30 Mar 2021

Government questioned over commitment to safe drinking water

9:19 am on 30 March 2021

The government is being questioned over its commitment to ensuring peoples drinking water is safe.

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File image. Photo: LDR / Chloe Ranford

An official information act request showed a working group that was supposed to be looking at nitrates in water only met twice in 18 months and was recently disbanded, with little to show for its efforts.

After months of pressure from councils and environmental groups and amidst mounting international evidence of a link between nitrates in drinking water and bowel cancer, then Minister of Health David Clark asked for a working group to be set up.

Chaired by the Ministry of Health's chief science advisor, professor Ian Town, it met for the first time in August 2019 and undertook to review nitrate levels and provide advice to affected communities about the health risk.

Funders would also be told about the urgent need for New Zealand research to match that coming from overseas.

But following a second meeting in December of that year, the work of the working group - which was supposed to meet every three months - stopped altogether.

A question from RNZ this month uncovered the group had recently been disbanded.

Victoria University of Wellington ecologist Mike Joy said it showed the government never had any real interest in doing anything about nitrates in drinking water.

"So they just had a couple of meetings said 'Oh, there might be a problem', then it's disbanded.

"And so I think it just appeased the public for a while and they quietly disband it hoping that nobody will notice."

It had become the typical response from the current government when problems came along to set up a working group, instead of actually doing something about them, Joy said.

"We've had three announcements within a few months, the disbanding of this group, minister Parker backing down on his promise to relook at the nitrate limits, and we also had the back down from the government on the work they were doing around intensive winter grazing."

Forest and Bird's Annabeth Cohen said the government could not ignore the fact this country had some of the highest rates of bowel cancer in the world, or a recent study that found between 500,000 and 800,000 New Zealanders may be exposed to harmful levels of nitrate in their drinking water.

"This work is of national importance. We're talking about the health and the well being of the environment and of the people. This work cannot be de-prioritised, it must be prioritised."

The long lag time between when nitrates got in to groundwater from fertiliser and animal urine and when they turned up in your tap meant levels were only going to increase, Cohen said.

"The government needs to do something so that New Zealanders aren't exposed to such high toxins in their drinking water. If the government wants to do further research they should do it, stop kicking the can down the road."

In response, the Ministry of Health said the working group was not able to carry out its work due to Covid-19 and that its resources were instead redirected to dealing with this "unprecedented event."

It said it would continue to "encourage" research in to the link between nitrates in drinking water and bowel cancer and would "respond appropriately to identified risks."

Joy said Covid-19 was just a convenient excuse.

"Lots of other things have managed to happen in spite of Covid. I think every other business in New Zealand has managed to get work done. That's pretty interesting that this one didn't. It's just about priorities as far as I can see, and this is not a priority. This is something everybody wants to sweep under the carpet."

Associate Health Minister Ayesha Verrall said she had asked for a final report on the working group's findings and this "would make it clear whether any further work is needed".

The University of Otago remained committed to looking further at this area of research and would lodge a funding application to the Health Research Council in June.

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