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 Australian Women's Weekly - - Report -

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.

Poi­son wells

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.

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