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

26 November 2018

ADAM STEER:
Alarming headlines running nationally over the weekend, pointing to federal health advice telling you to run your taps for 30 seconds every morning to avoid getting sick from lead poisoning. But is just a storm in a teacup?

Brendan Murphy is the chief medical officer with the federal Department of Health. Brendan, good morning. Those headlines that ran over the weekend - urgent warning: lead poisoning fears across Australia. So what's the verdict? Are we in danger?

BRENDAN MURPHY:
Good morning, Adam. No, in the short. This warning or this advice came from- a committee called the Environmental Health Committee, which has representatives of all the states and the federal government's environmental experts, and it was really in response to some concerns about some elevated lead in drinking water at various times around the country.

The important thing to note that this is entirely precautionary advice. We've got no evidence at all that anyone has become toxic from lead from drinking water. It's very, very unlikely that you can even get your blood levels up from drinking water. The most lead toxicity comes from other environmental sources but lead is of no value to the human body; and as a matter of precaution, particularly in circumstances where you've got old brass plumbing fittings, various- the advice is that if you want to be sure to reduce any potential lead intake, you can run your taps for 30 seconds, particularly if it's been stagnant overnight and avoid using hot water. But there is really no evidence that it's risky to not do that, it's just in the precautionary advice, we're just saying- well, the Environmental Health Committee is saying that if people want to maximally reduce any possible lead intake, they can do that. But we're not saying our drinking water is unsafe, and people certainly shouldn't be alarmed.

ADAM STEER:
It sounds almost like the PFAS story that's plagued the Northern Territory. No evidence of adverse effects on human health but people should still take precautions. That's a little confusing.

BRENDAN MURPHY:
Well, I think, yeah, it can be confusing. I mean, there is a difference between PFAS and lead, lead is toxic. We know lead can be toxic if children have been exposed to old lead paint. Kids who sniff lead-containing petrol can definitely get lead toxicity. We know it's a toxic chemical to humans, it's just that in this circumstance, it's such a tiny amount that's in drinking water that people are just saying: if you want to be absolutely sure to reduce it, this is sound advice. But it's not something that we're saying everyone should do and we're not expressing any concerns at all about our drinking water. Most of it has well below the recommended NHMRC intake of lead, but it's only in some circumstances with old plumbing fittings or if you run hot water and drink that, that you can get higher levels. But even then, we don't have evidence that causes clinical toxicity, but always, when you've got chemical-like lead which is of no value to the human body, it's a sensible precaution to try and reduce the amount you consume.

ADAM STEER:
Should people be getting their water tested for lead or?

BRENDAN MURPHY:
No. No, we don't recommended people getting their water tested for lead at all. I think the only piece of advice, which is probably most pertinent, is if someone is formula feeding a baby - babies are much sensitive to lead - and using lots and lots of tap water, it might be sensible in that circumstance to particularly flush the water if it's been stagnant overnight before you use it to make up the formula. But I don't think people should be anxious about this. I don't think they should be testing their water. But if you do have old plumbing fittings and if you had water that's been stagnant in the tap for a while, it's sensible to give it a little bit of a run before you drink it.

ADAM STEER:
Yeah. It's been reported that brass in Australian household tap contains up to 4.5 per cent lead, which is 18 times higher than the US and Canada permit…

BRENDAN MURPHY:
[Talks over] Yeah.

ADAM STEER:
…Do our standards need to improve, do you think?

BRENDAN MURPHY:
They do and they are. The Building Codes Board is looking at that at the moment. The states and territories are responsible for this but they're very keen to work with the Building Codes Board and I think there will be a change in that in the near future.

ADAM STEER:
Have there been instances of detections of lead levels above Australian drinking water guidelines? Have you-

BRENDAN MURPHY:
There have, yes. And [indistinct]-

ADAM STEER:
And where have you found those levels?

BRENDAN MURPHY:
Well, the most recent one that caught some attention was some drinking fountains in Geelong and in Melbourne, where some very old drinking fountains that hadn't been used very often and some measurements showed lead above the recommended- which are very conservative levels, I should say, but above the levels the NHMRC recommends; and in Geelong the advice was just to run those fountains for a bit longer before drinking.

ADAM STEER:
So the message is if you are worried, take those precautions, run the water for 30 seconds the first thing in the morning, and then you're right for the rest of the day.

BRENDAN MURPHY:
But as I said, we still have no evidence that not doing that will be of any harm to you, but if you want to be absolutely secure and safe, that's something else you can do.

ADAM STEER:
Good on you, Brendan. Good to hear from you this morning.

BRENDAN MURPHY:
Thank you.

ADAM STEER:
There's Brendan Murphy. He's the chief medical officer with the federal Department of Health.

ENDS

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