The greatest boosts to public health have had little to do with the latest wonder drug or examples of medical techno-wizardry. One of the real reasons you can expect to live so much longer than your grandparents is because of what happens when you turn on the kitchen tap.
The development of safe water supplies has arguably been one of the major boons for health in the last 150 years. To put it crudely, keeping the cr-p out of our drinking water has added years to all of our lives.
That’s why alarm bells should be sounding about moves to turn recycled sewage into drinking water, as is on the cards in Canberra and Brisbane, and which received a boost from Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s release of this discussion paper yesterday.
There are too many outstanding questions about the safety of the technology involved, raising the threat that many thousands of people may be exposed to bacteria and viruses capable of causing serious illness.
The media often recycles misleading statements that many other countries are already drinking recycled sewage. Singapore is often held up as example, but the water recycled there from sewage is used almost entirely for industry, and is kept separated from drinking water by separate pipelines. Only a token one per cent (or less) of their potable water is recycled from sewage .
It is important to also note that, in other countries where water from sewage has been recycled, in general all sewage from industrial areas, hospitals, abattoirs, pathology laboratories etc is excluded from the recycling schemes.
This is because of fears that there may be larger quantities of unknown chemicals or other toxins in sewage from these types of sources in comparison to standard domestic sewage from residential areas.
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I am not arguing against using recycling water from sewage. But I do believe that one of the last places we should put this recycled water is into the drinking water. We should use it for other purposes such as industry, power stations, and irrigation.
I am also concerned by the influence over public debate and policy of Australian and international commercial interests which either finance these projects worth hundreds of millions of dollars, or build them, or consult on them.
People associated with Babcock and Brown, Macquarie Bank, private water companies and multinational engineering companies often have a vested stake in such debates, and are frequently on boards or expert panels that make the decisions. Nor are governments impartial as they are profiting directly from their monopoly powers over water supplies and pricing.
* In the interests of encouraging a more open declaration of conflicts of interest in this debate: I do not have any contracts, consultancy arrangement or research grants from any companies that may derive major financial gains from building sewage recycling plants (eg engineering companies such as CH2M Hill, Veolia Water etc) nor from institutions that may be involved with the large sums of monies that will be needed to finance these types of projects (eg Macquarie Bank, Babcock and Brown, and/or water infrastructure funds). I have previously owned a small parcel of shares in AGL (which is in a business partnership with ACTEW and thus derives profits from water supply and use in the ACT in conjunction with ACTEW and the ACT Government).