Government urged to take safe drinking water more seriously

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The group representing plumbers has accused the Government of failing to take safe drinking water seriously.

It comes as water with traces of lead 40-times the acceptable level was detected in the water of two Otago towns.

While the cause of this contamination is still being investigated, Master Plumbers CEO Greg Wallace says lead can enter drinking water when plumbing materials containing lead start to corrode.

"Although we have standards, nobody enforces those standards, so there's a lot of imports [of taps] that we know that are coming in that could be leaching lead into our drinking system," he says.

"We need to have safe drinking water in New Zealand."

Water contamination could happen in the main water line, or inside homes and businesses through internal pipes and fixtures. 

When consumed, the lead can accumulate in the bloodstream before settling into bones, teeth, and soft tissues.

The World Health Organisation puts it bluntly -  there is no level of exposure to lead that won't have harmful effects.

The negative impacts of lead exposure have been widely researched.

One study conducted in New Zealand linked extremely high levels of lead in cities in the 70s and 80s to lower IQs.

"It's around and we've got to be on guard," University of Auckland epidemiologist Alistair Woodward says.

Children and unborn babies are the most susceptible to lead.

"They absorb it very quickly more quickly than an adult and their systems are developing particularly the brain and the nervous system," Woodward says.

Wallace says the Government must prioritise safe drinking water and bring our standards in line with the rest of the world.

"They're not taking the health concerns, particularly drinking water, seriously enough and there hasn't been enough emphasis on this."

The limit for lead in drinking water is 10 micrograms per litre and follows World Health Organisation recommendations, a Health Ministry spokesperson told Newshub. 

Dr Ayesha Verrall, associate Minister of Health, says the Government is also in the process of implementing new guidelines that will halve the amount of acceptable lead in blood and put New Zealand in line with countries like Canada. This change was agreed to in 2019, she adds, but parts of the implementation were delayed due to COVID-19.

"The Government will be introducing legislation to formally reduce the blood lead level that's considered safe in the Health Act this year. It's extremely rare for people to get sick if they have blood lead levels at the current notifiable levels," she says.

"Clinical symptoms of lead toxicity in adults only become apparent at blood lead levels of more than 70 micrograms per decilitre, well above the current notification level."