2018 December: South Yarra (Vic) lead in drinking supply
Dec 28, 2018: A Melbourne home owner has said she was told to take precautions each morning before drinking from her taps after lead was discovered in her water at levels more than 10 times the Australian guidelines.
The South Yarra resident recently arranged to have the water exiting her meter tested by her supplier after the water had sat there overnight.
Joanna, 51, who did not want to be identified, said tests came back with a lead reading of more than 10 times the allowable limit of 10 micrograms a litre, and remained slightly higher than the limit following a period of flushing.
The case highlights a little-publicised recommendation for Australians to run taps used for drinking for 30 seconds each morning before use, and controversy around standards that still allow lead to be used in plumbing products.
Experts say that while Australia has some of the safest drinking water in the world, the public is being let down by rules that allow brass plumbing products to contain up to 4.5 per cent lead, potentially contaminating water as it enters the home.
Anas Ghadouani, a University of Western Australia professor of environmental engineering, said it was time that Australia followed in the footsteps of countries such as Japan and the United States by transitioning to lead-free or low-lead plumbing.
“The World Health Organisation says … there is no safe level for lead,” he said.
Joanna said she was prompted to contact South East Water to get the testing done after reading media coverage about the need to flush.
She was initially told her water meter would be replaced, but was then instead advised to fill up a big jug of water each evening to use the next morning for drinking, and to shower in the morning to help flush the water supply.
She said she was also flushing her drinking taps, but was unsure how long was necessary given the flushed water also came back over the guidelines for lead.
“Now I’m flushing for maybe three or four minutes,” she said.
It is not yet clear what caused the elevated levels of lead reaching her home, and additional testing is under way.
Environmental scientist Dr Paul Harvey said a possible source was the water meter.
“Having the lead-brass meters is commonplace around Australia, and depending on the quality of manufacturing and how old they are, they can have that particulate that comes off,” he said.
Dr Harvey, an adjunct fellow with Macquarie University, said it was much less likely that the lead would have come through the water supply itself, and even if that was the case, it was probably a localised case of lead being dislodged through construction work or something similar.
“But at the end of the day, it all comes down to the same headline … that we have lead in the water, and the lead in the water shouldn’t be there, and we need to find a way of getting rid of it,” he said.
The World Health Organisation warns that lead is a cumulative toxin that affects multiple body systems and is particularly harmful to young children, causing reduced IQ in same cases.
Australia’s Environmental Health Standing Committee recommends various measures for people to reduce their intake, including that households flush cold water taps for drinking and cooking for about 30 seconds in the morning.
It also recommends people flush for up to three minutes after even longer periods of non-use, such as going on holidays, and avoid using hot water taps for drinking.
Australia’s chief medical officer, Professor Brendan Murphy, said the guideline on lead in drinking water was set at a very conservative level so it could be sure to protect the most vulnerable.
However, he said there was “no evidence of adverse effects on human health from the consumption of lead in drinking water in Australia”.
South East Water spokesman Terry Schubach said the company tested more than 8000 samples from its network each year – and all samples tested in 2017-2018 returned results for lead at below detectable levels.