Otago Daily Times
IF one swallows the official Dunedin City Council line on elevated levels of lead in the WaikouaitiKaritane water supply, the council did just about everything right and any dangers and risks are minimal.
Admitted is the error when an email about a test arrived in a staff member’s inbox on December 18 and was not seen until January 7. The staff member was on holiday and the sampling had been for asset management purposes rather than for drinking water standards. That was why the inbox was not being monitored.
Procedures have since been changed so that any lab results, regardless of the purpose of the sampling, are sent to a monitored inbox. The lab is also to actively flag results which exceed drinking water guidelines.
In any event, we are told, the test result would not have changed the course of proceedings. The independent assessor was notified in January and expert advice was that more sampling and investigation was required. Public Health South concluded public health notification was not needed.
It was not until further test results were received on January 29, when an elevated result was gathered from raw water at the reservoir, that it was considered necessary to swing into public action. Again, the council advises it followed independent expert and health advice.
The moves were ”precautionary”, and “just in case” because of intermittent leadlevel spikes.
Earlier tests back to August last year found elevated lead, but some had been at the end of the water supply and only six of 90 had shown the elevated levels.
Why, then, is there such outrage and upset?
For a start, lead is emotive because it can cause both shortterm sickness and accumulate in the body as a neurotoxin. It can cause irreversible harm to brain development, as evidenced in the scandal in the Michigan city of Flint in the past decade, and lead poisoning from pipes is posited as contributing to the fall of the Roman Empire.
In one Waikouaiti sample, lead levels were 0.39mg a litre, nearly 40 times the acceptable limit. Residents must wonder how often they drank such water. To make matters worse, some residents had been boiling their drinking water for some time, making the lead more concentrated.
One toxicologist, Canterbury University’s Prof Ian Shaw, has said the authorities should have told people much earlier to keep them informed about what was happening and what was being investigated.
People, too, are sceptical of official spin. It is not necessary to believe in complex and unlikely conspiracies to question what could be seen initially as both a guarded and leaden response.
How independent are officials who regularly work together? How much will they, naturally, support each other in public? How often is lassitude a common part of human and official lack of action? Would the results from December 18 have prompted a response if they had not been embarrassingly lost in an unread email? Why had not the lab or the council understood that a test for “asset” purposes could also be critical for health reasons?
The focus was on the December 18 bungle for a day, and it seemed at first this failure was behind delayed action. No wonder indignation was heightened.
The public was occasionally misled at the daily Covid briefings. What faith can people have in other public statements by those who wish to paint themselves in the best possible light?
And yesterday it was announced free blood tests for lead will be offered to residents, “just in case”, one presumes.
Ironically, the council announced in 2016 its drinking water was now among the best in the country, after a 21year programme to improve its quality.
Work had included the construction of reservoirs, a new water treatment plant and upgrades to all other water treatment plants including Waikouaiti.
It would seem there is still much to be discovered about Waikouaiti’s water. Understandably, many residents are upset.