Arsenic alarm

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By PHILIP CHANDLER

Queenstown rural landowners are on high alert over arsenic poisoning in their drinking water.

Regional medical officer of health Susan Jack last month warned about 200 householders not to drink their bore water till it’s tested, as ‘‘elevated levels’’ of arsenic have been found in ‘‘two drinking water bores in your area’’.

While small amounts of arsenic might be fine, ‘‘swallowing larger amounts of arsenic may be harmful to health’’.

However, that warning, on behalf of Southern District Health Board, Otago Regional Council and Queenstown Lakes District Council, has come too late for some.

Lower Shotover resident Marie Wales says she, her family and neighbours have already been exposed to arsenic-contaminated drinking water.

‘‘I’ve had my hair tested and it’s come back with high levels of arsenic, as has my husband’s and my neighbours’ and my children.’’

She’s also had confirmation through a urine test.

Wales, who works for the Cancer Society, says it’s of concern how long they’ve all been exposed because it can cause ‘‘long-term carcinogenic effects in your body’’.

It could cause neurological and heart problems, she says, with children being particularly vulnerable.

Wales, who’s heard another local bore tested positive for arsenic last April, stresses she’s not attributing blame to anyone, ‘‘but I don’t want kids, or anybody else in the Whakatipu, to be exposed to this risk’’.

From her enquiries, she believes the main problem is there’s not a single regulatory body ensuring all bore water’s tested regularly.

Queenstown’s council, the regional council and Public Health South have different responsibilities, she says, ‘‘but no one has an overall responsibility, and that’s where the problem lies’’.

It’s not as if the problem’s new, she says.

According to minutes of a local council meeting in 2018, Public Health South’s Susan Moore told councillors there were 11 registered water supplies in the district, and only one was fully compliant with the New Zealand drinking water standard.

It was a legal requirement for all to be compliant, Moore said.

Wales says she’s asked council if all are now compliant, but hasn’t had a reply.

Having not had responses from either Queenstown’s council, ORC or Public Health South, Wales sent a four-page letter to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Health Minister Andrew Little and Associate Health Minister Dr Ayesha Verrall on December 20.

She’s sought their assistance ‘‘regarding what I would consider to be a very serious public health issue’’, saying she’s ‘‘sickened’’ to learn she and others have been drinking this water ‘‘for an undetermined period of time’’.

‘‘Working for the Cancer Society I’ve been quite shocked to learn of the risk of exposure to a carcinogen and the lack of robustness in the water quality control for those who are dependent on water sources outside of a main supply.’’

She also writes: ‘‘I am not an expert in this field but it would appear evident that there are definite flaws in the process that has exposed us to this serious health risk.

‘‘There are a significant number of bores in the Whakatipu, and I feel there is a social and moral responsibility to ensure others are not naively drinking water that is contaminated.

‘‘I have asked all the relevant parties if there is an intention to notify all bore owners as a matter of urgency in the local area so they can at least have their water tested — but have heard nothing further.’’

Wales comments: ‘‘Everybody should know about the potential of arsenic in our water system.

‘‘It costs $40 to get your water tested for arsenic — had we known that, we’d be testing it ourselves.’’

She fears the problem will only worsen as more houses are built in the countryside.

Bearing in mind all that’s required to get a consent to build, ensuring a safe, ongoing water supply should also be a prerequisite, she says.

Fortunately, she and her neighbours have now been connected to the town water supply.

Neither Queenstown’s council nor the DHB could respond by Scene’s deadline.

‘Water quality a big issue’

Queenstown-based broadcaster Leanne Malcolm (above), who has a rural block, was relieved this week to find her bore water’s tested negative for arsenic.

Getting the warning letter just nine days before Christmas was the worst timing, she says, ‘‘because getting tests and things over the New Year period is quite difficult’’.

‘‘It makes you feel a bit vulnerable when you get a letter like that — and you can’t even boil your water because that increases the concentration of arsenic.

‘‘We were going around to friends’ places with big bottles and saying, ‘can we take some of your water?’, because the letter categorically said, ‘don’t drink it until you’ve got those test results back’.’’

Malcolm says she feels for those who get bad test results.

‘‘One thing you want to take for granted is the purity and safety of your drinking water, isn’t it?

‘‘It’s such a big health issue.

‘‘If this were happening in a big city like Auckland, it would be national news, wouldn’t it?’’

scoop@scene.co.nz