water from town."

Brian Fields said many in the area were echoing that sentiment.

But the council had gone above and beyond to make sure people had drinking water.

"The wife's in a wheelchair so as soon as we told the council about that situation, they've been more than helpful and delivered water to the house twice a week or more if we require more. There's never been a problem at all," Fields said.

Work to replace the old pipes had begun, and the council hoped to complete replacements in Waikouaiti in June and in Karitane by the end of the year.

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