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Wednesday 31 May 2023 Dublin: 8°C
One in twenty private water supplies were contaminated with E. coli in 2020, EPA says
An Environmental Protection Agency report said the quality of drinking water from private supplies is “not as good as it should be”.

THE ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION Agency (EPA) has raised concerns about private drinking water supplies in Ireland, saying over a quarter weren’t monitored by local authorities in 2020.

Almost 200,000 people across the country get their water from private group schemes, which are set up by local communities to manage abstraction, treatment and distribution of treated water. They are generally supplied by springs or wells.

Small private supplies are supplies serving a commercial premises like hotels, pubs and restaurants, crèches and national schools. The owner manages the abstraction, treatment, and delivery of the water, which is also mostly supplied by wells.

In a report released today on the Drinking Water Quality in Private Group Schemes and Small Private Supplies in 2020, the EPA said 20 of the 380 private group schemes, which serve more than 2,900 people, failed to meet the standard relating to E.coli bacteria. 

The report also found that 49 of the 1,225 small private supplies monitored were found to have E.coli contamination.

“These failures, at 1 in 20 private water supplies, are of significant concern and put the health of the consumer at risk,” the report said. 

The presence of E. coli bacteria in drinking water indicates that the supply has been contaminated and the water has not been fully disinfected. If drunk, it can cause serious gastrointestinal illness, and is particularly dangerous for young children and the elderly.

Commenting on the findings, Director of the EPA’s Office of Environmental Enforcement Dr Tom Ryan said: “Consumers should expect, as a minimum, that their water is safe to drink. However, compliance with the E.coli standard is not as good as it should be for water from private group water schemes and small private supplies.”

“It is essential that works to improve water quality are carried out as soon as possible to eliminate the serious risks to people’s health. Water suppliers are obliged to make sure drinking water is clean and wholesome for consumers,” he said.

Screenshot (11) EPA Private group schemes with E. coli failures. EPA

Twenty-two private group schemes also failed to meet the standard for Trihalomethanes (THM). These are formed when natural organic materials in the water source, such as rotting vegetation, reacts when chlorine is added as a disinfectant. 

Of these schemes, seven have been identified by the European Commission as being of particular concern. 

The commission sent a letter of formal notice to Ireland in 2018, followed by a reasoned opinion in May 2020, which said Ireland had failed to take the measures necessary to ensure THM compliance in 44 drinking water supplies, which included 13 private group schemes. 

According to the HSE, some studies suggest a link between long term exposure to THMs and cancer and reproductive effects, but it said that the “evidence is not conclusive”.

“THMs are classified as ‘possibly carcinogenic’ to humans. This means that scientific evidence cannot conclude definitively whether or not THMs cause certain cancers in humans. There is some evidence that THMs cause cancer in animals.”

It added that study findings on risks of miscarriage and low birth weight, associated with drinking water containing THMs, are inconsistent.

Lack of monitoring 

In addition, the report shows that over a quarter of small private supplies, serving hotels, pubs and restaurants, nursing homes, crèches and B&Bs, were not monitored at all in 2020, meaning there is no information as to whether the water from these supplies was safe to drink.

However, the agency acknowledged that Covid-19 restrictions in place at the time meant that many premises were closed, which prevented samples being taken.

It said efforts to carry out sampling were made once the restrictions eased and premises re-opened.

Noel Byrne, Programme Manager of the EPA’s Office of Environmental Enforcement, said: “We recognise that, in many cases, the failure to monitor these premises was due to difficulties in accessing premises during Covid-19 restrictions. However, it is vitally important that Local Authorities ensure all water supplies are monitored annually to provide assurance to consumers that their drinking water is safe”.

The Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage is responsible for water policy and for providing supports to the rural water sector. It makes funding available to group water schemes and household well owners for improvements to their supplies through the Multi Annual Rural Water Programme.

The report states that the department works with the National Federation of Group Water Schemes to address a priority list of supplies to protect public health. It said “progress is being made with the supplies on this list and these will remain a priority for the Department until they are resolved”. 

The department has also set up a working group to review the governance of how private water supplies and private wastewater treatment systems are monitored, maintained and financed. The outcome of the review is expected this year. 

The EPA said the department must ensure that works are “completed for all group schemes on the priority list to protect public health”.

It added that it must finalise the review and progress the governance and funding model for the delivery of rural water services.

The agency also said that local authorities must make sure that all private drinking water supplies are monitored and investigate supplies that fail to meet drinking water quality standards, taking enforcement action if necessary. 

It said that they also must keep a register of all private drinking water supplies in their area.

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