2009/23 – Yarrabah (Queensland) – E.coli, Colour, Copper, Lead

‘Elevated’ lead levels detected in water at far-north Queensland hospital

Atherton hospital staff were offered blood tests but the state’s chief health officer says he would be ‘very surprised’ if they showed high levels of lead


Lead contamination has been discovered in the water at a new hospital building and at an Aboriginal health clinic in far-north Queensland.

The Cairns and Hinterland Hospital and Health Service (CHHHS) announced that a number of water samples taken at the new clinical services building at Atherton hospital and at a health facility in nearby Yarrabah contained lead at levels that exceeded the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) recommended guidelines for safe drinking water.

The new clinical services building at Atherton was due to open on Wednesday. The CHHS chief executive, Leena Singh, said that would be delayed.

“That is because the rectification work and investigation works will take longer,” Singh said.

“We’re inconclusive as to what that could be. It could be from the fittings, so the [copper] pipe fittings could be leaking the lead. But we don’t know at this point in time.”

The elevated lead levels were detected in routine water testing and showed results up to six times the WHO guidelines for drinking water quality, which is 0.01mg/L. However the WHO notes there is no safe level of lead contamination, and lead levels should be kept “as low as reasonably practical”.

“I understand the detection of elevated lead levels may cause concern, but I want to assure our staff and patients at Atherton and Yarrabah that CHHHS is taking extensive measures to limit potential contamination and protect people’s health and wellbeing,” Singh said.

“Expert toxicology advice is that there is a low risk of exposure to lead at both facilities, but it is much better to cautious than complacent.”

Water at Yarrabah Aboriginal community health precinct found to have elevated copper levels


Staff at an Aboriginal community health facility near Cairns have been offered bottled water and precautionary blood tests after tap water at the service was found to contain elevated levels of copper.

Testing of the Yarrabah Health Facility’s mains water in March detected the presence of high levels of copper.

It’s understood the issue is isolated to the clinic and has not affected the quality of the drinking water in the wider community.

Tropical Public Health Services director Richard Gair said investigations into the facility’s plumbing system were ongoing.

Meanwhile, bottled water was being provided to staff and visitors.

“The health service has engaged an expert hydraulic engineering firm to investigate the plumbing system within the facility and make recommendations,” Dr Gair said in a statement.

He said senior officers from the Cairns and Hinterland Hospital and Health Service, including experts in environmental health and medical doctors, had met twice with staff at the Yarrabah Health Service in May to answer questions and share with them plans to address the water quality issues.

“Any staff who work within the health facility, including Gurriny Yealamucka and Queensland ambulance staff, have been offered a precautionary blood test for elevated copper levels,” Dr Gair said.

“The testing is free and voluntary. The drinking water elsewhere in Yarrabah community complies with the Australian drinking water guidelines.”

Queensland Health has not released details about the amount of copper detected in the water.

Town water aquifer safe

Yarrabah Mayor Ross Andrews said the town’s water was pumped from an aquifer to a local reservoir for treatment.

He said he had no reason to believe the town water contained copper contaminants.

“We’re continuing to do that good work in partnership with the authorities to ensure that people have safe and reliable water supply to community,” he said.

Low risk of harm

Organic chemist and honorary professor at the University of Melbourne, Ian Rae, said the upper limit for copper in water was 2mg/L.

“The short-term risks are a gastric upset because the digestive system gets out of whack,” Professor Rae said.

“The worst that’s going to happen is a long-term damage to a liver. That’s a very nasty situation, but it’s very rare. You need quite a bit of copper over a long period to do that.”

A statement from Queensland Health determined that the long-term health risk to the public was low.

“Available evidence does not indicate increased health risk at the levels currently detected unless the person has a rare condition such as Wilson’s disease,” the statement read.

2009/15 – Yarrabah – (Queensland) – E.coli

29/7/09: Yarrabah (Queensland). E. coli detections at multiple points in the reticulation. Boil Water Alert was issued. Creek was put back into use following sufficient water flow. Free chlorine levels were low. Free chlorine levels increased and E.coli testing increased to weekly frequency. Only one chlorine dose point at that time.

15/12/10: Yarrabah (Queensland). E. coli detected at the Police station. Proper flushing was not done prior to sample collection. Station can be subject to low flow and turnover which dissipates chlorine. One chlorine pump was not working, which was then changed and chlorine residual increased. Longer flushing to be also done. Only one chlorine dose point at that time.

29/3/12: Yarrabah (Queensland). E. coli detections at multiple points. Boil Water Alert issued. Fault with chlorine dosing pipe. Pipe replaced and mains flushed. Consecutive sampling showed no E. coli detections. Only one chlorine dose point at that time. Two more dose points were then subsequently installed.

18/8/15: Yarrabah (Queensland). Ran out Chlorine Hydroxide 10%, Boil Water Alert issued. Investigation report has sent to DEWS

“Coliforms are Gram-negative, non-spore-forming, rod-shaped bacteria that are capable of aerobic and facultative anaerobic growth in the presence of bile salts or other surface active agents with similar growth-inhibiting properties. They are found in large numbers in the faeces of humans and other warm-blooded animals, but many species also occur in the environment.

Thermotolerant coliforms are a sub-group of coliforms that are able to grow at 44.5 ± 0.2°C. E. coli is the most common thermotolerant coliform present in faeces and is regarded as the most specific indicator of recent faecal contamination because generally it is not capable of growth in the environment. In contrast, some other thermotolerant coliforms (including strains of Klebsiella, Citrobacter and Enterobacter) are able to grow in the environment and their presence is not necessarily related to faecal contamination. While tests for thermotolerant coliforms can be simpler than for E. coli, E. coli is considered a superior indicator for detecting faecal contamination…” ADWG 2011

2011 – Yarrabah – (Queensland) – Colour

September 2011: Colour 29 True Colour Hazen

Based on aesthetic considerations, true colour in drinking water should not exceed 15 HU.

“… Colour is generally related to organic content, and while colour derived from natural sources such as humic and fulvic acids is not a health consideration, chlorination of such water can produce a variety of chlorinated organic compounds as by-products (see Section 6.3.2 on disinfection by-products). If the colour is high at the time of disinfection, then the water should be checked for disinfection by-products. It should be noted, however, that low colour at the time of disinfection does not necessarily mean that the concentration of disinfection by-products will be low…