How safe is your water?
While safe water is a human right, it’s not guaranteed to all Australians, especially those living in regional Australia. Ingrid Pyne meets scientists, doctors and outback residents who can no longer drink their water.
The moment Kirsty Bartlett laid eyes on the 15-hectare property on the outskirts of Katherine, in the Northern Territory, she knew it was where she wanted to raise her children. Neither Kirsty nor her husband of a year were from the bush – she comes from Tasmania, Anthony from Sydney – but they both saw potential for a rural idyll. They would eat fresh mangoes from the property’s orchard, grow their own vegetables, raise pigs and cows, and collect fresh eggs each morning from the chook yard. Their children would grow up with a connection to the land, the seasons, to plants and to animals.That was in July 2003, and for the next 13 years the Bartletts did just that, supported by the property’s aquifer, which delivered a reliable ow of sweet water all year round. Their children, Hamish, now 13, Sophia, 10, and Ethan, eight, grew up with the bush on their doorstep, climbing trees and collecting sticks on their rambles. They held one-day-old chickens, patted piglets and rode on cows. They danced naked in the rain and rode bikes through the dust.
“We very much did have the feeling that we were in the middle of nowhere,” Kirsty, 43, tells The Weekly. “We were in the outback. How much more pristine could you get?” Then, in 2016, came a call that would shatter their illusion. Kirsty was at the local pre-school, where she worked as a teacher, when a woman from the nearby RAAF Base Tindal phoned to seek permission to test her water for toxic chemicals. Caught off-guard, Kirsty presumed she was talking about the pre-school’s water and began to explain that the woman would need to contact her boss. There was a pause. “No,” the woman explained. “I mean your water, at your property.”
When the test results came in, six months later, they con rmed the Bartletts’ worst nightmare. Their water supply had been contaminated for years by toxic per-and poly- uoroalkyl substances, known as PFAS chemicals, which have been linked to cancer, thyroid disease, low birth weight, weakened immune systems, high cholesterol and altered sex hormones. So too had their soil, their fruit, their vegetables and their livestock.
“Suddenly the life we thought we had been living, with the kids growing up in this lovely area, wasn’t true. It really rocked me,” says Kirsty. “I went through a long period of not being able to look outside at my garden or orchard because it all felt tainted. Not only had we been drinking the water, we had been eating the fruit and veggies, the meat and the eggs. The kids had played in the sprinklers in the garden, swum in the pool, showered in the water. There were so many different pathways to exposure, it was just shocking.”
More shockingly, the Bartletts are one of thousands of families around Australia caught up in an unfolding scandal over PFAS chemical contamination of our water sources.
When people think of water crises, they tend to think of contamination in the big cities, like the Sydney crisis of 1998 or the recent lead contamination woes of the $1.2 billion Perth Children’s Hospital. These crises attract the most press attention because of the vast number of people who can be affected. But, in reality, most problems in our drinking water occur outside big cities, in remote places such as Meekatharra in Western Australia, (population around 700) or the Northern Territory’s Laramba (population around 350). In these small, isolated communities, who’s going to protest apart from people affected and the local paper?
Put all these water systems together, however, and rural Australia’s drinking-water problems constitute a health dilemma of a magnitude far greater than the Sydney water crisis. From Tasmania, where several communities currently have boiled water alerts due to harmful pathogens, to the nitrate and uranium contamination affecting remote communities in the Northern Territory and WA, experts say a shocking number of Australians are subject to unhealthy and sometimes illegal levels of contaminants in their drinking water.
“When you go further inland, that’s where some really bad problems are,” says Dr Ian Wright, a Senior Lecturer in Natural Science at the University of Western Sydney and former scientist at Sydney Water. “There are lots of places in Australia where you cannot safely drive and pull up and get water from the taps.” In the Aboriginal community of Laramba, north of Alice Springs, the drinking water has contained more than double the recommended levels of uranium for over a decade. Short-term exposure to high concentrations of uranium
“There were so many pathways to exposure. It was shocking.”
can cause in ammation of the kidneys, according to the National Health and Medical Research Council, while little is known about the long-term effects of exposure to low concentrations.
Yet, despite this, concerned residents of Laramba say their appeals for help from the government have been largely ignored. Adrian Dixon, President of the Central Desert Regional Council and a father of ve, has lived in Laramba all his life. He says residents regularly attend the local clinic, complaining of problems with their kidneys, liver and eyes.
“The problems are there, we all keep getting sick,” Adrian, 44, tells The Weekly. “We just don’t know for sure if it’s caused by the water or not.”
While Adrian frets about the health of his children, he sees little option but to keep drinking contaminated water. “People are really worried about their health,” he says. “We drink the tap water but we don’t know what risk we’re taking. That’s the problem. Our water’s contaminated. It’s a big issue here.”
Bore water is often the primary source of drinking and household water in remote communities such as Laramba. It is pumped up from an aquifer deep underground, which can contain high concentrations of naturally occurring minerals and contaminants, such as uranium. According to recent data from the Northern Territory’s Power and Water Corporation, Laramba’s water supply contains uranium at 0.04 milligrams per litre (mg/L), more than double Australia’s drinking-water guidelines standard of no more than 0.017mg/L.
Dr Tony Bartone, President of the Australian Medical Association, says having access to suf cient, safe and affordable drinking water is a basic human right. “It’s all too easy to assume that, in a developed nation like Australia, safe drinking water is accessible to all,” he tells The Weekly. “While people living in towns and cities can turn on a tap and have access to clean, safe water, people living in remote communities rely on bore water for drinking and washing. This water often does not meet safety standards, and can be dangerous.”
In 2012, the Australian Bureau of Statistics estimated there were more than 400 Aboriginal communities across Australia, the majority of them in Western Australia. Data collected on more than 270 remote WA communities indicated the quality of drinking water didn’t meet the Australian Drinking Water Guidelines (ADWG) approximately 30 per cent of the time. “It’s concerning Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people living remotely often have no choice but to pay for safe drinking water,” says Dr Bartone. “While the majority of us enjoy free, safe drinking water from the tap, those who can least afford it often have to pay just to ensure they’re not drinking water from rivers, streams, cisterns, poorly constructed wells, or water from an unsafe catchment.”
The economic gap separating remote Australian communities from their urban counterparts is widening, and this basic inequality is set to become more entrenched and dangerous, as sickness seeps into rural Australia. Dr Christine Jeffries-Stokes, a paediatrician to WA’s Gold elds region, recently completed a10-year study into why remote Aboriginal communities and isolated country towns have far
higher clusters of multiple chronic illnesses, such as kidney disease and Type 2 diabetes. Her resultant award-winning PhD found a central factor is dangerously elevated levels of nitrates combining with heavy metals such as uranium in the bore water.
Yet dozens of communities across Australia remain unaware of the growing body of evidence indicating nitrates in bore water could be linked to “blue baby” syndrome, premature deaths, chronic illness and disease, particularly renal problems.
“For people with a lifetime of exposure, it’s a very signi cant problem,” Dr Jeffries-Stokes tells
The Weekly. “In some remote areas in Australia, the rate of kidney disease is 100 times that which occurs in the cities and new research is showing that bore water is the problem. That is an enormous public health problem with enormous public costs.”
Shifting the goal posts
Rather than deal with the problem, the West Australian government has instead issued water safety exemptions to allow the remote communities in the Gold elds and Pilbara to use bore water with nitrate levels known to exceed the recommended safety mark. On the basis that no other water supply is readily available, Laverton and Leonora, as well as smaller places such as Menzies, Cue, Meekatharra, Mt Magnet, Nabawa, New Norcia, Sandstone and Yalgoo are all exempt from the water safety guidelines. In a 2017 interview, one of Australia’s most respected epidemiologists, Professor Fiona Stanley, has said the problem is an important public health issue, particularly for the Aboriginal populations of the eastern Gold elds. “The neglect we’ve shown these populations over the years is being added to by our reluctance to clean up the water supply,” she said.
Often, the very industries that provide a community with its economic backbone are damaging or even poisoning its water supply, be they mining, agriculture or defence.
The federal government is currently defending multiple class actions from areas neighbouring RAAF bases, where toxic PFAS chemicals from the re- ghting foam used in defence training exercises have seeped into the ground water.
Shine Lawyers’ Joshua Aylward, who is managing several class actions, says 90 sites across the country are known to be contaminated with PFAS chemicals – including Katherine, Williamtown, Toowoomba, Bundaberg and Oakey – affecting more than 100,000 Australians. The unfolding crisis has been described by one health expert as “the asbestos of our generation”.
Despite this, the Department of Health maintains there’s no consistent evidence the toxins cause “important” health effects – even though the United States Environmental Protection Agency concluded that, at high enough levels, they can cause certain types of cancer, immune system dysfunction and hormonal interference in humans.
Poison blood, poison lives
Kirsty Bartlett, who is the lead plaintiff in a class action brought by residents of Katherine, says the federal government has a con ict of interest. “It’s a really screwed up situation where the government is both the perpetrator and the investigator,” she says. “Imagine what would have happened if it had been a private corporation that had allowed these chemicals into the water system. The government would have thrown the book at them.”
Like her fellow plaintiffs, Kirsty is seeking damages for her plunging property value. “What was once a property with an all-year-round abundant supply of fresh water is
now a piece of land with no water supply and a house reliant on the ever unpredictable and short wet season of Australia’s north,” she says. “So many other things have changed as a consequence of discovering our water to be contaminated. We no longer eat or give away our mangoes or eggs.
The veggie garden is a patch of weeds growing out of contaminated soil. We won’t eat the cattle. We don’t ll up the pool with bore water anymore.”
Unlike plaintiffs in the United
States, Kirsty cannot claim damages for mental anguish or health concerns. But that doesn’t mean these don’t exist. Two years ago, she was diagnosed with thyroid disease, even though she has no family history of the condition. She will never know whether the disease was caused by the PFAS chemicals she ingested or whether it would have occurred anyway. “It makes me think about my kids’ future,” she says.
“Your mind starts going a bit crazy when you think about your kids’ health and whether they will be okay.”
Kirsty and her husband have had blood tests that con rmed elevated levels of PFAS chemicals in their bloodstreams, but she’s still building up the courage to have her children tested. “I need to be ready for the shock of the result,” she says. “I know they’ve been drinking the water and I know I have it in my blood, but it’s another thing to see it in black and white. But I know I need to do it for them in case they have health issues in the future.”
Professor Mark Taylor, an environmental scientist at Macquarie University, challenges the government’s insistence that there is no consistent evidence of ill health effects linked to PFAS chemicals. He says the safe level for exposure to PFAS chemicals is not known and that more research needs to be done.
“Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,” he tells The Weekly. Indeed, last year an investigation by Fairfax Media found at least 24 people on a four-kilometre stretch of Cabbage Tree Road – which cuts through the heart of Williamtown’s contamination “red zone” – have battled cancer in the past 15 years. Several more were diagnosed in the late 1990s.
Stuart Khan, a professor in the School of Civil & Environmental Engineering at the University of New South Wales, says PFAS is not the only water contaminant requiring further research. In the wake of the discovery of lead contamination in the drinking water of the new Perth Children’s Hospital – which led to lengthy delays to the hospital’s opening – Professor Khan says more tests need to be done to ensure drinking water is safe at older houses, schools and other public buildings.
“Lead contamination is an issue that’s going to grow in pro le in Australia,” he predicts. “It’s not a problem with the water supply itself, but with the brass pipes or the tap ttings that are supplying water to our houses and schools and allowing lead to leech into the water.”
In Canada, government-ordered investigations have found that, in some states, the drinking water at more than half the schools contains unsafe levels of lead, which adversely affects every system in the human body, and children are particularly susceptible. According to the World Health Organization, children absorb up to ve times more ingested lead than adults.
“Part of the problem is that we don’t know if our schools are contaminated,” says Professor Khan. “We have never done a proper survey like they have in Canada. It can and it should be done.”
Despite these problems, Macquarie University’s Mark Taylor says it’s important not to be alarmist. “On the whole, for the entire population, our drinking water’s fantastic,” he says. “You don’t see people dying of cholera here. I’m not saying it’s acceptable to have lead or PFAS in our water, but we have to look at things in a global context.”
Dr Bartone is not so con dent, and is calling for change. “Governments must invest in infrastructure, such as proper treatment facilities, water storage facilities and distribution systems to meet the changing demands of communities,” he tells The Weekly.
“All Australians must have permanent and free access to safe water. It’s a basic human right and it’s dif cult to understand how this hasn’t already been implemented and addressed.”
Meanwhile, Kirsty Bartlett’s con dence in our drinking water has been shattered. “We have this idea Australia is safe,” she says, “and that we can just turn on our taps and drink the water. It’s been a real shock and a mind shift to realise this isn’t true.”
“You think about your kids’ health and whether they will be okay.”
Kirsty (below) worries exposure to the water, which contains chemicals linked to cancer, will affect her children. Right: Remote communities have high clusters of chronic illnesses.
K AT H E R I N E , N T LARAMBA, NT B U N DA B E R G, Q L D EAST E R N GOLDFIELDS, WA TO OWO O M BA , Q L D WI L L I A M TOW N , N SW P FA S CO N TA M I N AT I O N S I T E S DA N G E R O U S LY H I G H N I T R AT E ZO N E S L AV E RTO N LEONORA
Kirsty (left), who has been diagnosed with thyroid disease, says the family no longer eat the eggs, meat or other produce grown on their land.