It's time to chlorinate New Zealand's drinking water

by The Listener / 18 January, 2018
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The Government must not replicate the ludicrous kick for touch that happened with water fluoridation. Photo/Getty Images

At the artesian drinking-water fountain in Petone, there’s often a small queue of people waiting to fill big bottles with the famously crisp Wellington water. The district’s town water supply has long been chlorinated: hence the Petone fountain’s attraction. We value water purity and taste and will go out of our way to get the natural, untreated product.

So it is no surprise that officials’ suggestion that all drinking water be chlorinated has caused some apprehension. It’s one of the recommendations in the report on the 2016 contamination of Havelock North’s water supply with sheep excrement, which hospitalised 45 people and made 5000 ill with gastroenteritis. It is also believed to have been a factor in three deaths, and some locals are still suffering complications from their illness.

The subsequent inquiry, which reported last month, provided reassurance to Aucklanders and Wellingtonians, whose water is already treated, that what's coming out of their taps won’t make them sick. But it found more than 700,000 people in other districts receive a water supply whose safety simply can’t be assured. The report was unsparing. Many local authorities had done a woeful job of maintaining infrastructure, and they and health officials had a patchy record of monitoring drinking-water quality.

The verdict that management of the systems that deliver our tap water has become so incoherent must rattle public confidence in local government. Councils’ reflex defence is that they’re too short of money to maintain expensive infrastructure. But that alone should be the starting point for what they fear most: a root-and-branch reappraisal of local government.

If maintaining basic infrastructure is beyond councils, it’s time to reconsider the divisions between central and local government. These have developed over many decades, piecemeal and often driven by political convenience, and the distinctions are often arbitrary and contradictory. Critics have long accused local and regional politicians of grandiose mission-creep, at the expense of the basics, water and sewerage being the most worryingly neglected.

That political turf war will take years to resolve. Local politicians’ defensiveness is matched by central politicians’ reluctance to make thorny and expensive regional problems their own.

In the meantime, chlorination seems the best way to prevent further public-health crises. Universal treatment was among the report’s recommendations, along with standardisation of monitoring and national rather than local invigilation.

The Government has indicated it will impose a new national system to ensure safe drinking water. Though everyone is tiptoeing around local sensitivities for now, it will be hard to justify not taking the precaution of mandating that all districts chlorinate until they can prove their water would be safe without the addition of the chemical. This won’t forestall the protestations of chlorination opponents, but it will frame chlorination as a temporary insurance policy.

Chlorinated water needs monitoring, as overexposure can be dangerous, but the World Health Organisation says the risks from chlorine are “extremely small” compared with the risks from untreated water. Whatever the internet’s cornucopia of factoids may persuade some of us to believe, it’s safer to ingest chlorine than such organisms as E coli and cryptosporidium. People who would risk a bout of “tummy flu” rather than stomach a chemical additive should meet those with debilitating long-term complications, such as Guillain-Barré syndrome, and consider the elderly, the ill and infants, for whom “tummy flu” can be fatal.

Above all, the Government must not replicate the ludicrous kick for touch that happened with water fluoridation. Until recently, each council decided whether to fluoridate for dental protection. When lobbying against fluoridation – invariably based on personal belief rather than science – became a nightmare for a few councils, the previous Government merely gave decision-making power to district health boards.

Yet, like drinking-water safety, fluoridation is a national, not local, public health matter. We don’t leave food or medicine safety standards up to local councils or DHBs. The Government should take the lead, based on scientific evidence. Yes, untreated water is nicer. But the chlorine smell dissipates if you boil it or let it sit for some time. More councils could provide artesian outlets such as Petone’s, as some did to mollify fluoridation opponents.

For chlorine refuseniks, inexpensive filter jugs can remove most of it. The inconvenience to them will be tiny compared with the risk of more suffering and tragedy from another Havelock North-style contamination.

This editorial was first published in the January 27, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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