Lead contamination 40 times acceptable level for Waikouaiti water sample

6:49 pm on 4 February 2021

Dunedin City Council has revealed that one of its failed lead sample tests had in fact returned a level almost 40 times the acceptable limit.

Water tankers for Waikouaiti and Karitane after high lead levels in water

Water tankers for Waikouaiti and Karitane after high lead levels found in the water. Photo: RNZ / Tess Brunton

Previously, it had said the test sample taken on 8 December last year was only four times the allowable level.

"One of the intermittent spikes in lead levels, a sample taken on 8 December 2020, was also incorrectly stated in one earlier radio interview to be four times the acceptable level of 10 micrograms/L," the council said in a statement.

"In fact, at 0.39mg/L, the sample is almost 40 times the acceptable level of 0.01mg/L."

The test relates to a sample taken at Waikouaiti Golf Club in east Otago.

The council said on the same day there was a smaller spike, also above the allowable limit, recorded at the nearby Karitane Bowls Club.

Dunedin Mayor Aaron Hawkins learned of the mistake when the press release statement was put to him by Lisa Owen on Checkpoint.

"I did not know that," he said.

"That's not ideal from an internal communication point of view, but that result when it was received was forwarded, as they all have been, to public health authorities and we took their advice as to what action should be taken."

However, he said council's water management staff were still up to the job.

"We have absolutely followed the public health advice since the first elevated spike was reported to the health authorities back in August of last year.

"There have been six elevated results across 90 samples that were taken across that period. And at no point were the public health authorities, the independent drinking water assessors, sufficiently concerned about that to recommend that we notify the public of those results, or that we issue a notice to not drink the water.

"That advice only changed on Tuesday morning. And we acted immediately on that to issue a 'do not drink' notice on Tuesday and supply an alternative water supply for the affected residents."

The communication over the problem could certainly have been handled better, he said, but he praised the public health response.

"I don't think a better comms plan would have made any meaningful difference or any material difference to the way that we have handled it, or whether or not the advice that we received was appropriate."

Residents to be offered blood tests

Residents in the two east Otago towns affected by elevated lead levels in their water supply will be offered blood tests from next week.

Authorities are still trying to pin down the source of the concerning lead levels in the water supply of Waikouaiti and Karitane.

The council admitted last night the first test showing elevated levels of lead came in August - but the public, councillors and even the mayor of Dunedin only found out on Tuesday, the same day a no-drink notice was issued.

Locals are furious the Dunedin City Council first detected elevated lead levels in August and did not tell them.

They feel that they have been kept in the dark, but they were not alone.

RNZ confirmed today that not only was the public not alerted to the concerning test results, but neither were members of the Waikouaiti Coast Community Board, Dunedin's councillors or even Mayor Aaron Hawkins. All of whom learned of the problem on Tuesday.

"It is certainly disappointing and I would have expected to know sooner," Hawkins said.

"But that is an internal issue. It doesn't make any material difference to the communities who are affected."

Karitane - lead water advice by Dunedin City Council

Photo: RNZ / Tess Brunton

Waikouaiti Coast Community Board chair Alasdair Morrison said he was deeply disappointed council staff did not alert him to the issue until about an hour before going public.

"One of the problems that's happening now, of course, is there's all sorts of bits of information - some of it's incorrect - floating around on Facebook and various other things. So people are finding snippets of information here, there and everywhere, and it's circulating around and people are totally confused."

Last night's revelation of the August test showing elevated lead levels followed news on Tuesday that the response was delayed because a council staff member's emails sat unopened while they were on leave.

Six of the 90 tests over the last six months showed elevated lead levels.

Residents want answers

Residents told RNZ they wanted answers and an apology.

"I think the situation out here is appalling and it shows a certain lack of care by the ... council," a local health professional, who wanted to remain anonymous, said.

Waikouaiti resident Eddie Murphy said he had concerns for young mothers in the area who used the water for infant formula for their children.

"I'm totally disappointed it took them so long to notify us. I think that's an absolute shambles. Who leaves their emails unattended for six weeks. It's very disappointing. Very poor on the council's part," he said.

Karitane resident Mick Jenkins said he felt let down.

"They should've acted far sooner. We don't want a knee-jerk reaction, we just want honest answers which will then enable us to do something. I think moving forward there needs to be a public meeting and they should be doing blood tests to see what levels are showing in people."

Even the Otago Regional Council, which was now investigating the cause of the contamination alongside the Dunedin City Council, was only alerted on 18 January - more than five months after the initial spike in lead was detected.

Zeagold Foods confirms no food safety concerns about eggs

A Waikouaiti-based poultry farm has confirmed there are currently no food safety concerns about their eggs in light of toxic lead levels being detected in the town's water supply.

Zeagold Foods sells its eggs and egg products across the country and exports them overseas.

A spokesperson said the Ministry for Primary Industries advised them there was no food safety issue. The company has conducted testing to check whether there are any health implications for their birds.

Why were public not informed of elevated lead levels?

Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield said as a result blood tests would be offered to residents from next week and the Ministry of Health had set up an incident management team.

"What they're planning to do is offer blood-lead testing to the populations of the two places affected. They are just working through the logistics of standing that up next week, which is I think an absolutely appropriate thing to do."

But everyone wants to know why did council staff not inform the public of the elevated lead levels?

Aaron Hawkins said he had been told it followed advice from Public Health South.

"My understanding is our staff asked them whether we needed to or whether we should make the tests public, and their advice was that we didn't need to," he said.

He understood that decision was made to prevent unnecessary alarm, but he pointed the finger at Public Health South "who were provided the advice that our staff were acting on".

So we asked Public Health South what happened.

In a statement, a spokesperson said: "We had not advised that the community should be notified in relation to the high result in August as the normal pathway for a one-off exceedance is to undertake further testing."

However, it remained unclear whether Public Health South explicitly advised against telling the public as further calls went unanswered.

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