Some of Australia’s poorest communities have been drinking water high in uranium, and residents have accused governments of ignoring the problem. Many of us turn on the tap without a second thought — high-quality drinking water is supplied to most cities and regions across the country.
But in the Aboriginal community of Laramba, north of Alice Springs, drinking water contains more than double the recommended levels of uranium, and it’s been like that for a decade.
Official data obtained by the ABC’s 7.30 program shows Laramba’s water supply contains uranium at higher than 0.04 milligrams per litre (mg/L). Australia’s drinking-water guidelines outline it should not exceed 0.017mg/L.
“The main toxic effect of short-term exposure to high concentrations of uranium is inflammation of the kidney. Little is known about the long-term exposure to low concentrations.” according to the National Health and Medical Research Council.
Most communities in the Northern Territory rely on bore water, pumped up from an aquifer deep underground, which often contains high concentrations of naturally occurring minerals and contaminants — like uranium.
The Australian Medical Association (AMA) said access to safe water was a basic human right and urged governments to invest in treatment facilities in remote parts of the country.
“It is difficult to understand how this hasn’t already been implemented and addressed,” the AMA said in a statement last year.
Two other communities in central Australia, Willowra and Wilora, also have levels of uranium in drinking water exceeding the guidelines.
These levels have been elevated for at least a decade, according to published data from Northern Territory’s water provider, the Power and Water Corporation.
7.30 can reveal that, in total, seven communities in the NT have exceeded health guidelines in the last financial year due to elevated levels of contaminants including uranium, barium, antimony, chromium and fluoride.
Minister for Essential Services Gerry McCarthy declined the ABC’s request for an interview, but a spokeswoman said it was “a significant challenge to provide a uniform quality of supply to our 72 remote communities”.
The priority for Power and Water was monitoring and treating water for dangerous pathogens, like E. coli, the spokeswoman added.
“Options for water treatment continue to be investigated,” she said.
“Power and Water has prioritised and is progressing $7 million in works to upgrade disinfection capacity at 33 sites over the next two years.”
The issue isn’t isolated to the Northern Territory.
A report from the West Australian auditor-general released in 2015 said three remote communities had exceeded the safe limit of uranium about half the time. Tjuntjuntjara in the Goldfields failed 18 out of 22 tests, but is undergoing a $15 million infrastructure upgrade.