Date published: 
26 November 2018
Media event date: 
4 June 2019
Media type: 
Transcript
Audience: 
General public

26 November 2018

NADIA MITSOPOULOS:
Now, I don't want to worry you and I don't want you to be alarmed.

TIM MCMILLAN:
[Talks over] I'm alarmed already just from you saying that.

NADIA MITSOPOULOS:
Its always the way. But there is some new advice, Tim, in terms of your drinking water. Now, federal authorities are now saying you should flush your taps for 30 seconds every morning to keep you safe from lead in the brass fittings. So, that will mean about five litres of water per tap down the drain, first thing every day. 

TIM MCMILLAN:
That's a lot of water isn't it? Nadia, these guidelines actually came out in July but they came out and passed by without much notice; until the weekend just gone. So, let's try to get to the bottom of it now with the chief medical officer of Australia Brendan Murphy. 

Brendan, good morning. 

BRENDAN MURPHY:
Good morning. 

TIM MCMILLAN:
So, I suppose the million-dollar question is: is our drinking water safe from lead contamination?

BRENDAN MURPHY:
Yes. 

TIM MCMILLAN:
Right.

BRENDAN MURPHY:
[Laughs] That's the short answer. Look, this advice which came from what we call the Environmental Health Standing Committee, which is all of the state and territory and the federal environmental health experts, was really produced to deal with some concerns that have been raised in a number of states about instances where lead levels were above the recommended guidelines from the NHMRC. But it's really important to note that these are entirely precautionary guidelines. We have no evidence of anyone in Australia ever having lead toxicity from drinking water. In fact, it's very hard to even get high blood levels from drinking water. Lead is something we don't need in our body - it can be a toxin, but it's not usually obtained from drinking water.

So, this is just a precautionary advice to say that if, particularly if you're drinking from old taps or stagnant water that's been in the pipes for overnight and particularly if you're drinking a large amount of water [indistinct] a young baby say on formula fed, - if you want to reduce the risk of getting any lead in the water above the normal levels - then you should flush your taps. But, it's really precautionary advice. There's no evidence that our drinking water is unsafe.

TIM MCMILLAN:
So Brendan, you are Australia's chief medical officer; if you get up in the morning and turn your tap on, do you flush your tap?

BRENDAN MURPHY:
Sometimes, particularly if I've come back after a weekend or it's been sitting there for 12 hours, I might give it a little bit of a flush; but not always. I'm not particularly worried about this, but some people are. And if they- this advice about flushing taps and not drinking from hot water taps has been around for a long time and it's just been pulled together to say that if people are concerned, this is a way of being absolutely belt and braces sure to make sure you don't have more lead than we would like you to have to.

NADIA MITSOPOULOS:
Could this raise some unnecessary alarm or cause some unnecessary concern?

BRENDAN MURPHY:
I think that's always the risk with these sort of guidelines and I think some of the recent media has perhaps raised some unnecessary alarm. But when the Environmental Health Committee had been dealing with a number of issues like some drinking fountains in Geelong in Victoria which had higher than expected lead amounts, and there were a lot of query's around the country, and they felt it was best to put this advice, which has been around for some years, in one document, just to say as a precaution: if you want to reduce your risk of getting lead, particularly if you've got old fittings, these are sensible things to do. But nobody's saying you must do it and that there is any known risk of lead toxicity from drinking water.

TIM MCMILLAN:
You're also saying though that drinking and cooking when you're using water from your tap that you should use cold water. So, are you suggesting not to use hot water for those [indistinct]?

BRENDAN MURPHY:
[Interrupts] I think that's been a longstanding recommendation for years, really. Because hot water is more likely to leach chemicals from the plumbing fittings; not just lead, other chemicals like nickel. And so it's generally been advised that people should, when they're cooking and drinking, use water from the cold tap. That's been around for a long time.

TIM MCMILLAN:
Can I just perhaps, just hypothesise here for a moment Brendan, about where some anxiety might come in and some confusion might come in in the community? This is a statement from your office, the Department of Health-

BRENDAN MURPHY:
[Interrupts] No, no. It's from the Environmental Health Standing Committee.

TIM MCMILLAN:
Well-

BRENDAN MURPHY:
…because it's a multi jurisdiction thing, yes.

TIM MCMILLAN:
Okay.

BRENDAN MURPHY:
It's certainly been put up on the Commonwealth Health Department website, yeah.

TIM MCMILLAN:
Yes. So, I mean, it says the community should be reassured that our drinking water is safe. There is no evidence of adverse effects on human health from the consumption of lead in drinking water in Australia. I now go to a release from enHealth…

BRENDAN MURPHY:
[Talks over] Yeah.

TIM MCMILLAN:
…the Environmental Health Standing Committee of the Australian Health Protection Principle Committee - quite a mouthful. It says enHealth recommends that every effort should be made to reduce exposure to lead in the environment, including lead that may be dissolving into drinking water from some plumbing products.

BRENDAN MURPHY:
[Talks over] Yeah.

TIM MCMILLAN:
To those who are not sort of medically and scientifically trained, Brendan…

BRENDAN MURPHY:
Yeah.

TIM MCMILLAN:
…This can be seen as somewhat confusing and contradictory.

BRENDAN MURPHY:
I think you've got a good point there. I think what they're really saying is that lead has no benefit to the human body. Unlike a lot of other metals which we need like iron and other things. It's of no benefit. And whilst we don't have any evidence to date that drinking water lead can cause any toxicity; we know you can get toxicity from petrol sniffing or from old lead paint and as a matter of good practice they're suggesting that every effort should be made to reduce lead intake. But they're not saying that drinking water, as we do now without flushing or as some people do, is likely to be harmful. It's really a precautionary principle; and I do understand what you're saying that you can see some contradiction in that and that's why we made that really strong statement on the weekends because we don't want people to be alarmed.

NADIA MITSOPOULOS:
Brendan Murphy, taps in Australia are allowed up to 4.5 per cent of lead right now. Are there efforts to reduce that?

BRENDAN MURPHY:
Yes, there are active efforts. The Building Codes Board have been meeting and have an active plan to review that standard and I think we'll see some action in that in the near future.

NADIA MITSOPOULOS:
And quite a few texts coming in actually asking why there is lead in tap fittings to begin with.

BRENDAN MURPHY:
It's in brass. It comes out of brass, so brass tap fittings mainly.

TIM MCMILLAN:
So, would you go as far as suggesting that people with those older tap fittings that might have a higher concentration of lead in them, should they make the step of replacing those?

BRENDAN MURPHY:
Look, I don't think people should go around wholesale replacing; if they're very old taps and they need replacing anyway - maybe. But I don't think- there's no proven clinical risk, as I've said already, from drinking water with lead. So I don't think we would be recommending that; but I think in new taps, we should have a proper standard for the future. It's always best to be as precautionary as you can.

NADIA MITSOPOULOS:
Appreciate your time today. Thank you.

BRENDAN MURPHY:
Great pleasure.

NADIA MITSOPOULOS:
Brendan Murphy, chief medical officer. I often use hot water from my taps. You know, if you need a couple of tablespoons in your cooking.

TIM MCMILLAN:
[Talks over] Well, save yourself a couple of minutes.

NADIA MITSOPOULOS:
Yeah, I do that. But you know what's also interesting? The World Health Organization estimates that more than 80 per cent of the daily human intake of lead is actually derived from the consumption of food, dirt, and dust.

TIM MCMILLAN:
I wonder if that applies to Australia as well though or whether that's just a general figure applied to globally.

NADIA MITSOPOULOS:
That's what we need to find out.

TIM MCMILLAN:
We do. More digging required.

NADIA MITSOPOULOS:
Okay.

ENDS

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