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Expert calls for local councils to address regular boil-water alerts and avoid public health implications

While boil-water alerts may seem a pesky inconvenience for regional communities, one drinking water expert says it’s time to start addressing local council water treatment issues as the public health implications are far too high.

Following on from the Havelock North drinking water contamination in 2016 – where approximately 5000 people contracted Campylobacter, causing four fatalities – Bligh Tanner Associate Director Michael Lawrence said the incident should serve as a warning for many Australian communities.

Presenting at this year’s Australian Water Association NQ Conference, Lawrence said results from New Zealand’s inquiry into to the contamination identified areas of improvement from which we can also learn lessons.

“In the Australian Drinking Water Guidelines (ADWG), the first principle is that microbial pathogens create the greatest risk in a drinking water scheme,” he said.

“If you are not treating water appropriately, pathogens can get into a drinking water supply, which is when you end up with an outcome like Havelock North.

“Following Havelock North, there has been the equivalent of a Royal Commission. The inquiry outcomes have effectively paraphrased the guiding principles of the ADWGs, emphasising the need to have multiple robust barriers in place.”

Lawrence said ongoing boil-water alerts should be viewed as a signal that treatment needs to be urgently improved, as the inability to manage turbidity coupled with the E. coli detections clearly demonstrates that the supply is unsafe.

“The regulator has stated there can be times following rainfall events when some supplies can’t be treated appropriately, and that this is related to the subsequent E.coli detection. This is a direct acknowledgement that the water can’t be treated appropriately at all times,” he said.

“We have plenty of evidence that suggest a Havelock North-type scenario could be repeated very easily in many Australian communities.”

“If we were to start assessing suppliers against best practice, many will come up well short. They should not imply that the water supply is safe if they can’t meet that promise.”

Lawrence said that, while funding is always a consideration when deciding upon appropriate treatment, in many cases removing the label ‘potable’ from a water supply will be safer than running a drinking supply scheme that doesn’t meet the ADWG requirements.

“There are a large number of communities in Queensland that don’t have potable water supplies. And having this acknowledged from the start makes for a better outcome,” he said.

“If it’s not a completely safe supply of drinking water, it’s better to identify it as non-potable water rather than implying that the water is potable when it is not safe.”

Lawrence said that although this is not an ideal solution for many councils to take, given the affect it may have on communities, it’s a safer way of moving forward until proper treatment processes are put in place.

“It’s definitely a hard decision, because improving treatment will likely cost a lot of money, but not improving treatment can result in widespread illness. Requiring water to be boiled at all times will not be popular, and will impact the vitality of the community,” Lawrence said.

“But the consumers will then be aware of the precautions they need to take to not get sick. The incident in Havelock North occurred because obvious risks were ignored.

“The incident should be taken as a warning for Australian drinking water providers to not be complacent, especially in the cases where their water supplies are so clearly unable to remove pathogens.”