An American conservationist Erin Brokovich whose courage and victory over a corporate pollutant was made into a top Hollywood film has told a Water NZ industry conference that the water crisis its worsening.
She says people and their communities must stand up and fight if the downward trend is to be stopped and reversed.
The film “Erin Brokovich” released in 2000 told the story of an unemployed single mother who becomes a legal assistant and almost single-handed brings down a Californian power company accused of polluting a city’s water supply. Actress Julia Roberts portrayal of Erin Brokovich won an Oscar.
Now three decades later, 63 years of age and a grandmother of four, Erin says the water situation has “gotten much worse.”
In 1996 her fight won the day when the polluting power company in the town of Hinkley, settled for $500,000.
The town has gone and the polluting power company today owns the land and is under a 100 year clean-up order.
Stand Up and Fight
Now in 2023 she urged people to stand up and fight for water. Earlier in the 2023 Water Industry conference the delegates heard that threats, particularly nitrates from dairy effluent, were still happening.
A consultant Andrew Pearson told a workshop the level of uncertainty about what PFAS substances do to water, and to human health, required taking precautions. In March, the US set what were called “extraordinary new limits” on PFAS in drinking water. Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a large, complex group of synthetic chemicals that have been used in consumer products around the world since about the 1950s. They are ingredients in various everyday products. For example, PFAS are used to keep food from sticking to packaging or cookware, make clothes and carpets resistant to stains, and create firefighting foam that is more effective. very much stricter than New Zealand guidelines.
The US limits on PFAs were much stricter than New Zealand’s guidelines, said Pearson.
An Otago University senior research fellow Tim Chambers told the conference of increased nitrates, mainly from dairy herds and concern about human health.
A Danish study published in 2018 found a significant increase in bowel cancer when nitrate levels were just 0.87 milligrams per litre of water and a 15 per cent increase at 2.1mg per litre. The current safe level in New Zealand, as mandated by the World Health Organisation (WHO), is 11mg per litre.
A new analysis by Otago and Victoria universities of overseas studies, including the Danish study, suggested between 300,000 and 800,000 Kiwis might be exposed to potentially harmful levels of nitrates in drinking water that could lead to an increased chance of developing bowel cancer.
Meanwhile at this year’s Water Industry conference, Erin Brockovich told the audience “we must speak up.”