Date published: 
26 November 2018
Media type: 
Transcript
Audience: 
General public

26 November 2018

REBECCA LIVINGSTONE:
Is your tap water safe? If you run your tap for 30 seconds, that's at least five and a half litres of water going down the sink. But advice from Australia's Chief Medical Officer - apparently issued in July of this year, but this is the first we're hearing - recommending that households run their taps for 30 seconds before using water for drinking and cooking. Who does that? Do you know anyone who does that?

CRAIG ZONCA:
No, I don't and we gave it a test in the kitchen beforehand and if you run a tap for about that amount of time - 30 seconds - you'd go through, I think we filled up the cup 22 times and equated that to about five and a half litres of water that you'd go through.

REBECCA LIVINGSTONE:
So do you waste water in order to make yourself safer? Professor Brendan Murphy is the Chief Medical Officer for the Australian Government. Brendan Murphy, good morning.

BRENDAN MURPHY:
Good morning Rebecca.

REBECCA LIVINGSTONE:
Is our drinking water safe?

BRENDAN MURPHY:
Look, I think it's important to note that our drinking water is safe. This advice that didn't actually come from me - it came from our Environmental Health Standing Committee which has representatives of all the states and Commonwealth environmental health specialists - it's a precautionary advice because on occasions we find lead in drinking water that's above the NHMRC recommended levels. As a precautionary advice, the Environmental Health Authorities felt that particularly if you've got old taps that might have a lot of brass in them or particularly if you're using a large amount of water for producing baby formula for example, it's good precautionary practice to run the tap to remove any lead that might have accumulated when it's been stagnant overnight. But we need to take this in context and recognise that there has not been any evidence of clinical lead toxicity from drinking water in Australia. It's very, very unusual that even with elevated lead in drinking water that anyone's blood level goes up. So really this is just highly precautionary advice because lead is of no value to the human body. We don't want to have it in the human body and if there is some instances with old taps and plumbing fittings that might leach lead, it's good practice to run your tap for 30 seconds particularly if it's been stagnant for some time.

CRAIG ZONCA:
Professor, did you run your taps for 30 seconds this morning before you had a drink of water?

BRENDAN MURPHY:
No I didn't actually because I've got modern plumbing and- but I certainly wouldn't drink - the other part of the advice is not to use hot water taps for drinking water because hot water can - and I certainly don't do that. I do quite often run the tap for a bit after overnight when I'm getting water in the morning because it's often fresher when you're run it a bit but a lot of people do that. This advice has been around for a long time but I think it was put together by the En Health Standing Committee really just to provide a single point of advice for the states and territories who are the water regulators.

REBECCA LIVINGSTONE:
You said you have fairly modern taps in your house. Define modern. What's the timeframe people should be thinking about here.

BRENDAN MURPHY:
The challenge is that we do need to have better standards for lead quality of plumbing fittings and the Building Codes Board is looking at that right at the moment and other countries have got much more rigid standards. So I think we are moving to a situation where we'll likely have more tight standards around lead in plumbing fittings. So I think there isn't a clear timeframe that you can quote but I just want to re-emphasise that this is highly precautionary advice. We have never seen a case of clinical lead toxicity from drinking water. The vast majority of lead that gets into our body comes from other sources not drinking water. 

REBECCA LIVINGSTONE:
It may be highly precautionary; some would argue it's highly confusing too. No examples of illness directly linked to it. There's no history of people doing that in Australia. It's still to me- there's no specific time frame. It's still not 100 per cent clear to me what people in Brisbane should be doing on it on a daily basis.

BRENDAN MURPHY:
I think it's good advice to flush your tap particularly if it's been stagnant overnight and not to drink hot water. But if you don't do that I think the risk of getting lead toxicity is extraordinarily low. I think- in the precautionary principle, what we say is that we don't actually know absolutely 100 per cent for certain if someone might get a bit of lead from drinking water and you know, they might be exposed to lead from paint or other old paints or other sources, we should do our best to reduce lead intake. And this is a precautionary principle because people have expressed concerns particularly when they might have found there were some issues in Geelong in Victoria where some drinking fountains had high lead in the water content and that advice was given in that circumstance. So it's precautionary advice. It's not a cause for alarm. And people should be assured that our drinking water is safe.

CRAIG ZONCA:
Professor, we've had a couple of questions come through via text on 0467922612 relating to filters; either filters that fit to a faucet or say, a filter jug. Does that actually do anything in relation to lead content in the water?

BRENDAN MURPHY:
Those filters wouldn't filter out a dissolved metal like lead. No, they're more particulate filters.

REBECCA LIVINGSTONE:
And presumably that includes fridges that are plumbed into water systems because a lot of people get water directly from a fridge tap essentially.

BRENDAN MURPHY:
Yeah. You would need a very sophisticated system to get rid of lead from water. Not an ordinary household filter.

CRAIG ZONCA:​​​​​​​
And you were talking about the rigid standards and the changes to the building code because at the moment - what was it, taps or brass can have up to 4.5 per cent lead in taps that are sold in Australia which is 18 times higher than what's permitted in say, the US and Canada. Why has it taken us so long to catch up?

BRENDAN MURPHY:
Well I think the Building Codes Board is onto this at the moment. It's not an area that I've got expertise in but they're certainly very focused on it and I think we will get a review pretty quickly. 

REBECCA LIVINGSTONE:
Professor, there will be some people listening this morning who are particularly sensitive to these kinds of potential risks. Can they- if they get their taps changed, does that eliminate the possibility of lead contamination?

BRENDAN MURPHY:
It certainly would but I wouldn't suggest that people do that. I think the risk as I said is very low. If you've got really old brass plumbing fittings and it's time to change them anyway, it's a good idea, but I don't think we should have any sort of mass panic and go out and start changing fittings. This is highly precautionary advice just to be absolutely safe and sure. 

REBECCA LIVINGSTONE:
Right, and just to be clear: the advice was issued six months ago. Was there a specific incident? Was that the Geelong situation that you're talking about?

BRENDAN MURPHY:
Well the Geelong one and a few other and the states and territories have these issues coming to light from time to time and the- that's why this committee decided to put all the advice that's been around for some years in various states and territories into one document. That was the purpose of it, yep.

REBECCA LIVINGSTONE:
That's a lot of water to flush down the drain though, too.

BRENDAN MURPHY:
It can be but I think- it's particularly if it's been stagnant overnight for a long time. So if you run it recently I wouldn't think there'd be any reason to do that again.

REBECCA LIVINGSTONE:
Professor, I appreciate your time this morning, thanks so much.

BRENDAN MURPHY:
Thank you.

REBECCA LIVINGSTONE:
Professor Brendan Murphy, the Chief Medical Officer for the Australian Government.

ENDS

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