2012/21 – Pandanus Park (Western Australia) – Nitrate, Naegleria Species

2012/14 – Pandanus Park (Western Australia) – Nitrate

2012/14: Pandanus Park (Western Australia) – Nitrate Levels: ~40mg/L-~75mg/L


19 tests above ADWG Child Guideline 2012-2014

26 tests above ADWG Child Guideline 2018-2020

32 tests (89%) above ADWG Child Guideline 2017-19

2017: ~72mg/L (highest). ~60.2mg/L (average)

2018: ~77mg/L (highest). ~69.7mg/L (average)

2019: ~84mg/L (highest). ~75.5mg/L (average)

One in five communities exceeded safe levels for nitrates or uranium

The most significant chemical issues for water quality come from nitrates and uranium, which occur naturally and are common in the Goldfields and Pilbara. Excessive nitrates in the diet reduce blood’s ability to carry oxygen. In infants, this can cause the potentially life-threatening Blue Baby Syndrome, where the skin takes on a bluish colour and the child has trouble breathing. Housing provides bottled water for infants under three months in communities with high nitrates. Long term solutions would likely include asset replacements or upgrades or finding new water sources, or a combination of these.

In 2013-14, fourteen of 84 communities in the Program recorded nitrates above the safe health level for bottle-fed babies under three months. Two communities had readings above the standard for adults (Figure 5).

Child Heath Levels Nitrate: 50mg/L. Adult Heath Levels Nitrate: 100mg/L

‘I’m doing this out of my heart’: the fight for clean water in one remote WA Indigenous town

20 October 2021


Community leader Patricia Riley’s daughter drank tap water while pregnant, only to be told it contained unsafe levels of nitrate.

Kaitlyn Buaneye was eight months pregnant when she first learned she wasn’t supposed to drink the water, but it wasn’t until after her son was born she found out why.

Her mother, Patricia Riley, a Nyikina woman and Pandanus Park community leader, had been investigating drinking water contamination in the Indigenous community in northern Western Australia.

“That’s when my mother got the results that there were nitrates in this water, and it was unsafe. Especially for newborn babies and pregnant mothers,” Buaneye says.

“I was drinking it when I was pregnant with my son.”

In the six years since that shock, the 25-year-old mother of two says making the 600 metre walk every day to collect water from the filter system at the community office has become difficult, especially in the heat.

“I think that’s the reason why most people just give up and drink the tap water,” she says.

The 125-person community 168km east of Broome in the Kimberley region of Western Australia, draws its drinking water from two bores near the Martuwarra (Fitzroy river).

Tests in 2015 revealed nitrate concentrations at levels of 80mg/L – below the 100mg/L safety guidelines recommended for adults by the Australian drinking water guidelines, but above the 50mg/L limit for pregnant women and infants up to three months old.

An audit report released in June found groundwater contamination in Pandanus Park and dozens of other remote communities across the state was getting worse.

‘Your drinking water could be poisoning your children’

Nitrate contamination represents a risk to infants as it can cause methaemoglobinaemia or “blue baby syndrome”, which prevents the blood carrying oxygen.

Authorities say that on the current health advice the water is perfectly safe to drink for older children and adults but Dr Christine Jeffries, a paediatrician working in the Goldfields region of WA, says this advice needs an update.

Jeffries has been researching the health effects of nitrate consumption since she became aware of the problem while investigating high rates of kidney disease among remote communities in the region in 2007.

She and her sister-in-law, Annette Stokes, began the western desert kidney health project after noticing 12 children at a basketball game who showed early signs of kidney disease.

At first, they thought the issue was genetic but soon found non-Indigenous people who had moved to the same communities experienced similar problems over time. After eliminating several possibilities, Jeffries says they finally looked at the water and found a recurring feature: nitrate pollution.

“The water was a complete surprise. It never occurred to us that in Australia, your drinking water could be poisoning your children,” Jeffries says.

Nitrates are produced when organic matter – everything from vegetation to human bodies – breaks down. Often the cause of nitrate pollution is run-off from fertilisers such as in the US state of Iowa or leaking sewerage, as recorded in Gaza.

But in the Kimberley nitrate pollution occurs naturally. Vegetation, such as on the edge of rivers or waterways, dies and the nitrates created seep down into an aquifer. Because this process can occur over thousands of years, the landscape above can change dramatically while the ancient water beneath remains.

Adults and older children have been thought to have the stomach bacteria to break down low levels of nitrate, though the National Health and Medical Research Council is reviewing the nitrate factsheet in the drinking water guidelines.

Dr Mary Ward is a senior investigator with the National Cancer Institute in the US and contributor to a 2018 review of the medical literature on nitrate in drinking water.

It found evidence of a relationship between long-term exposure to low levels of nitrate over a 10-year period and elevated risks of “colorectal cancer, thyroid disease, and neural tube defects”.

“While there have been several studies since our 2018 review, our conclusions still hold,” Ward says. “Taken together, these studies add to the evidence for adverse health effects related to nitrate at levels below the current regulatory standards in the US and EU.”

However, Ward cautions there are still few well-designed studies available to draw firm conclusions on several risks.

‘I’m not just fighting for Pandanus’

Prof Anas Ghadouani, program chair for the environmental engineering project at the University of Western Australia, says there are relatively cheap measures that could be taken to mitigate possible long-term effects.

“Technical solutions to this already exist,” Ghadouani says. “We can do this now. It is not rocket science.”

Successive state governments have been slow to address the issue in Pandanus Park and other communities. In some cases, the cost of providing basic services to remote communities has been used to justify closing them down.

Ghadouani says reverse osmosis filtering systems for farming use cost $20,000, less than the cost of kidney dialysis for one patient for a year.

“Expensive is all relative,” Ghadouani says. “When someone says ‘expensive’, I say ‘what’s your benchmark?’ With a little thought you could have a very good system.”

Prof Stuart Khan, from the school of civil and environmental engineering at the University of NSW, says cleaning nitrate from water can be tricky, requiring tailored systems to prevent wastewater washing back into the aquifer and trained staff to run them.

“If we had a program that was helping to deliver those skills into regional and remote communities, that would be ideal,” he says.

In some ways, Pandanus Park is proof that something can be done. Media coverage of the community’s situation prompted a New South Wales-based charity, the Yaru Foundation, to donate a water filtration system in 2018.

What was reported at the time as a “solution” was only intended as a stopgap measure while the state government worked on a sustainable, long-term fix.

The filter system delivers water only to the community office, and Pat Riley says travelling there to fetch water every day is not always possible for elderly people or the ill.

“We want clean, pure water that goes directly to our houses that we can drink,” she says.

Paul Isaachsen, assistant director-general of governance with the WA Department of Communities, says Pandanus Park’s needs are being met by the filtration system and the bottled water supplied for pregnant mothers and young infants.

He says $12m has been spent to build water treatment plants in other communities.

Systems have been installed at Jigalong, Mount Margaret, Barrel Well, Jameson, Cosmo Newberry and Tjuntjuntjara, with three more under construction in Warburton, Kiwirrkurra and Parnngurr.

“Other communities like Pandanus Park are to be considered as funding becomes available,” Isaachsen says.

However, a recent audit report found the department may seek an exemption to avoid having to provide safe drinking water to some communities under its management.

Water Corporation, WA’s water utility, has already received exemptions from having to provide safe drinking water to nine remote communities with nitrate contamination issues.

Isaachsen says regulations allowing the department to apply for exemptions are not yet in force, but it “will consider whether any exemptions are required” when they are.

Riley says a permanent solution is long overdue.

“They just give us bottled water,” she says.

“They constantly send us bottled water – always bottled water. I’m doing this out of my heart, because this is my home. I’m not just fighting for Pandanus, I’m fighting for the rest of the communities in the Kimberley region.”

Safe drinking at last after charity steps in to fix poison-water issue

8 November 2017


A remote Aboriginal community says the West Australian Government’s failure to fix its contaminated water supply has led to life-threatening situations.

The water at the Pandanus Park community near Broome is unsafe for babies and pregnant women to drink because it contains high levels of nitrate.

Community CEO Patricia Riley has been lobbying the State Government to act on the issue for 18 months.

“[The tap water] tastes like sewerage, you can taste salt. It makes you dehydrated. It’s got an odd smell even in the shower. It’s like you’re suffocating in the shower,” she said.

“It’s a life-threatening situation we’re in, drinking the nitrates.”

Nitrates have been linked to cancer, kidney disease and diabetes — illnesses that already disproportionately affect Aboriginal people.

Last May, Ms Riley turned to the media to voice her concerns and a not-for-profit organisation from New South Wales responded.

The Yaru Foundation, the charity arm of a bottled water company near Byron Bay, organised for a water filtration station to be shipped across the country and installed free of charge.

Housed in a small shipping container, the station filters the community’s water bore delivering clean, cooled water to the community.

Ms Riley said her people are grateful for the donated infrastructure, but sharing two taps between 150 residents is less than ideal.

“We are lucky to have it,” she said.

“It’s really affecting us, but it’s good we’ve got someone from another state coming to support us. We would appreciate if our own government had actually done this.”

Blue baby syndrome

In 2015, a WA Auditor General’s report found more than a dozen Aboriginal communities in WA, including Pandanus Park, had enough nitrate in their water supply to cause the potentially fatal condition blue baby syndrome.

The reticulated water at Pandanus Park is treated for bacteria with chlorine, but the Department of Communities admits that it does not reduce the level of nitrates.

After testing uncovered elevated levels of nitrate in the water last year, the Department agreed to supply bottled water to the community.

It said the community needed an additional filtration system like a “reverse osmosis unit” to remove the nitrates which it said will be at a “significant capital cost”.

In the meantime, the Government is continuing to monitor the water quality.

“The reticulated water supply in these communities is tested monthly with analysis and results monitored by the Department of Health,” a Department of Communities spokesman said.

A request to see the latest testing results was rejected.

Ms Riley said she had been forced to confront the possibility that the water she uses to wash with might be causing the skin irritations and fungal diseases that infected her community.

“They said they’re looking for funding while they come up with some kind of plan. They said soon, they always say soon but we don’t know,” she said.

The Department of Communities is responsible for water in 82 remote Aboriginal communities and claims nitrate levels are below the Australian Drinking Water Guidelines’ maximum level for adults.

But the nitrate levels have been found to sometimes exceed the recommended safe level for infants.

It said it has signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Yaru Foundation to continue monitoring the water and is “progressively installing filtration systems to improve the reticulated water supply to communities like Pandanus Park”.

Providing water ‘not rocket science’

Yaru co-founder Shaun Martin said the Pandanus community’s plight was an opportunity for the organisation to install its first filtration station.

“It’s not rocket science,” Mr Martin said.

“The community have taken ownership and that’s very important.

“It gives them autonomy … we service it but they look after it.”

The foundation is investigating the potential to install more filtration systems in remote Aboriginal communities across the state.

“We’ve highlighted at least 14 communities that need this (as soon as possible) in the Kimberley and Gascoyne,” Mr Martin said.

“Some of these jobs are easier to do, for foundations [such as us].

“There’s a little less red tape, maybe, and you can get more done outside the system.”

In the wash-up, for the first time in 15 years Pandanus Park residents have access to clean tap water.

“It tastes 100 per cent better than that coming from the tap in the household,” Ms Riley said.

Pandanus Park (Western Australia) – Naegleria Species

Naegleria Species:

1 test above ADWG Guideline 2012-2014

“GUIDELINE No guideline value is set for Naegleria fowleri in drinking water, but an ‘action level’ is recommended for water supplies likely to be contaminated. If the organism is detected, advice should be sought from the relevant health authority.

Naegleria fowleri is a free-living, thermophilic amoeboflagellate which causes the waterborne disease primary amoebic meningoencephalitis (PAM). This rare but fatal condition has followed use of water for swimming, or domestic bathing. The organism occurs naturally in freshwater of suitable temperature, feeding on bacteria. Its occurrence is only indirectly related to human activity, inasmuch as such activity may modify temperatures or promote bacterial production. PAM has been reported from many countries, usually associated with thermally polluted environments, geothermal water or heated swimming pools. N. fowleri is almost exclusively aquatic, and water is the only known source of infection. Numerous nonvirulent Naegleria species are known in Australia.

PAM cases have been recorded from South Australia, Western Australia, Queensland and New South Wales; Naegleria fowleri has been detected in water in each of these states and in the Northern Territory. Australia is the only country where N. fowleri has been detected in public water supplies (Dorsch et al. 1983). Most of the available data on the density of N. fowleri in water relates to water supplies in South Australia (including the highest reported densities). In temperate Australia, significant seasonal cycles of density occur, from below one organism per litre to hundreds or thousands per litre in poorly disinfected water (Robinson and Christy 1984). N. fowleri detected at water temperatures below 18°C is likely to be present as cysts, which are not infectious, but which may seed a suitable environment.” Australian Drinking Water Guidelines 2011.