New Zealand | Review of health response to lead contamination: panel appointed

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Independent experts have now been appointed to conduct a rapid review into the health system response to lead contamination in Karitane and Waikouaiti’s drinking water supply.

Sample results from the Waikouaiti drinking-water supply have shown intermittent spikes in lead levels above the maximum acceptable value.

“I have appointed Dr Heather Uwins-England and Dr Jill McKenzie to conduct a rapid review into the health sector response to elevated lead level in the Waikouaiti drinking-water supply,” Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield said.

“Dr Uwins-England, who will lead the review, and Dr McKenzie both have extensive knowledge of drinking water regulation and public health and will be able to look at the health response from an independent point of view.”

The review will also inform the three waters reforms and is expected to be completed in March. The findings will be made public.

The review is health orientated and will include the following:

  • analysis of the water testing results
  • actions taken in response to the lead readings
  • when and what information was passed on to relevant organisations and / or authorities
  • appropriateness and timeliness of how the relevant information was disseminated
  • what levers/powers within the current regulatory system were/are being used to address this situation
  • recommendations for changes that could be undertaken immediately or that need to be considered as part of the wider regulatory changes currently being considered
  • provide advice on any other matters that may be relevant arising from this review.

The communities were advised to stop drinking water from the supply on 2 February 2021. They are currently being provided with tankered drinking water until authorities are confident that the water supply is safe to drink.  

The source of the contamination has not been identified and it is not clear when these spikes in lead concentration started. This is currently under investigation by Dunedin City Council.

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Free testing in the community continues

More than 1,000 people in the community have now had their blood tests and we encourage everyone in the affected community to attend a testing centre to help determine the overall residents’ exposure to lead.  

Results are still being processed, however we would expect most people to have detectable but very low levels of lead, as is normally seen across the New Zealand population.  All people will be called with their individual results. If people haven’t heard from officials, they shouldn’t be alarmed as the laboratory is still processing these.  

Further assessment of individuals with higher than normal levels of lead will be carried out to understand if there are any other environmental factors, such as soil, paint and pipes in older homes, which may have contributed to their result.

Health advice and support is being provided to these people and their families by the public health unit.

Editors notes:

Dr Heather Uwins-England - holds a PhD in Environmental Microbiology, specialising in drinking water quality. Heather has held a senior management role in the public sector in Queensland Australia, being responsible for the regulation of water quality and water management, with a focus on public health protection. As the Director of Water Supply Regulation in Queensland, Heather provided considerable input and expertise into a new regulatory framework for drinking water in Queensland, including development of an incident and emergency response reporting framework for water quality issues where public health was at risk. Heather also has had significant involvement in development, evaluation, review and approval of national guidelines in Australia. Heather was a member of the Ministry of Health’s Drinking-Water Advisory Committee and co-authored the revised water safety plan guidance for the Ministry. She has a comprehensive understanding of the currently regulatory framework and the issues and challenges in New Zealand in ensuring safe and secure drinking water.

Dr Jill McKenzie - is a qualified medical practitioner with a MBChB from University of Otago and is a Fellow of the New Zealand College of Public Health Medicine (FNZCPHM). In 2007 Jill was designated by the Director-General of Health to the statutory position of Medical Officer of Health. She is currently employed by Regional Public Health, where is she one of the Medical Officers of Health for the Wellington, Hutt Valley and Wairarapa Health Districts and holds the drinking water portfolio.



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