Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Prof Don Bursill on Human Error

Prof Don Bursill is well known and very highly regarded in the Australian water industry. Don’s roles have included Chief Scientist at SA Water and CEO of the CRC for Water Quality and Treatment.

Prof Bursill has expressed some fairly strong views about the potential for human stuff-ups (so to speak) when it comes to planned indirect potable recycling. I have heard Prof Bursill say on many occasions that he has no doubt that the technology is available to make recycled water extremely safe, but that the real risks will arise when people fail to do their job correctly.

I find this to be a very difficult risk to evaluate, but I think it’s a fair assumption (if not blatantly obvious) that if we don’t do things correctly, then things will probably go wrong.

My own position is that we must assume that things absolutely certainly will go wrong, and that we must put sufficient safety barriers in place to ensure that public health remains fully protected when they do.

I’d be interested in your thoughts.

Here’s an article from The Age today.

Recycling sewage should be a last resort: expert
By Jewel Topsfield
The Age

June 5, 2007

THE author of Australia's drinking water guidelines has stressed recycled sewage [for] drinking water should be a last resort, warning that people could die if the system failed and there was an outbreak of disease.

Professor Don Bursill yesterday said he was not concerned about the technology, but human error. He said six weeks ago in Spencer, Massachusetts, plant operators mistakenly released caustic soda into the town's water, causing a shutdown of supply.

More than 80 people were rushed to hospital, suffering burns and eye problems.

Professor Bursill, the CEO of the Cooperative Research Centre for Water Quality and Treatment, said sewage had very high levels of human pathogens "alive and kicking and ready to infect people".

Professor Bursill told a Senate inquiry that international water expert Dr Steve Hrudey had analysed 98 water-borne disease outbreaks, including a disaster in Walkerton, Canada, when seven people died and 2300 became ill from E.coli. "Eighty per cent of the failures he recorded were not due to failures of technology … but were due to human error," he said.

These included lack of attention to operating procedures, lack of maintenance of critical equipment, poor operating training and deliberately suppressing information to avoid problems with regulators.

Professor Bursill said complacency was the biggest danger. He said Australia's regulatory regime was not strong enough to guarantee the safety of a system sourced from sewage.


Stuart Khan said...

A media release from the QLD Minister for Health, Stephen Robertson was forthcoming today. It addresses the issue of an enhanced regulatory regime necessary to ensure the safety of recycled water systems in Queensland...

Minister for Health
The Honourable Stephen Robertson

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

$6.28 million investment to ensure safer drinking water

Water quality monitoring and assessment will be stepped up through a $6.28 million Beattie Government initiative to enhance the safety of Queensland’s drinking water.

Health Minister Stephen Robertson said today the funding would be used by Queensland Health to develop and implement new regulatory frameworks for both drinking and recycled water.

Funding will also increase Queensland Health’s capacity to analyse samples for water quality.

“Queensland Health has a key role in regulatory systems for both recycled and drinking water to ensure public health is protected.

“The proposed use of recycled water as a source of drinking water will also require greater oversight so that Queenslanders can have confidence their water is completely safe.

“That means Queensland Health will have a significantly increased role in water quality management. This will include monitoring and water sample analysis associated with recycled and drinking water treatment and supply.”

Mr Robertson said the $6.28 million funding over four years, including $1.16 million in 2007-08, would enable Queensland Health to establish a team of professionals to:

• Develop, implement and manage a new regulatory framework for drinking water quality.

• Support the development and implementation of the new regulatory program for recycled water in partnership with the Department of Natural Resources and Water.

• Increase water quality testing and analysis at Queensland Health Scientific Services (QHSS) laboratories.

• Work with drinking water providers to actively oversee the quality of drinking water in Queensland.

Mr Robertson said Queensland Health would employ 16 new scientists and public health officers to progress the new water safety initiative.

“Eight additional scientists will be employed at QHSS laboratories to conduct analysis of water samples associated with recycled water and drinking water treatment and supply,” he said.

“Some of the eight new public health officers will work on the development and implementation of new regulatory frameworks for recycled water and drinking water.

“However, the bulk of the public health officers will be based in Queensland’s three Area Health Services to actively advise, monitor and assess providers of recycled and drinking water to communities to ensure health standards are maintained.”

Mr Robertson said the $6.28 million initiative will result in more effective regulatory control over drinking and recycled water to protect public health.

“We will be able to improve the quality of drinking water to our communities and, through regular monitoring and testing, ensure the ongoing safety of that water.

“This will be of particular importance to reassure Queenslanders about the use of purified recycled water.

“Purified recycled water is a vital part of Queensland’s long term water supply strategy.

“Our ongoing testing and analysis will underpin the seven barrier treatment process proposed for the use of purified recycled water in South East Queensland,” he said.

Lee said...

You can employ all the scientists in the world. Qld Health has plenty of doctors but look at the absolute mess that turned into.

The problem is Beattie, Bligh and the labor party in Queensland.

They have seriously f****d up everything that they have gotten their fingers into so it is a reasonable assumption that recycled water will be just another mess.

Look at progress so far - laying and then digging up pipelines. Pipes from South Korea - no they're actually from China - and made from inferior steel.

Beattie couldn't even buy 4 minute shower timers which worked (more stuff from China).

And this is the government we expect to produce a clean and safe drinking water supply.

It's a complete farce!

Rosi said...

Hi all,
I have been following the blogs with interest and as a concerned potential consumer of human waste (a rose by any other name) agree with many of the concerns raised so far, from mathematical likelihoods of viral flow through membrane leaks to the more likely occurrence of human error.

In my simplistic view our water quality as it stands is far from ideal, with chlorine resistant microbes such as cryptosporidium becoming more of an issue and increased chlorine levels also becoming an issue due to its effects on the gut, apart from the fact that we don't have enough of it (water).
A safe and sustainable water supply has to be one of the most important considerations for the health and wellbeing of a population, especially a population living in an Australian climate and requiring an adequate water consumption.
Having accepted that we need to do something to ensure an adequate supply of water, I can't see that a fail-possible (won't enter into the high-risk, very-high risk debate) recycling of human waste should be even considered for human consumption. The potential for tragedy is just too great! There are too many variable factors that don't appear to be understood well enough to risk human life and health for; viral and bacterial contamination, residual contaminants from drugs, and factors that will arise as the process develops.
I passionately wish that I had a viable option to put forward, but at this time would have to put my vote towards using recycled for industrial use to reduce the demand for potable consumption.

Thanks for providing a great informative public forum,

Stuart Khan said...

Hi Rosi,

Thanks for your very well considered comments (and apologies for my slow response).

Your views, which you describe as simplistic, are in my opinion right on the mark. I think you have correctly identified the current shortcomings and major risks in our existing water supplies. Furthermore, your concerns regarding indirect potable recycling (IPR) are perfectly inline with the current debate. Whether we can safely manage an IPR scheme will indeed come down to whether the risks you have identified can be safely managed.

As you will have observed by reading this blog, my view is that there is good evidence that the risks can be well managed (but that is not to assume that they necessarily will be by any particular scheme). However, I well acknowledge that my own views are not unanimous. In the end, it will come down to deciding how we can best manage the complex relationship between risks, costs and benefits to our communities.

I also agree that industrial reuse to relieve pressure on potable supplies is an excellent strategy. You may be aware of some existing major industrial reuse schemes around Australia. Some fine examples include BP-Amoco (reusing water from Luggage Point Sewage Treatment Plant in Brisbane), Bluescope Steel (Wollongong STP), Kwinana Industrial Area including a BP refinery and numerous others (Kwinana Water Reclamation Plant), Eraring Power Station (Dora Creek STP South of Newcastle), and the developing Western Corridor Scheme in South East Queensland which will supply Swanbank and Tarong Power Stations.

If you can think of any major industrial users of Canberra’s (or any other city's) potable water supplies, I would certainly be keen to take at look at the likely opportunity and benefits of them converting to recycled water.

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