High nitrate levels in water levels in mainly rural areas of New Zealand is breaching people’s human rights.
That’s the assessment of Greenpeace senior adviser, Steve Abel, whose organisation is part of a joint submission that is calling for a “sinking cap” on synthetic nitrogen fertiliser and in introduction of cow stocking limits.
The Cancer Society is also involved, with growing evidence suggesting a link to some forms of cancer and premature births.
Nitrogen is most commonly linked to fertilisers and cow urine and the submission is calling for a “sinking cap” on synthetic nitrogen fertiliser and in introduction of cow stocking limits.
That’s after modelling from Otago University researchers estimated that nitrate contamination of drinking water could be causing up to 100 cases of bowel cancer a year in New Zealand, resulting in 40 deaths.
Greenpeace believes the steep increase in the use of synthetic nitrogen fertiliser on farms in the past 30 years as the cause for high levels of nitrate in New Zealand’s drinking water.
Abel told Breakfast he doesn’t believe the Government’s current water reform programme does enough to address the issue.
“As the United Nations says, access to safe drinking water is a basic human right. Currently, that right is not being met for people living outside of cities in this country.”
The current health limit of nitrate in drinking water, set by the World Health Organization, is 11.3 mg/L. In New Zealand, that limit is the same.
That is over ten times higher than 0.87 mg/L, the nitrate level linked to increased bowel cancer risk in a major Danish study published in 2018.
Greenpeace’s own study, which is the largest data set of rural bore water in NZ, found that roughly two-thirds of their bore water samples were at this level or higher.
This is reflected in the experience of Canterbury resident Iain Piper, whose family home in Leeston is on bore water.
He first started testing nitrate levels in 2015 when his wife was pregnant and says they got a reading of over 12.6 mg/l. They tested again in March 2021 and got a reading of 17.5.
“We decided that we had to do something so we drilled a new bore,” Iain told Breakfast. “We got some money for that and we went down to 42 metres, which was suggested to us by all the local drilling outfits as the level we would need to go down to get clean water.”
“Unfortunately, we did a test after that and out official result came back at 13.5 mg/L.”
Water is everything
He says he almost burst into tears on finding out this news.
“Water is everything. You try and provide for your family and to go down that route and think that we’re doing the right thing and then to still have those sorts of figures, it was absolutely devastating.”
“What do we have to do to get decent drinking water in this country?” asks Poper, who says that he has now installed a water filtration system. This has cost the family thousands of dollars, and tests still show their level at 4.4 mg/L.
Dr Tim Chambers, who is part of the Otago University research team, says more research is needed looking at exactly what level people should start to be concerned but that it should be far below 11.3mg/L.
He says research suggests nitrate levels in water will continue to rise and it’s not just rural communities that should be concerned as some major cities also use bore water.
Abel says that among those who should be most concerned are Māori communities in Waikato, as well as residents in Canterbury and Southland.
Some dairy farmers say they’re doing all they can to help address the issue, including farming more organically and increasing the value of their products at sale through the creation of niche brands, which in turn allows them to decrease the number of cows on land.
Abel says these sorts of changes have got to be the future for New Zealand.
“It’s not about saying we can’t have dairy farming, it’s about how we do it.”
Fertiliser use “relatively static”
Vera Power, chief executive of the Fertiliser Association, said the sector was focused on the smart use of nutrients to ensure better uptake and to minimise losses.
Use has been “relatively static” in the past five years.
“In 2020/21 there was an 8% reduction in use despite increases in exports, showing that farmers and growers are producing more food with less inputs.”
Analysis using a nutrient budgeting tool suggests in the last decade in Canterbury, change in practices has resulted in nitrogen loss being decreased by a third.
“As a result, Environment Canterbury has commented that improvements are starting to be seen in some rivers, but they acknowledge that improvements in groundwater, where often small household supplies are sourced, will take longer,” Power said.
She pointed to a position statement by Bowel Cancer NZ, which stated “nitrates in drinking water are highly unlikely to increase the risk of bowel cancer in New Zealand, according to the current weight of evidence”.