Shane Kenny convinced Achill water contamination triggered medical relapse

Former RTÉ broadcaster seeks full explanation of aluminium problem in island’s supply

Shane Kenny on Achill this week.

Shane Kenny on Achill this week.

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Former RTÉ broadcaster Shane Kenny has said he has no doubt aluminium contamination of the water supply on Achill Island in Co Mayo triggered an acute medical episode he experienced over the past week – the effects of which he hopes will be short-lived.

Kenny suffers from an ongoing debilitating condition due to neurological damage from taking a prescribed benzodiazepine drug prescribed to treat an inner ear condition.

The journalist, who has a house on the island, called on Irish Water to give a fuller explanation of what it admitted was “a catastrophic failure” of the supply. It issued a “do not consume (DNC) notice” on water coming from the island’s treatment works on Friday because of high levels of aluminium, and blamed the problem on exceptional numbers of people on “staycations”.

Aluminium sulphate is used to remove impurities by combining them into larger particles which can be removed more easily. The Achill works had switched from manual to automated application of the coagulant before this incident, but has had to cope with exceptional demand.

The chemical compound is relatively non-toxic in healthy individuals but there is evidence high levels may cause adverse effects on the nervous system. Those with underlying conditions and the very young may also be vulnerable to its effects.

Kenny stressed his condition had been stabilised through exercise and careful lifestyle changes. “I’ve made great progress at managing it and restoring some quality of life, but that’s been wrecked over the past 10 days since I returned to Achill on Monday, August 3rd. I can barely walk now having driven up my walking to an average of 3km a day...What happened was a relapse of very serious proportions.

“I’ve suffered nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea last week, constant stomach problems and then so much body pain, shoulders and arm, severe headache that I had to see my doctor at 10pm on Monday night last here in Achill thinking I was having a heart attack – I’ve had a home here for 21 years.”

His GP did exhaustive tests including an ECG, concluded there was no heart issue and the pain was “musculoskeletal”.

“I’ve no doubt that this collapse in my condition was caused by aluminium sulphate poisoning. I can only hope it’s short term,” Kenny said.

When the doctor noted there was a problem due to aluminium contamination with the local water supply, Kenny did his own research – as he had to do because his neurological condition is so strange and challenging, and consulted a scientist familiar with an aluminium pollution incident at Camelford in the UK in 1988. He said he was immediately struck by how people were affected by it, which tallied with his recent symptoms. Up to that point, he was putting the problem down to his own condition, he noted.

“It’s possible that only vulnerable people like me might be affected,” Kenny said. “I accept that, and I wouldn’t be seeking a blame game, but to understand the facts and if an accident or mistake took place, to put in place controls or systems that avoid a recurrence. But I will not have any trust in public water supply anymore.”

Irish Water defended how it has responded after aluminium levels were found to be approximately five times greater than permitted. It rejects the link made to Camelford, saying that contamination there had been caused when 20 tonnes of aluminium sulphate - 3,000 time the recommended limits - was accidentially discharged into the water supply. By contrast, the Achill incident saw a quantity equal to no more than five times the recommended limit added to the supply, and then only briefly. 

On possible health threats, it added: “As soon as the issue came to light Irish Water immediately consulted with the HSE and the DNC notice was put in place. Any queries in relation to health matters should be directed to the HSE.”

The amount of available drinking water was greater than the volume which can be safely produced at the plant, it said.

On Friday, as a result of further increases in demand and an increase in temperatures which impacted on water treatment efficacy, “we identified an increase in aluminium and turbidity or cloudiness in the water...aluminium sulphate (alum) is used as a coagulant to collect the organic matter from the raw water into a ‘sludge blanket’. The ‘sludge blanket’ lifted allowing for excess alum to spill into the supply necessitating an immediate DNC.”

Reducing the amount of alum would have required a parallel reduction in water volumes going into supply, triggering severe restrictions.

The EPA said: “Irish Water is currently dealing with the incident and trying to resolve the technical difficulties at the water treatment plant. The EPA will undertake an audit of the plant when it has been returned to satisfactory operation. The audit will review what happened and verify that the remedial actions taken have been effective in restoring compliant drinking water quality,” a spokeswoman said.