Fit for purpose
Residents in some newer housing developments have two sets of water pipes — one for drinking water and a purple one for recycled water, used for things like washing the car, watering the garden and toilet flushing.
In two homes in Newington, Sydney, these pipes were cross-connected, meaning the residents were inadvertently drinking recycled water. It was up to four years before the mistake was discovered, following a complaint about the taste of the water.
The recycled water in purple pipes isn’t intended for drinking purposes — it tastes salty because it’s recycled to a significantly lower standard than water produced by indirect potable reuse. Even so, no health problems were reported. All 1500 houses in Newington had their connections inspected.
New homes now have an inspection by a licensed plumber. New residents in old homes are advised just check the official inspection tag on their recycled water meter.
Two years ago a newspaper reported that an Australian government agency had lead and other metals contaminating its recycled drinking water supply.
The system was disconnected and thankfully the staff checked out OK. But the report had described the water as 'recycled', when in fact the agency used a rainwater tank. And it wasn’t that tank water in general is unsafe, but that lead, copper and zinc were present in that particular water collection area.
This case goes to show that careful installation and maintenance of any water supply system is crucial — as is accurate reporting.
A matter of trust
Sydneysider Chris lived and worked in Singapore for nearly 10 years, during the time recycled water for drinking was introduced there. He travelled a lot in the region for work and Singapore was one of the few Asian countries where he could drink water straight from the tap.
He recalls the Singaporean government having a publicity campaign about NEWater. Just like in Australia, there was community concern that it would mean 'drinking toilet water'. In the end, in Singapore, they didn’t wait to win over the public — they just did it.
The treated water from the plant was perfectly drinkable — even the Prime Minister drank it for the cameras. But for everyday use a small proportion of the recycled water is pumped into the reservoirs and mixed with regular water, before being sent to people’s taps. The remainder used for industrial purposes. Chris couldn’t taste a difference.
The issue, Chris reckons, is how much people trust governments to make sure their drinking water is safe. He says he’s comfortable with the idea of drinking recycled water in Australia. He thinks people need to understand where water comes from now, and all the things that already ultimately get filtered out — like kangaroo poo from around Sydney’s Warragamba dam. It all gets taken out, which is what water treatment is all about.