Nitrate levels in Canterbury homeowners’ water can be tested for free.

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In order to screen for unsafe amounts of nitrate, Canterbury officials are giving free drinking water samples to homeowners.

It comes after a recent study found that between 300,000 and 800,000 New Zealanders were exposed to potentially hazardous levels of the chemical, which could lead to bowel cancer.

The nitrate levels in Canterbury’s town drinking water source were the highest in the world.

According to reports, 3215 people drank water with amounts so high that health officials needed routine monitoring to insure it did not exceed the minimum acceptable threshold.

The testing, which will be available in the towns of Leeston and Darfield next month, was the brainchild of the local water zone committee, a body that served as a liaison between the district and the Canterbury Regional Council, advising it on policies.

Fiona McDonald, its co-chair, stated that the biggest threats were to pregnant women and bottle-fed infants, as well as a possible connection between even very low levels of nitrate and bowel cancer.

“Those are the two things, particularly the media attention that the colon cancer research has had lately that’s really raised the level of attention on nitrate levels, and we’re hoping to have really good engagement and really good turnout in these rural communities.”

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The tests were being offered to those using private bores.

Unlike town supply drinking water which was regularly tested by councils for things like nitrate levels, these bores – serving 451,403 people nationally – were the responsibility of homeowners to get tested.

It was also thought the water in these mostly shallow bores presented more of a risk, with estimates 19,960 could have nitrate levels exceeding World Health Organisation limits.

McDonald said the tests would be indicative only and it would then be up to homeowners to get their water tested at a laboratory.

“It concerns us, individual well owners don’t necessarily have good knowledge about their own water supplies. The council has really good knowledge about the water supplies it provides, but it’s those individual owners [where] it can really vary.”

The testing followed an informal effort by a group of concerned residents to let private well users know about the state of their water.

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Last August, Springston South homeowner Mike Glover got together with the Federation of Freshwater Anglers, who had managed to get hold of specialised equipment needed to test nitrate levels.

They invited people along to have their water tested, for a gold coin donation.

Eighty turned up including one woman who was shocked to discover the water from her spring was potentially dangerous to drink.

“She was in tears. She said ‘I tell everyone about the water, it tastes so good’, and I said that’s the bloody thing, nitrate, you can’t taste it, you can’t smell it, you can’t see it. You know if it made the water go red, all the rivers in Canterbury would be running pink.”

Glover was glad the water zone committee was now picking up the baton.

“It’s the start of something perhaps. I think they may be surprised at the level of not just interest, I think there’ll be a lot of concern shown and possibly a little bit of anger.”

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Federation of Freshwater Anglers president and Canterbury resident Peter Trolove said the problem was a case of the region’s chickens coming home to roost after two decades of unfettered growth in dairying.

“People are suddenly saying ‘I don’t want to live here’. And so they’re looking to sell up. The Selwyn region’s the fastest growing area in New Zealand. Well, we might have people departing at the same rate when they realise that they might be drinking water that’s not good for them.”

McDonald said further testing may be done depending on the level of demand this time around.

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