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Parliamentary Questions

Question Without Notice No. 791 asked in the Legislative Council on 7 November 2017 by Hon Robin Scott

Minister responding: Hon R.H. Cook
Parliament: 40 Session: 1
Answered on 7 November 2017

      791. Hon ROBIN SCOTT to the parliamentary secretary representing the Minister for Health:
      (1) Is the minister aware that senior medical practitioners have expressed concern about the poor quality of bore water routinely drunk by residents of small remote communities and towns, including Leonora, Laverton, Wiluna, Meekatharra and Mt Magnet?
      (2) Is the minister aware of the work of Dr Christine Jeffries-Stokes of the Western Desert Kidney Health Project?
      (3) What actions are being taken by the government to counter the adverse health consequences of drinking water that contains dangerous levels of nitrates, arsenic and even uranium?
      (4) Does the minister agree that action has to be taken without delay to protect remote area residents and their children from very serious harm, potentially including kidney disease, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer?
I thank the honourable member for some notice of the question.
      (1) I am advised that Dr Christine Jeffries-Stokes raised such a concern with the Minister for Health in a meeting on 29 June 2017.
(2) Yes.
      (3) The WA Department of Health requires all drinking water supplies in the region that are managed by either the Department of Communities or the Water Corporation to conform with all health-related criteria set out in the ''Australian Drinking Water Guidelines'', including for uranium, arsenic and nitrates. Exceptions exist in relation to naturally occurring levels of nitrate in a small number of other communities. Elevated levels of naturally occurring nitrate have been identified in a number of remote water supplies managed by both the Water Corporation and the Department of Communities. The level of nitrate does not exceed the recommended safe level for consumption by adults and children; however, the levels are above the guideline prescribed for bottle-fed infants up to three months of age. Accordingly, a longstanding management strategy has been developed between the Department of Health and both water supply agencies to address this issue. Under this strategy, healthcare professionals who work with these communities have been asked to remind parents and carers of infants who are under three months of age and are not exclusively breastfed to use bottled water, not tap water, when they make up their infant formula bottles. Both water providers have agreed to provide bottled water upon request from either healthcare professionals or affected nursing mothers.
      The Minister for Health has asked the Department of Health to investigate the findings of the Western Desert Kidney Health Project and work with the Department of Communities, the Department of Water and Environmental Regulation, the Water Corporation and other stakeholders in WA to address any issues found and to provide advice to both the Minister for Health and the Minister for Water on this matter. A collaborative approach is the best way to foster continual improvement of the quality of drinking water in remote water supplies in WA. A senior public health physician is also available to discuss the issues raised by the research across the WA goldfields more generally, the validity of the findings and any possible next steps. Other findings of this thesis beyond quality of drinking water would also be covered by this process.
      (4) Although there is a compelling argument to improve water quality across remote locations and Aboriginal communities in general, there is no evidence that the nitrate or uranium levels in drinking water in the affected communities is responsible for the specific disease burden apparent in the Western Desert in relation to diabetes or kidney disease.