The old saying "there must be something in the water" used to refer to things going very well. Horrifically, the residents of East Otago are the latest to hear the phrase meaning entirely the opposite, with a toxic heavy metal found in their water supply.
And as if lead contamination - a reading from a sample taken in December at almost 40 times the acceptable limit - wasn't bad enough, the local authorities outrageously exacerbated the problem by not alerting the public. An email to the Dunedin City Council about the issue allegedly remained unopened for weeks; the council then publicly understated the high reading; and council chief executive Sandy Graham apparently also wasn't briefed.
Today, the first results from up to 500 blood tests are likely to be returned to an understandably anxious community.
This year marks five years since the residents of Havelock North were struck by a campylobacter outbreak, which was traced to drinking water supplied by two bores in Brookvale Rd, on the outskirts of the Hawke's Bay town.
Similarly to East Otago, warnings were slow to come from official channels with some of the first to report feeling ill being sent home on medical advice to drink more water. It was later revealed officials should have been aware of the danger as the same bores had campylobacter issues in July 1998.
An ensuing independent inquiry outlined a damning scenario of massive nationwide failures in compliance, with the health of 100,000 people affected by poor drinking water, wastewater systems operating without consents, billions of dollars of infrastructure underfunding with up to $570m needed to upgrade drinking water plants to meet new standards and up to $4 billion to meet consent standards for wastewater plants.
One result of the inquiry was the creation of a national drinking water regulator to oversee, administer and enforce a new and strengthened drinking water regulatory system.
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This has been rolled into the Water Services Bill, an omnibus bill to implement the Government's desire to comprehensively reform the drinking water regulatory system, with targeted reforms also to improve the regulation and performance of wastewater and stormwater networks.
This is little solace to the residents of East Otago but the rest of the country will be relieved the efforts by territorial local authorities around the country to maintain potable water supplies from antiquated and failing systems are being addressed as a national priority.
However, a cloud remains over communication plans which should alert residents to failures in such a basic necessity as water, as was also a problem in Havelock North.
In Otago, Associate minister of health Ayesha Verrall has ordered a rapid review into the health system response, saying what has happened in the town is unacceptable. The review will examine the overall health response to the situation, and how the risk to public health was assessed.
The gaping hole into where the appropriate public health messages fell must be plugged, and quickly. This is unlikely to be the last time there's something in the water that people need to know about, immediately.