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EU Ombudsman accepts appeal on toxic chemicals in Irish Boil Water notices

category national | environment | press release author Monday March 21, 2016 23:45author by foie - Friends of the Irish Environment Report this post to the editors


The European Ombudsman’s Office is to review its decision to close the file against the Commission’s handling of a complaint over alleged failure to notify consumers of the levels of water-borne toxins trihalomethanes [THMs] linked to cancers in Irish public water supplies.

During the Commission investigation the Irish authorities told the Commission that THMs exceed the WHO/EU permitted parameters in 412,000 of Irish Water’s 1.5m customer base, more than 1,000,000 consumers. THMS are a group of more than 60 chemicals, including chloroform which are disinfectant by products created when water with a high organic matter – such as peaty water or excessive algae – is treated with chlorine.

While the Health Service Executive admits that ‘studies of THMs in drinking water show that there may be associations with human cancer’, they have refused to include the information on consumers bills or notify them directly, claiming studies are ‘weak’ or ‘inconsistent’.

Friends of the Irish Environment, who originally filed their complaint in 2011, have argued that Irish Water should notify consumers directly on their bill of THM exceedances in order that they may take precautionary measure. The Irish Authorities responded by requiring Irish Water to put in place a website which they state satisfies the requirements to inform the public, a position accepted by the Commission Services.

The Ombudsman ruled that the Commission ‘enjoys considerable discretion in deciding whether or not to commence infringement proceedings’. She said she found the Commission was acting ‘well within its margin of discretion’. However, in accepting a website as sufficient to inform the public of the chemical exceedances, she wrote:

‘At the same time, I appreciate that not all customers of Irish Water will be satisfied with the approach to the information provisions proposed by the Irish authorities. Some customers may prefer to be informed directly rather than having to consult a website. And of course there will be customers for whom consulting a website proves either difficult or not possible.’

The Ombudsman will now consider a Boil Water Notice affecting 4,700 homes in Carraroe, County Galway which FIE says in itself is creating a risk to public health. The group claims that boiling water containing high levels of THMs creates an imminent danger to public health because the volatile chemicals are released and absorbed by the skin and through inhalation at a rate 5 to 15 to faster than drinking the water.

THMs have been historically high for the Carraroe Public Water Supply. A new treatment plant was due for completion in 2011. In 2013 a review determined that the plant was ineffective. An EPA instruction required completion by November, 2015. The current completion date is given as December 2016.

Environmental campaigner Erin Brockovich has added her voice to FIE’s campaign. Ms Brockovich, an American legal clerk and environmental activist became a household name after a 1990 film “Erin Brockovich”, starring Julia Roberts. The film detailed her work in exposing Chromium 6 pollution from a gas pipeline in California which was leaking into water supplies.

In a Facebook posting, Ms Brockovich warning her “Irish Cousins” not “to be fooled by this dodge of responsibility and factual sharing of information by your government”.

FIE Director Tony Lowes welcomed the Ombudsman review of the case. ‘Irish Water is telling the residents to boil THM laden water vigorously in their kitchens, a process that releases the volatile chemicals, without any mention of the potential danger. Given that studies have suggested THM exposure in pregnant women can adversely impact on birth weight let alone more serious consequences, the failure to at least warn these women to ventilate the area and avoid the toxic fumes would appear to border on the criminal.’

Further information: Tony Lowes 087 2176316

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