Recycled water hard to swallow
intervening before substandard water is supplied to consumers is limited,’’ the draft says. Community acceptance of such schemes would be difficult and any successful implementation would be exceedingly expensive, it adds.
The draft guidelines — developed by experts in public health, toxicology and drinking water management — are based on the best available scientific evidence from around the world.
But the evidence on some health aspects of wastewater recycling — such as the potential impact on allergy sufferers — is still scant, the authors of the draft guidelines admit.
A group of government, science and legal experts met in Canberra earlier this month to discuss the draft, and similar public consultation workshops will take place in other capital cities over the next four weeks.
Queensland’s chief health officer Jeannette Young and ANU infectious diseases expert Peter Collignon raise concerns about the lack of mention of potential effects on allergy sufferers in the draft.
‘‘ I am going to have every allergy group in the state asking if their child will be safe (drinking recycled water),’’ Young says.
Cunliffe says the issue of allergies will be considered before the final guidelines are released. ‘‘ We know some pharmaceuticals have allergic outcomes for some people, but it is very difficult to assess. We will see if there is a way of dealing with it.’’
The authors of the guidelines do not doubt the technology. Their concerns centre on institutional capability and operator capacity — the human element.
Technical director of the Water Services Association of Australia Peter Donlon says there are vast differences in the capabilities of water providers across the country, and most small operators are simply not equipped to recycle wastewater.
‘‘ If you are not big enough, don’t bother,’’ says Donlon. The WSAA is the representative of city water suppliers.
Donlon says there is already only very patchy implementation of guidelines for the treatment of drinking water from traditional sources, and that regulatory bodies need to ensure new (and old) guidelines are followed.
The capacity issue is not just one for local government, but for state government as well, Mark Batty from the WA Local Government Association says. He says the West Australian Government is currently investigating its capability to provide safe water to the public.
NHMRC Water Quality Advisory Committee chair Don Bursill likened novices running the recycling treatment process to a janitor flying a jumbo. ‘‘ These are complex technologies. If people don’t understand these things, they shouldn’t be in the game.’’
Bursill says the main tenet of the draft guidelines is that domestic waste water can be recycled for drinking, but all other options must be ruled out first. ‘‘ We do recognise that it has to be done sometimes,’’ he says.
University of NSW water recycling expert Greg Leslie says many of the treatment and management systems and processes used in traditional drinking water supply systems could be used in recycled waste water systems just as effectively.
Collignon, who has raised concerns about the safety of a proposed recycling scheme for Canberra, welcomes the new guidelines. But he thinks they need to be improved, and should state recycling must only be considered as a last resort.
Toowoomba councillor and anti-recycling campaigner Snow Manners claims the NHMRC and other organisations that have endorsed the ‘‘ flawed’’ guidelines are ‘‘ flying blind’’, asserting there is not enough evidence to show recycling is safe.
Manners likens drinking recycled water to eating cockroach-chip ice-cream. ‘‘ It is probably very nutritious and safe, but people don’t like the idea of it,’’ he says.
Karin Leder, from Monash University’s Infectious Disease Epidemiology Unit, says she supports the guidelines. ‘‘ We are not saying there is no risk — we are saying there is acceptable risk.’’
Stuart Khan, program leader at the Centre for Water and Waste Technology, says more work is required on the guidelines. He says it will never be possible to check recycled water for every potential contamination, so it will be better to develop a list of surrogate chemicals which could indicate the overall quality of the treated water.Over the next four weeks the draft guidelines will be taken to every capital city across the country for consultation. Overseas bodies have also grabbed the opportunity to assess the guidelines. So far, it seems they have only gone so far in clearing the public’s mind over what is proving a very murky issue.