Drinking water turns 'evil' in string of Aussie towns

Drinking water straight from the tap is no longer possible in several NSW regions after flooding contaminated supplies.

To prevent illness, boil water notices were issued this year for several towns including Nimbin, Eugowra and Narrandera. Images shared to social media show discoloured brown water which a Moama resident said came from her kitchen tap.

Western Sydney University water scientist Dr Ian Wright told Yahoo News Australia he’s never seen so many boil water alerts in NSW.

A glass of water containing brown, discoloured water on a kitchen top.
Water from a tap reportedly came out discoloured at one Moama household in NSW. Source: Beck Hall via ABC

He notes extreme weather like flood, fire and dust storms put “huge pressure” on water systems. “Floods are really just a great way of mobilising every known pollutant in a landscape and sending it down the river,” he said.

The health risks of contaminated water

Dr Wright warns it is not just drinking unboiled water that can prove harmful. Even contact with skin can have devastating results. “Health authorities always warn us to limit physical contact with floodwater, particularly if you're elderly, or have cuts and scratches,” he said.

When analysing water, his team looks for faecal coliform indicators. Their presence indicates there is warm-blooded animal waste in the supply. “I’ve tested a lot of water after floods and it’s just evil. We grab samples and test them in the lab the bacteria results just light up.”

An aerial view of Woodburn, NSW, in March.
Dr Wright warns floodwater can contain bacteria, viruses and protozoa. Source: Getty

Bacteria, viruses and parasites like giardia and cryptosporidium can enter the water supply after flooding. If people drink affected water without boiling it, Dr Wright warns you’re “spinning the chamber in the revolver”. “It’s absolutely Russian roulette.”

“The advice is boil the water, but you don't just boil it like you're making a cup of tea, you boil it and leave it on what they call a rolling boil,” he said. “So you hold the button down… for 30 seconds or so then let it cool down.”

In many small towns in Australia, councils are responsible for managing the upkeep of water and sewerage systems and combatting the impact of flooding can sometimes be beyond their ability.

“If you don't travel much and you’re from a big city in Australia, drinking water straight from a tap is probably something you take for granted,” Dr Wright said. "But as soon as you go into a regional location, overseas, or to a developing country, we suddenly become aware of water problems."

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