Water quality: A grave threat to public health

It’s a case of back to the future, when inadequate government funding for local authority services produced a dreadful mess

 

Public health attracts attention only when people are admitted to hospital or when accident and emergency services are overrun. Even then, the causes of illness tend to become lost in trolley counts and in demands for higher hospital spending. Prevention, in many situations, would be cheaper than cure. But there is a worrying reluctance to recognise this reality or to radically improve the quality of drinking water – a problem that threatens the health of nearly three quarters of a million people.

The latest report from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) repeats previous warnings. Eighty-seven public drinking supply systems and 700,000 people remain “at risk” because of water-borne contaminants and inadequate investment in treatment plants. The threats range from cryptosporidium that may arise from farm-generated E.coli; to lead poisoning from old service pipes and to THM, a potential carcinogenic that is caused when chlorine interacts with organic matter from reservoirs and rivers.

The EPA issued 41 “boil water” notices during the course of 2016, but remedial work conducted by Irish Water reduced the number of affected water supplies to 10. Noting persistent pesticide in some water supplies along with the presence of high levels of disinfectant by-products, it suggested a national plan should be drawn up to deal with these problems. As for Irish Water, the EPA said it should prepare safety plans for all supply systems so that problems might be identified “before they become a risk”.

There was a strong whiff of buck passing in that suggestion. If the EPA can identify more than 80 sub-standard systems that threaten public health, how can Irish Water be expected to deal with them “before they become a risk”? And where will the money come from? In addition to a funding gap of €114 million for Irish Water, caused by the withdrawal of water charges last year, the Government is committed to returning €173 million to those householders who paid their bills. As for the future, Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy has made it clear that funding for the utility will have to compete against future capital projects in both education and health.

It’s a case of back to the future, when inadequate government funding for local authority services such as water and sewage treatment produced a dreadful mess. A clean environment, safe drinking water and better public services cannot seriously compete with tax cuts. In spite of a homeless crisis, all four Dublin councils stood apart from the rest of the State last year by voting to cut property taxes by 15 per cent. Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown councillors voted for a similar approach this week, even as their Fingal colleagues accepted the need for higher charges. A more thoughtful approach is required at all levels.

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