18 Feb 2021

East Otago water scare: Unsafe lead levels found in children's blood tests

8:19 am on 18 February 2021

Unsafe lead levels have been detected in children's blood tests in East Otago.

Blood testing for potential lead contamination in the Otago towns Karitane and Waikouaiti.

Blood testing for potential lead contamination in the Otago towns Karitane and Waikouaiti. (File image) Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

A lead contamination scare has shocked the area and resulted in a do not drink notice with emergency water tankers now supplying residents.

Dunedin City Council says it may be months before the notice is lifted for the residents of Waikouaiti, Karitane and Hawksbury Village.

It was revealed on 2 February unsafe levels of lead had been intermittently detected in the water supply going back to July.

The highest reading was almost 40 times the acceptable limit.

Public Health South has offered blood tests to the area's more than 1500 residents in the days since.

Medical Officer of Health Dr Susan Jack confirmed last night there had been some above the safe blood level - including children.

"As expected some people have come back with levels that are higher than the cut off of 0.24 micromoles per litre. It's not very common when we look at the whole population that was tested," Dr Jack told RNZ.

However, she would not be drawn on how many people had recorded high levels.

Further investigation was needed, particularly in the cases of children, she said.

"The first test usually on the children it was a finger prick or heel prick - it's a screening test. Then we need to confirm that using a venous sample."

All those showing concerning blood lead levels were contacted.

"We're going through understanding what possible risk factors and exposures they might've had and then, especially for the children, we're offering a visit out to their home to look at where there are other environmental risks. So is there lead paint, is there renovation, are they involved in hobbies, do their parents work in a place that might have exposure to lead," Dr Jack said.

"There are many causes of elevated lead and we need to determine is water part of that or can it all be attributable to other causes?"

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Emergency water tankers now supply residents in Waikouaiti, Karitane and Hawksbury Village. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

A father of three who spoke at the meeting said he had concerns for his youngest child after the two-year-old experienced health problems last year as she suffered a loss of appetite and weight, as well as greying of the skin.

After testing the girl for everything from cancer to coeliac disease, the revelation of lead in the drinking water came as a shock, the man, who did not want to be identified, said.

"We're not sure that it [lead poisoning] is the cause but it's just another question to ask a doctor and pediatrician," he told RNZ.

The family had been tested and all came back below the safe level, he said.

"After today I do feel a bit better. I've still got health concerns and questions that haven't been answered on that, but hopefully they'll be answered soon."

Waikouaiti resident Paul Bartlett said a friend of his was among those showing high blood lead levels.

"The ones that I've been talking to tonight are older people and one of them has got a real high reading so it could be quite concerning."

Following the higher readings being detected, he planned to go and get a test himself now.

Locals still do not know when the no-drink notice would be lifted.

DCC three waters manager Tom Dyer told the meeting it was more likely to be months than weeks.

Work to replace almost 5km of old pipes in Waikouaiti would begin soon, but it was unknown when it would be finished, he said.

Dr Jack said there would be another public meeting in about a fortnight.

Further details of what the blood tests had revealed would be shared then, she said.

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