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Babies at risk from Jigalong water
Picture: WA News Jigalong community co-ordinator Cedric Wyatt

Greens MLC Robin Chapple has likened nitrate levels in the drinking water at a remote Pilbara Aboriginal community to that of the Gaza Strip.

Water quality at Jigalong, 150km east of Newman, was again thrown into the spotlight this week as locals complained of rashes, itchy skin and diarrhoea.

Both Mr Chapple, the Member for Mining and Pastoral, and Pilbara MP Tom Stephens have raised the issue with the departments of Health and Housing, the latter being responsible for testing and maintaining water quality at Jigalong.

“Anybody who is vulnerable health-wise should not be drinking that water,” Mr Chapple said.

“It always seems to be remote Aboriginal communities that are the last to get their water standards brought up to acceptable potable levels.

“Jigalong has been like this for a long while and it really is about time the damn thing is fixed.”

Jigalong chief executive Cedric Wyatt said despite the World Health Organisation recommending nitrate levels be kept at 50 milligrams per litre or less, testing regularly showed the community’s mean level above 75mg/L.

The Australian Drinking Water Guidelines state water containing nitrate that exceeds 100mg/L is not recommended for human consumption, while anything over 50mg/L is considered harmful to babies younger than three months and can lead to the potentially fatal “blue baby syndrome”, or methemoglobinemia, that causes inadequate oxygenation in infants’ blood.

Mr Wyatt said one test reported to him last week showed nitrate levels exceeding 130mg/L.

“I think it’s getting worse,” he said.

“It’s been raised before many times going back 10 years; still nothing has been done about it.

“People have been very sick and the State Government has done nothing about it.”

Mr Stephens said nitrate levels were particularly high in at least one of the four working bores which the 430-strong community rely upon for drinking water. Two of the bores had good water but low pressure meant they were incapable of meeting the needs of the community, Mr Stephens said.

Department of Housing general manager of service delivery Steve Parry said Jigalong’s water was sampled monthly for microbiological and chemical analysis.

“Water chemistry meets all ADWG parameters other than for naturally occurring nitrates,” he said.

“The long-term mean level for Jigalong is 78mg of nitrate per litre.”

Mr Parry said bottled water was supplied for infants under three months who were bottle feeding, and the Department was examining a number of options to overcome the problem for the long term.

Randolph Spargo, a community doctor who has spent 14 years at Jigalong, said providing bottled water did not automatically solve the problem because some local mothers or visitors wouldn't be aware of the contaminated water and mix it with baby formula anyway.

He said a major football carnival and two significant funerals in coming weeks would see the community inundated with mothers and infants.

“There is an emigration of mothers coming in with possibly formula-fed babies that wouldn't know of the potential danger,” Dr Spargo said.

Mr Chapple said providing bottled water was a short-sighted stop gap and that contaminant-free tap water was a basic right for every Australian.

“Bottled water in this day and age shouldn’t be a necessity,” he said.

“We should have the right filtration to stop the high levels of nitrate (at Jigalong).”

A spokeswoman for Health Minister Kim Hames said a response was being put together to address concerns raised at Jigalong by Mr Stephens.