Wednesday 26 October 2016

Sinead Ryan: €300m for public sector could fix all those lead pipes

Alan Kelly
Alan Kelly

Irish Water was set up to do many things: organise the shambles of multiple local authorities all doing their own thing; co-ordinate supply and demand issues; register every household so we know who is on mains or a well; look after reservoirs, pipes and management.

Don't forget keeping the whole thing at arms length from any Minister when it all goes pear-shaped. Oops - did I say that last one out loud?

For most of us it appears to have done only two things since its inception: siphon money off angry and frustrated home-owners, and wheel someone out to apologise for getting things wrong.

So far, so annoying. However, now it is facing something which is of real and immediate concern to people.

Lead poisoning causes learning difficulties, slow development, weight loss, hearing loss and disability in children. In adults it causes abdominal and joint pain, mood swings and miscarriage or premature deliveries in pregnant women.

It's illegal. The EU has set a maximum limit of 10mg per litre, after which contamination is considered dangerous - while stating that there is no such thing as safe water with any lead content.

Now, Irish Water has identified 75,000 homes that have serious contamination. That was based on a sample study, and it has said up to 200,000 homes could be affected.

In the Dublin suburb of Raheny levels of 825mg per litre have been found - more than 80 times what the authorities consider safe.

In Ranelagh and Clontarf, Dundrum and Coolock there are whole streets on the 'high lead' list, mainly pre-1970 houses where lead piping or junctions were extensively used before the dangers realised. Lead will also be present in public buildings and offices in these areas. Many of them have over ten times the legal limit.


Irish Water is to be commended for identifying these properties and the others to come, but there the back-slapping stops. The utility is relying on homeowners themselves to come up with cash to fix the problem. Replacing lead pipes to an average house costs anything from €800 to €3,000 - and you thought the water charges were high?

Oh, and that 'First Fix Free' thing which the company touted so heavily only applies to leaks, not lead issues, so don't expect any help there. There will be a grant of some sort made available, but it will be means-tested and not apply to the majority.

Many of those houses affected are occupied by the older generation - lots of grannies and granddads minding their grandchildren for instance. This makes them the two most vulnerable groups to getting sick from lead poisoning. That makes this a pressing public health issue.

The HSE's Departments of Public Health has, on its website, a quote from the World Health Organisation's 2011 report: "Access to safe drinking water is essential to health."

Among other things, it carries out risk assessments for things like infectious disease and water-borne bugs. It even has a helpful FAQ on lead, telling us reassuringly that Irish people are "exposed to very little lead" but that "everyone should try to drink water with as little lead in it as possible". Very helpful, thanks, folks.

Presumably then, it will be so alarmed by this latest news it will no doubt want to ensure the public, whom it serves, that their water is safe.

But no, because this is nothing new. We've always known our decrepit underground water system is shot to pieces and full of contaminants, but it's hidden away and politicians could safely wring their hands from afar.

With the 'naming and shaming' of streets on the lead scale now published, they'll be faced with actual, angry and scared families terrified to make a cup of tea.

How many of them will pass the buck to Irish Water with a "nothing to do with us" shrug? Two up-and-coming ministers are in the very departments charged with health and water issues. Will either Leo Varadkar or Alan Kelly step up to the plate now and do more than reassure with platitudes?

It would cost €300m to fix it all now, straight-away. Do you want it spent on public sector pay or public health?

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