19 May Is the glass half full? – The Quality of Ireland’s Drinking Water
Ireland is bound by the European Drinking Water Directive (DWD) Council Directive 98/83/EC which concerns the quality of water intended for human consumption and forms part of the regulation of Water supply and sanitation in the European Union.
The Directive is intended to protect human health by laying down healthiness and purity requirements which must be met by drinking water within the Community. It applies to all water intended for human consumption apart from natural mineral waters and waters which are medicinal products. The objective of this Directive shall be to protect human health from the adverse effects of any contamination of water intended for human consumption by ensuring that it is wholesome and clean.
Member States shall ensure that such drinking water:
- does not contain any concentration of micro-organisms, parasites or any other substance which constitutes a potential human health risk;
- meets the minimum requirements (microbiological and chemical parameters and those relating to radioactivity) laid down by the directive.
- They will take any other action needed in order to guarantee the healthiness and purity of water intended for human consumption.
In setting contaminant levels the directive applies the precautionary principle. For example, the EU contaminant levels for pesticides are up to 20 times lower than those in the WHO drinking water guidelines, because the EU directive not only aims at protecting human health but also the environment. The WHO contaminant levels themselves are already set so that there would be no potential risk if the contaminant was absorbed continuously over a person’s lifetime. EU drinking water standards and cases where these standards are temporarily exceeded by a small margin should be interpreted in this context.
With effect from Dec 2003, Directive 80/778/EC was repealed and replaced by 98/83/EC. The new directive sees the number of parameters reduced whilst allowing members to add parameters such as magnesium, total hardness,phenols, zinc, phosphate, calcium and chlorite.
The directive requires member states to regularly monitor the quality of water intended for human consumption by using the methods of analysis specified in the directive, or equivalent methods. Member states also have to publish drinking water quality reports every three years, and the European Commission is to publish a summary report. Within five years Member States had to comply with the Directive. Exemptions can be granted on a temporary basis, provided that they do not affect human health.
So, just how healthy is Irish drinking water?
Recently, in Lucan, Dublin, Local Labour Party councillor, Eamon Tuffy, said that he began to receive complaints about the water two weeks ago. “I have had complaints about discolouration and scaling on kettles. One man had a see-through kettle and there was a sandy residue, after the water was boiled” Mr Tuffy said.
“I’ve seen comments from people that they won’t drink the water and they are using bottled water and so forth. But I personally haven’t heard any reports of people getting ill or throwing up or anything like that, I’ve had several complaints that the water is harder.”
Mr Tuffy said he was awaiting clarification from Irish Water.
Local resident Noel O’Neill, from Sarsfield Park, said that when he boils the kettle, the water turns a pale white and he is not convinced that it is safe. “When you boil the water it goes a white colour. It is also leaving a scum on the kettle. I’ve been buying bottled water,” he said.
“I’ve been told its because of the changeover of the reservoir, obviously the water has to travel a lot further now and is picking up limestone on the way.”
“The quality of raw water can change depending on water source, seasonality and position within a catchment and as a result of this the quality of treated water can change,” it said. However, the company said that water from both sources was in full compliance with drinking water regulations. It said the issue of hard water and soft water was a separate matter, related to the mineral content of the raw water from each source, particularly calcium carbonate.
A spokesperson for South Dublin County Council said that Irish Water was responsible for water quality.
14 Years of Undrinkable Water
Residents of Skeheenarinky, Co Tipperary have been on ‘Boil Water Notice’ for almost 15 years.
Margaret and Sean Landers are both schoolteachers and parents to three teenage children. They moved to the Black Road in Skeheenarinky in Co Tipperary in 1999 and were unaware at the time of the water problems in the area. In 2001, coliform and coli was found in the water system, seven days later their water tested clear. However, this cycle of infected and clear water was repeated regularly over the next 14 years.
“The children would have a stomach bug, or perhaps we’d feel a little off but we never attributed that to our water, until we got it tested,” says Sean. “When you move to a new house, you expect to be able to use the water. You don’t expect to go through numerous washing machines, taps, showers and kettles because the sandstone residue in the water acts as sandpaper and wears down motors and fittings.”
“I spend €1.29 a day on five litres of water for the house, and we’ve done that for 14 years, and perhaps up to €45 a week on water bottles for school now that our children are in secondary school. Our children have never gone to a tap, turned it on and drank a glass of water from it. Never,” says Margaret.
“When visitors come we have to tell them, there’s the drum of water to wash your teeth with, but you should be ok in the shower. It sounds crazy but that’s how we live now.”
Neighbour Declan Duggan, who lives less than 500 yards away, has been on a boil water notice for the last five years.
“I’ve grown up in Skeheenarinky all my life, my parents used to have the filling station on the main road, and there was always a problem with the water, as soon as it rained the water went brown but then within a couple of days it went back to normal and it was ‘good clean Galtee Mountain water!’” “However,” Declan continues, “there was something about 2009. Eleanor, my wife, had suffered two kidney infections in a month and asked the council to check the water. Sure enough there was e.coli.”
Less than a week later, the county council told them that their water was fine again.
However, something was bothering Declan so he took a sample of his water to the laboratory where he works and was told by the lab technician: “You’ve shit in your water.” Declan’s brother, who lives on a separate road in the same area, also had access to a lab at work. His water also tested positive for e.coli. Again, after the council had given it the all clear.
The council then tested houses in the area that voiced their concerns and asked for their water to be tested. They were given follow up tests in the sequential years but were not given the results. After this, they put a boil notice on the Black Road, the School House Road all the way to the county bounds, in the Skeheenarinky area. It has not been lifted since.
Siobhan Maher is a resident on the School House Road, a community less than 2km from the Black Road with less than 20 houses. She moved to Skeheenarinky 13 years ago, when she married her husband Tom who is originally from the area, they have three children under 12. “When I shower, I have to cover myself with moisturising body lotion afterwards because my skin gets dry and sore from the chlorine in the water. My son is the same; his skin is dry and has started to crack and flake.”
Declan Duggan is clearly frustrated.
In any company that puts liquid into peoples’ mouths, if they have e.coli or any issue with the product they are selling, they would be shut down overnight.
Local Labour Cllr Seanie Lonergan has an explanation. “The little rivers and streams are coming from all over the mountain, and with surface water, you can’t control what goes in of the water.
“Sheep, deer, rats and their droppings all go into the river and that’s how it becomes infected with coliform and e.coli.”
In 2009 a lot of people in the area got sick, including a few of the children. The HSE did not accept there was a cluster of gastro-related illnesses, because the reports didn’t all come from one doctor.
“We don’t have street lights, they took away our post boxes, we have to drive 20 minutes to a local shop, we don’t have wifi,” says one resident. “Our filling station is closed down, Gardaí are a half hour away, the ambulance is an hour away and now we can’t drink our water?”
The council notice says to boil the water before cooking, and drinking, don’t use it to brush your teeth, and before you give it to your pets, boil it and let it cool. “There you go,” says another resident, “it’s not even fit for dogs.”
Local politicians claim funding has been sanctioned for a scheme, but it will be two years before it is operating, so there is an end to this boil water notice in sight.
With water charges looming, many residents are prepared to unite to fight them. When asked if they will be made pay for water they can’t use, Sarah Foley, the policy analyst for the Commission of Energy Regulation was unsure: “No decisions have been taken on water tariff methodology and the charging system. Under legislation, Irish Water is required to calculate and submit a proposed water charges plan for the CER to approve.”
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