Otago water lead contamination: Officials 'need to make sure' NZ's water supply is safe - Ayesha Verrall

Health officials "need to make sure" that New Zealand's water supply is safe, says Associate Minister of Health, Dr Ayesha Verrall, following the discovery of lead in an Otago reservoir.

Last Tuesday, residents of Karitane and Waikouaiti were told not to drink from the tap after a sample taken in December showed a high level of lead in the water supply. Sample results have shown intermittent spikes in lead concentration - with one sample containing 40 times the acceptable value.

The sample results were emailed to a council staffer that month - however, they didn't see the message until they returned to work in the new year.

The Dunedin City Council is currently working to identify the source of the contamination and when the spikes began. 

On Wednesday morning, it was announced that Dr Verrall had asked Director-General of Health, Dr Ashley Bloomfield, to conduct a rapid review by independent experts into the health response to the lead contamination, to ensure "public confidence" in the system.

Speaking to The AM Show on Wednesday morning, Dr Verrall was asked if New Zealand's water supply is safe - a question she did not answer directly.

"We need to make sure it is safe, and that's why we're making sure we're investing in improving water infrastructure nationwide - and that we're making sure the regulations for health are improved as well," she said.

Host Duncan Garner called out the Associate Minister for the evasive response, saying it was "a simple question".

"This is crucial isn't it - a simple question like that, 'is New Zealand's water supply safe?' and you stand there today as the Associate Minister of Health and say, 'well, we need to check on that'."

Dr Verrall reiterated that health officials "need to make sure" the water is being "prospectively" monitored. 

"We're moving to a system of having water monitoring much more regularised than it has been in the past," she said.

"I drank out of the tap this morning. I feel confident in the national supply, but we need to make sure those improvements are in place for the future." 

Dr Ashley Bloomfield is leading a rapid review into the health response to the lead contamination. Findings from the review are expected in March.
Dr Ashley Bloomfield is leading a rapid review into the health response to the lead contamination. Findings from the review are expected in March. Photo credit: Getty

Karitane and Waikouaiti residents are being offered free blood tests over the next three days to establish the extent of the public health risk.

Dr Verrall said until the blood test results have been returned, health officials "don't know" how serious the situation could be.

On the first day of testing on Tuesday, 282 people turned up.

Although a short spike in lead levels alone is unlikely to cause toxicity, the blood tests will help to determine if there has been longer-term exposure.  

Although no results have been returned, Dr Verrall said there have been no reported acute lead toxicity diagnoses in the communities.

Jazhr Hansen, a mother-of-three from Karitane, took her five-month-old baby to get tested on Tuesday.

"The whole thing has been handled really badly - there has been a lot of finger-pointing, there's a lot of shifting blame which just makes people confused," Hansen said.

Dr Verrall said "she can only imagine" how stressful the situation must be for local mothers, some of whom would have been drinking the contaminated water while pregnant.

"What we have to do is get on with these blood tests... we are making sure there's ability for children to have blood tests as well, so we can give an answer about the risk to her and her baby."

A statement dated January 10, 2021 was released by Dr Verrall's office on Wednesday morning, confirming that a rapid review into the health response to lead contamination in Karitane and Waikouaiti's drinking water supply is currently underway. 

In the statement, the Associate Minister said "New Zealanders have every right to expect that their drinking water is safe".

"What’s happened in Otago is unacceptable," Dr Verrall said in the statement.

"While it is vital that we understand how levels of lead contaminated the water, we also want to review our overall health response to the situation. The independent review will look into how the health system, including local and central government health agencies, responded to the situation and how the risk to public health was subsequently addressed.

"Ultimately, we want to reduce the risk of this happening again and inform the ongoing response.

“The Government has been clear for some time that there are long-standing infrastructure issues with our water systems throughout the country and we are addressing that through the three waters reforms."

A report to the Government regarding the preliminary findings and suggested actions is expected by March. 

The review will also inform the three water reforms currently underway.