Temuka asbestos in water supply revelations disappoint school principal

Temuka's asbestos-affected water supply scare has been keeping the town's plumbers on their toes as worried residents sought reassurance their home water lines and filters were clear.

While the Timaru District Council has confirmed on Thursday the water is safe to drink, and is also safe for all other uses, local plumbers like Nigel Kerslake from Temuka Plumbing, said they were "flat out" with calls.

"Not really what we wanted before Christmas but oh well," said Kerslake. 

"We started receiving calls about a week ago, when the issue first arose.

READ MORE: Testing reveals asbestos in Temuka water supply

"The council have been pretty good, and let us know whats going on.

Most of the work they were doing was cleaning filters.

"It shows the filters are doing their job. It would average out to be a 20c piece of stuff we are catching."

Temuka man Walter Gosling said he had cleaned his washing machine filter out himself without realising asbestos was blocking it, and he wished he had known so he could have taken precautions. 

Another Temuka resident who did not want to be named said his garden sprinkler filter had been blocked several times over the last few days, with a substance that "looked like papier mache". 

"I've cleaned this filter several times. It goes good for a wee while and it just dies." 

He went to the council on Wednesday morning and said he was told it was plant material blocking the filter on his garden sprinkler. 

He was shocked to learn on the council's Facebook page asbestos was clogging up the town's water supply. 

City Care Water water and wastewater technician Mario Oostendorp, who cleaned out the man's garden sprinkler, tap and washing machine filters, said keeping up with demand was "quite a challenge", and by early Thursday afternoon he had received several more requests. 

"We are doing our best," he said. 

The actual amount of asbestos collected was tiny, but was enough to block people's filters. 

Currently work was ongoing trying to flush the system out, and white bait nets and muslin cloth was being used to catch the material, Oostendorp said. 

Oostendorp said he understood the results from the tests had come back "very very quickly", and the council had done a good job getting on top of the issue. 

People should avoid handling asbestos when it was dry, he said. 

He had worked on asbestos pipes before and it was important to ensure they were kept wet. 

A spokesman for Health Minister David Clark confirmed the minister was aware of the issue, but said as it was an operational matter, comment needed to come from the DHB, district council, and Ministry of Health.

Grant Willocks, principal at Temuka Primary School, was "disappointed" the council had not spoken to schools directly over the issue which was first revealed on Wednesday night and that he had to find out about the issue second hand via social media.

The school had put copies of the council's release up on their classroom doors. Willocks said children were being encouraged to replenish their water bottles from containers filled by the tanker if they wanted to. 

A school staff member filled up several large containers this morning from the tanker provided by the council, situated in King St. 

At this stage the school's end of the year water activities were going ahead.

There were 4000 people in Temuka, many of them elderly, and Willocks said he was disappointed by the council's reaction to the situation.

Temuka man Lance Scott said he had noticed his hose had not been working last week.

"My wife also said to me 'we're going to need a new washing machine. Ours isn't working'," he said.

Scott had used his air gun to clear out the hose and found what he described as "like rock snot" particles blocking it up.

Two council employees working at the tanker distributing water said several people had been through in the hour they had been rostered on to work. 

The people who came in were taking large amounts of water, frequently taking it away in 20-litre containers. 

Water 'no risk'

In a statement on Thursday morning, Mayor of Timaru Damon Odey said all professional advice the council has received said that the issue caused no harm to people drinking or washing with the water, but the council was continuing to work to clear the system.

"The best expert advice is that there is no risk to health from ingesting asbestos, however this doesn't mean that this is a desirable situation, so we've now got all hands on the pump to help resolve this as quickly as possible."

Council infrastructure group manager Ashley Harper said the council had all of the drinking water team focused on the issue and was bringing in outside experts to help tackle it.

"Using flow diagrams, the reports from the public and our knowledge of how the system works we've been able to identify the most likely area where the issue is occurring," he said.

"We're now bringing in specialist detection services to check the pipe in this area to see if there are any issues within it, which we can then repair.

"Our team is also working to flush the system by opening hydrants in a controlled manner throughout the day, this is also aimed at lessening the amount of material in the system.

"We take pride in having a safe water supply for all our communities. That water continues to be fully treated with UV and chlorine and has been meeting drinking water standards. Although this is not a safety issue it's not a desirable one either, so we're working hard to resolve it."

Council water teams have identified the most likely source of the problem is a length of AC pipe connecting the water treatment plant to the town.

This was previously checked in a routine quality test two years ago, which said it had 20 years of life left.

Rata Kindergarten and Inspire Hair Design both said the asbestos issue did not affect their businesses, as they already had water filters in place. 

However several other Temuka businesses contacted declined to comment. 

Presbyterian Support communications manager Katerina Tiscenko said the organisation had  organised "supplies of bottled drinking water available for any of our Wallingford Rest Home residents who may prefer bottled water at this time". 

Water quality investigated last week

The asbestos issue emerged as the council investigated the apparent presence of what looked to be low concentrations of an unidentified material in the water.

The council said in a statement on November 30 that it was investigating a water quality issue, but that there was no safety issue: it said recent water samples were returned "fine" - but that the issue may lead to blocked water filters.

The council flushed the whole system and continued sampling. By the end of the day on November 30, it said current thinking was that small amounts of cottonwood fluff had got into the system. 

It said the fluff was not normally noticeable as it was in such a low concentration that it did not shown up in the council's "really sensitive" turbidity (clarity) checks. It was still considered harmless to drink.

The council said it became a problem when it collected and concentrated on the filters on people's kitchen taps and washing machines. Like a dryer screen, minute fibres added up.

At the time, the council advised "if you're feeling handy you can just unscrew the connectors and take the fluff out and that should sort it".

Ok to use water for washing and showering

Canterbury Medical Officer of Health Dr Daniel Williams said on Thursday that he understood the problem had been suspected over a number of days in a number of different places.

He said he was aware of the council's suspicions on Wednesday and heard of the test results on Wednesday evening.

"It's always difficult to be asked if a substance is completely safe," he said.

However it was not uncommon for areas to have asbestos pipes and there had been a lot of research done on the issue looking at communities that had asbestos in their drinking water and no link to negative health effects had been found.

It was ok for people to continue using the water for washing and showering, he said. However any clumps should be disposed of in the way specified by the council.

"We are staying closely in touch with the council and the Ministry of Health." 

Dr Williams said in the council press release that asbestos is a natural mineral-based substance that was used widely in the past in building and infrastructure, including cement pipes.

"Asbestos fibres are tiny and hard, and if they're breathed into the lungs they can cause disease.

"There has been extensive research into communities with asbestos in their drinking water, along with numerous animal studies, and they have not demonstrated any health effects of swallowing asbestos.

"Together, this research provides strong reassurance that asbestos is not harmful when swallowed.

"Asbestos cement pipes were often used in water distribution systems in the past, so it's not uncommon for there to be some asbestos in tap water.

"Asbestos is hazardous when it's dry and inhaled. However, the presence of asbestos fibres in drinking water doesn't pose a hazard for people drinking the water or using it for washing or showering.

"People should dispose of any fibrous material carefully, as advised by Timaru District Council."

People with low pressure or blocked taps are being asked to call the council on 03 687 7200 or call their local plumber. Local plumbers have been briefed on the issue.

Those who have removed the material should keep it wet, double bag it and drop it at Temuka Transfer station for safe disposal.

On social media last night the council said it had advice from the Ministry of Health, and was following World Health Organisation advice, that water containing asbestos was not harmful for any usage. That included drinking, washing, showering, cooking etc.

In response to a question on social media about who would pay for the plumbers, the council said it would.

Despite the water being considered safe for consumption, the council is "providing a tanker of drinking water for filling small containers at the Temuka Library and Service Centre on King St.

Fonterra's Clandeboye factory was not affected as it had its own water supply, the council said.

Kindys to keep using

South Canterbury Free Kindergarten Association general manager Dave Hawkey said his advice to kindergartens was to keep using and consuming the water. 

"I've already spoken with Dr Daniel Williams, the medical officer of health, and he's given me an assurance that the water is fine. He said that asbestos is often prevalent in New Zealand drinking water."

Hawkey said Williams told him that while asbestos was unsafe as an airborne particle, there were no direct links between there being a small component of asbestos in water and that having an affect on people's health. 

"He operates from a position of caution," Hawkey said. 

Hawkey said he was not aware of water with asbestos in it drying on skin being a concern, if children had been playing in water. 

"I'm not aware that it is," he said. 

"It was something that certainly when I was talking to Daniel Williams, he never gave me any indication that it would be an issue."

Hawkey said he had not received any calls from anyone concerned about the water use.

 - Stuff