By Anthony Amis
As part of the national drinking water project, Northern Territory (NT) data was added to the Australian Drinking Water Website in May 2019 (for details see https://water.australianmap.net).
The data was gleaned from Power and Water Annual Reports 2003‒16. Most of the communities supplied with drinking water are small isolated Aboriginal communities located from the tropical north to the arid desert regions of Central Australia. As a result, drinking water issues occurring in these communities tend to have unique and localised impacts to their populations of only a few hundred people.
If these water quality problems were occurring in larger cities, they would be much harder for the government to avoid dealing with. However, the isolation of these small communities means they generally do not have the political resources to demand better water quality. They therefore tend to be ignored, as government resources are directed to larger regional centres where the bulk of the population ‒ and voters ‒ are.
Kidney disease in the NT is particularly high in Aboriginal communities. The remoteness of these communities makes it more costly and difficult to treat. Many of the breaches to the Australian Drinking Water Guidelines (ADWGs) in the NT concern substances harmful to kidneys. These include sodium, fluoride, uranium and nitrate. Levels of these substances were exceeded in approximately thirty communities between 2003‒16. Furthermore, few of these communities have access to the water treatment facilities required to remove dangerous substances from drinking water. As many rely on groundwater, it should be a government priority to provide resources to properly deal with this problem.
E.coli, sodium and fluoride
In this time period of 2003‒16, the largest percentage (48%) of all breaches of the ADWGs were for detections of E.coli in drinking water. E.coli is regarded as an indicator of faecal contamination as it is the most common thermotolerant coliform present in faeces. Fifty-four communities in the NT between 2003‒16 had issues with E.coli in their drinking water, with the highest number of incidents occurring in Tennant Creek, Nganmaryanga (Palumpa) and Ti-Tree. E.coli in water can be seen as an indicator of more harmful organisms and can be the cause of a number of gastrointestinal problems.
The second largest number of breaches of the ADWGs were for sodium, with ten communities recording sodium levels higher than the safe level. As the problem has been ignored for so long, many residents have likely been drinking sodium-contaminated water for decades. These communities include Daly Waters, Nturiya, Wilora, Papunya, Tara and Imanpa. Sodium in drinking water poses health risks for people with high blood pressure, cardiovascular/heart disease, kidney problems and for those having to be on low sodium diets.
The third largest number of drinking water breaches between 2003‒16 were for fluoride, which is added to the water supply of some communities to combat tooth decay. In some places, fluoride is already naturally present in bore water that communities rely on. In the NT, fluoride levels in bore water remained at or just over the ADWG for a number of years in five communities, particularly Tennant Creek, Warrabri and Lake Nash. Excessive levels of fluoride can cause mineralisation of tissue and bones in children and adults. Dental fluorosis can occur in children between the ages of 6-8 from excessive fluoride and skeletal fluorosis has been documented in people exposed to levels of fluoride higher than that recorded in the NT. People with kidney problems may be more susceptible to retention of fluoride.
Radiological and uranium breaches
Radiological and uranium breaches to drinking water guidelines were recorded in 10 communities. In the Kings Canyon community, radiological guideline limits were breached for 6 years. The highest reading of 2.37 millisieverts per year occurring in 2009/10 was 237% above the guideline levels. Three communities – Laramba (Napperby), Willowra and Willora ‒ recorded levels of uranium in their drinking water above guideline levels for several years.
Laramba fared worst, with the highest level of uranium recorded in 2016/17 at 0.047mg/L (or 276% above the guideline level). The source of the uranium was bore water, with high levels of uranium in local geology. Exposure to uranium in drinking water can lead to multiple health problems such as kidney issues, while longer-term exposure greatly increases the risk of developing cancer. In June 2018, the community of Laramba appealed to the NT government to solve their drinking water crisis in a story reported by ABC's 7:30 Report.
Nitrate levels exceeded drinking water levels in the communities of Ti Tree, Warrabri, Kintore and Pmara Jutunta. The levels of nitrate detected in these communities were at levels of most concern to bottle fed infants under the age of three months old. Babies ingesting nitrate are susceptible to methaemoglobinaemia (blue baby syndrome), a condition where oxygen cannot be transported to tissues by the blood. The condition can be fatal. Elevated levels of nitrate in drinking water may also be linked to kidney disease and diabetes.
The mineral selenium was recorded at levels above guideline levels in four communities, with the highest levels recorded at Daly Waters, Kings Canyon and Mataranka. Nail deformities have been associated with exposing people to high levels of selenium. Other problems can include stomach problems, skin problems and rashes, and dizziness.
Antimony, a potentially carcinogenic mineral, was detected regularly above guideline levels at Beswick. When ingested, antimony is distributed mainly to the liver, spleen, heart and thyroid and adrenal glands. Another mineral, Barium, was regularly detected above guideline levels in the small community of Gundabijin (Bulla). Barium is thought to contribute to causing cardiovascular problems and kidney problems, although evidence is not conclusive.
Lead has been a problem in four communities, with the small community of Garawah experiencing the highest levels of exposure. Lead is commonly found in drinking water as a result of it leaching from plumbing fixings, as well as from old solder on water tanks and runoff from roofs painted with lead paint. It can also enter drinking water supplies as part of environmental pollution from waterways.
McArthur River mine
In 2018 residents at Borroloola, a community one kilometre west of Garawah, raised concerns about lead contamination coming from the McArthur River mine upstream. The mine is located about 45 km south-west of Borroloola, and has raised a lot of controversy since it began operations and subsequently underwent a massive expansion approved by then federal environment minister Peter Garrett in 2011. Lead is a cumulative poison which can lead to a host of health problems including hindering the mental development of children.
Finally, the community of Katherine (population 10,000) has suffered from contamination of their water supply in recent years from PFAS (per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances) leaching from the Tindall RAAF base. The Defence Department will fund the operation of the new Katherine water treatment plant and agreed to pay $15m for its construction. While the PFAS contamination has likely been occurring for many years, testing for PFAS only began in 2017.
Attempting to quantify which communities in the NT are in the most urgent need of assistance is an extremely difficult task, but it would be fair to say that the following 10 communities would be the most urgent: Warrabri (Ali Curung), Gudjabidjin (Bulla), Daly Waters, Beswick, Laramba (Napperby), Wilora (Stirling), Ti Tree, Kings Canyon, Tennant Creek and Willowra. Over 5,300 people live in these 10 communities, but excluding Tennant Creek, the remaining nine communities have an average population of 256 people. Almost all of these communities rely on bore water, but treatment would need to be tailored to each area depending on the substances requiring filtering out. Special attention also needs to be given to the people of Garawah and a thorough investigation into the source of lead in that community's drinking water supply.
The tiny Western Australian community of Buttah Windee (located 760 km north east of Perth) learnt that they were drinking uranium at levels as high as 0.04mg/L (235% above ADWG) which is a similar level to uranium levels detected at Laramba. But in a good news story from earlier this year, Buttah Windee residents managed to crowdfund $26,000 for a reverse osmosis water treatment plant, which is able to capture and produce 900 litres of treated water per month.
Anthony Amis is Friends of the Earth Australia's spokesperson on Pesticides and Drinking Water. [email protected]
Published in Chain Reaction #136, August 2019. National magazine of Friends of the Earth Australia. www.foe.org.au/chain_reaction