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‘Unprecedented nitrate contamination map a challenge to Act Party agriculture minister’

Greenpeace has today launched a groundbreaking interactive map indicating nitrate contamination levels of drinking water across New Zealand, warning of health risks from the higher nitrate concentrations.

The launch comes with a challenge to the Act Party’s new associate Agriculture Minister, Andrew Hoggard, to act on behalf of all rural families.

Russel Norman, Greenpeace Aotearoa executive director, says: “With Andrew Hoggard most recently in charge, Federated Farmers has run a long campaign to delay and dilute regulation to protect fresh water from dairy industry pollution. They’re one of the main reasons New Zealand has such badly polluted rivers and such dangerous levels of nitrate contamination in rural drinking water.”

“My challenge to Andrew Hoggard, now that he is the associate minister, is to act in everyone’s interest as the Government is supposed to do, instead of just the intensive dairy industry.”

Using thousands of data points, the Know Your Nitrate map allows users to zoom in and out of regions to see colour-coded indications of local nitrate contamination levels. Users can browse the map or search for their own address.

The map is the culmination of two years of Greenpeace’s free nitrate testing programme through which the organisation has created the largest dataset of its kind in New Zealand showing nitrate levels in household bore water supplies.

“Everyone has a right to safe drinking water. Nobody should have to wonder whether the water from their kitchen tap could be making their family sick, but for many rural New Zealanders, that is a very real concern,” says Norman.

Scientists warn that 800,000 New Zealanders are at risk of exposure to hazardous levels of nitrate. Up to 100 cases of bowel cancer and 40 deaths every year could be attributable to nitrate contamination of drinking water. Families in rural areas impacted by intensive dairy and high synthetic nitrogen fertiliser use are more likely to be exposed.

“The Know Your Nitrate map is designed to inform and warn the public of the potential health risks of nitrate in drinking water. Nitrate has no odour, taste or colour and is the most pervasive water contaminant in New Zealand.

“Rural people on self-supply household bore water are the most likely to be unaware of their exposure to hazardous levels of nitrate. There is no official testing or publicly available data kept on the quality of domestic self-supply tap water even though hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders rely on household bores for their daily drinking water,” says Norman.

Emerging evidence shows that nitrate contamination at levels well below the current New Zealand drinking standard presents a risk of reproductive impacts on babies in utero and of bowel cancer.

Norman says that “What’s surprising is that while the Greenpeace Know Your Nitrate map visually shows the extent of nitrate contamination in New Zealand based on the large set of data we have gathered, there are still significant data gaps due to the lack of official monitoring.

“Many rural New Zealand families in high-risk areas are drinking water from their kitchen taps without knowing whether it is contaminated with nitrates or how high those contamination levels are. Unless they pay to get it tested themselves, they have no way to know.”

“For household bore users to truly ‘know your nitrate,’ only a direct test of your tap water will show you and your family’s nitrate exposure, and we encourage anyone living in rural areas to get their water tested.”

The data underlying the Greenpeace map is mostly self-supply bore users in rural areas at risk of high nitrate exposure, but it also shows a number of substantial public water supplies exceeding health risk limits. Examples include Richmond, Gore, Rolleston and Kaikohe, each of which supplies water for hundreds or sometimes thousands of people.

Dr Tim Chambers of Otago University, who provided public water supply data to the project, says, “It is concerning to see the level of nitrate exposure in public supplies above levels that international studies have observed associations with cancer and reproductive risks.”

“This is a commendable tool which helps provide information to the public on worsening nitrate contamination in drinking water.”

Russel Norman says, “The project would not have been possible but for the willingness of impacted communities who consent to use of their data, and we’re greatly appreciative of the University research scientists and those in public service and regional councils who have provided essential data and expertise.”

The largest sources of nitrate contamination in New Zealand are cow urine and synthetic nitrogen fertiliser.

Greenpeace is calling on all political parties to take action to protect New Zealanders’ drinking water sources from nitrate contamination by cutting use of synthetic nitrogen fertiliser use and lowering dairy cow stocking rates.


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