Muddied waterI have no problem with the idea of recycling sewage water to enable us to drink it. There is technology available that brings us fairly close to a product that is safe to drink. Science will find a solution to the remaining problems. Eventually.

In the meantime the following information shows there is plenty of concern to muddy the waters of the concept of recycling previously muddied water to enable us to drink it.

There is concern not just with the science but also with the governance of the procedures required to maintain a safe drinking standard, especially when that standard is not clearly defined.

There is an Australian Drinking Water Guideline (ADWG) that is produced by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC). The most recent edition being ADWG6 [1] produced in 2011. However it is lacking clear guidelines in several areas, some of which are:

  • Escherichia coli (E. coli) – “No guideline value has been set for pathogenic Escherichia coli and its inclusion in routine monitoring programs is not recommended.”
  • Bacteroides – “No guideline value has been established for Bacteroides in drinking water”
  • Clostridium perfringens – “No guideline value has been set for Clostridium perfringens in drinking water.”
  • Total coliforms – Total coliform bacteria (excluding E. coli) – “No guideline value has been set for total coliforms in drinking water”
  • Helicobacter pylori – “No guideline value has been set for Helicobacter pylori in drinking water and its inclusion in routine monitoring programs is not recommended.”
  • Oestrogenic hormones [2] – The ADWG6 does not contain a guideline for this.

These are just a few examples, references to chemicals and other compounds not included, of what could be found in recycled sewage water and the attached guideline value. If no guideline is given by the NHMRC in a document as important as the Australian Drinking Water Guideline, then that perhaps leaves it up to the local management of the various water suppliers to determine what may or may not be safe and this is just one area where I believe we have a problem.

2008 saw the completion of the Western Corridor Recycled Water Scheme in SE Queensland. It was designed to provide water for industrial, agricultural use and also to supplement the drinking water supplies in the nearby Wivenhoe Dam. Producing in excess of 200 million litres of purified water per day it is currently only used for the Swanbank, Tarong and Tarong North power stations. In November 2008 the Queensland Premier, Anna Bligh, declared that unless dam levels dropped below 40% capacity the recycled water would not enter the dam.[3]

Adelaide scientist Professor Don Bursill, who developed Australia’s drinking water guidelines, has stated that he would not drink recycled sewage and would not back its use.[4] Professor Bursill who was recognised in Australia Day honours for his contribution to water quality research says the technology that would make recycled sewage suitable for drinking already exists, but he is not confident we have the back-up systems to ensure it stays safe.

“You can turn anything wet into drinking water if you have enough money,” he said. “To really ensure it is safe would cost a tremendous amount. This is one bloke who isn’t going to drink it.”

Professor Bursill, who in retirement is the chairman of the Torrens Taskforce, says while it is possible to produce safe drinking water from waste water, present systems are not adequate to cover the risk of bacterial contamination.

Conversely: Professor Steven Oppenheimer, Director of the Centre of Cancer and Development Biology, California State Northbridge University in an article titled “Augmenting Drinking Water with Reclaimed Water”[5] has stated “The United States of America, and for that matter, the world’s scientific community does not and will not know all of the toxic agents and carcinogens that may be able to make it through the indirect reclaimed water process. …Imagine the possibility of thousands of unknown agents getting into our water supply as a result of hospital and industrial waste releases. And the release by such organizations will not be predictable. We do not even have tests available to determine many of the unknowns that may show up in water from the indirect water reuse program.”[5]

So when it comes to a tap near you, will you trust the authorities to have it right?

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