Many thousands of people across Scotland are endangering their health by drinking dirty water from private supplies, according to a new report from a government watchdog.
Tests in 2014 detected contamination by bacteria and metals in 4,400 samples from springs, wells, lochs and rivers used for drinking water. One bug known to cause illness, E coli, was detected in more than 500 supplies.
The poor quality of water from private supplies has been highlighted as a concern by Sue Petch, the Drinking Water Quality Regulator for Scotland. Critics say that the system meant to combat the problem is “broken”, and that urgent action is required.
There are over 20,000 private water supplies in Scotland, relied on daily by over 188,000 people mostly in rural areas. In addition large numbers of people use the supplies occasionally, when they are on holiday or in the countryside.
Tests in 2014 found that 2,700 samples from the larger ‘type A’ supplies – six per cent of the samples taken – failed to meet water quality standards. There were 549 samples with coliform bacteria, 303 with E coli, and others containing iron, aluminium and lead.
Most of the breaches were in the six local authorities with the highest number of private water supplies: Argyll and Bute, Highland, Perth and Kinross, Dumfries and Galloway, Scottish Borders and Aberdeenshire (see table below).
Of the smaller ‘type B’ supplies tested, 1,696 samples (12 per cent) were contaminated, including 486 with coliform bacteria and 244 with E coli. But the vast majority of the smaller supplies weren’t tested.
In her latest report, Petch pointed out that 138 private water supplies failed E coli standards for at least three years running, with 12 supplies failing for five years. Yet in 2014 local authorities served only 13 failing supplies with enforcement notices requiring them to be cleaned up.
“The quality of many of these supplies is a concern,” Petch’s spokeswoman told the Sunday Herald. “The regulator is working with local authorities and the Scottish Government to raise awareness of the health risks that poorly protected and maintained private water supplies can pose to people drinking them.”
She pointed out that grants were available to help improve private water supplies. “Local authorities are encouraged to serve enforcement notices where all other means of bringing about an improvement have been exhausted,” she said.
Citizens Advice Scotland argued that action was needed to improve private water supplies. “Everyone has the right to clean, safe drinking water, yet these statistics show that for many people in Scotland, that right is not being realised,” said Sarah Beattie-Smith, the agency’s consumer spokesperson.
“Consumers face a postcode lottery, not knowing whether they will receive the support they need and unsure where they can turn for help. It is a signal that enforcement isn’t working as it should.”
Dr Sarah Hendry, a water expert from the University of Dundee, pointed out that the available grants were very limited in scope and councils were increasingly short of resources. Innovative new solutions were needed “that are cost-effective, acceptable to the communities concerned, and meet both public health and environmental goals,” she said.
Local authorities all stressed the efforts they were making to tackle contaminated private water supplies. There were working with the Scottish Government and others to review the legislation, and to develop new strategies to protect public health, they said.
The causes of contamination were complex and varied, councils argued. Consumers with bacterial contamination were advised to boil their water before drinking it, and those with lead piping to run their taps for at least two minutes every morning.
Argyll and Bute Council planned to take tougher action in the future by serving more improvement notices. “When resource provision to local authorities is under increased pressures and scrutiny we will continue to try to protect public health as a priority in this area,” said a council spokesman.
Aberdeenshire Council’s head of economic development and protective services, Belinda Miller, pointed out the relevant legislation was now 35 years old. “It has been recognised by both local authorities and the Scottish Government that improvements are needed,” she said.
Highland Council’s environmental health manager, Alan Yates, said: “Monitoring and improvement of private water supplies is one of our main priorities”.
Forced to boil water for five years
If Claire Smith drinks contaminated water, she could die. She suffers from the immune system disease, Lupus, and has been told by medical experts that the toxins could cause serious illness and organ failure.
Water for her cottage at Neilston in East Renfrewshire comes from a spring on a neighbouring farm. In 2009 it was contaminated with slurry, sparking a fierce legal dispute between her and the farmer.
She has been repeatedly in touch with East Renfrewshire Council and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa), which both say they have been trying to help her. But she says her water is still contaminated with potentially harmful E coli and enterococci bacteria.
For the last five years she has had to either boil her water, or buy it in bottles, to make sure she doesn’t fall ill. She is spending over £9,000 on a new underground pipe and filter system – but she is still worried about pollution.
Smith, a senior civil servant, is angry about the difficulties she has faced. “This is not just about preventing stomach upsets – it could be about saving lives,” she says. “The current system is broken,” she says. “We need an urgent review.”
Her neighbour, Sandra Grierson from Middleton Farm, says she has apologised for the slurry contamination incident, and has restricted where her sheep graze. But she argues that the supply from the spring has long been of poor quality, and suggests that Smith should drill a borehole for water on her own land.
“It’s a very, very awkward situation to be in,” says Grierson. “It’s quite indescribable to explain how stressful and horrid the whole situation has been.”
East Renfrewshire Council points out that the farm’s use of the land is Sepa’s responsibility. Sepa points out that it has no remit on private water supplies, which are the responsibility of the local authority and the householder.
“The council is fully supporting Claire and has been working with her to make her drinking water safe,” says a council spokeswoman. “We have mediated between Claire and the landowner of the neighbouring farm, taken samples of her water, carried out a risk assessment and given recommendations.”
Sepa says it found no breach of the rules aimed at preventing agricultural pollution. “Sepa has provided general advice to the local farmer on preventing pollution and advised the person raising the issue to contact us again if they had any further concerns that the rules were being breached,” said a Sepa spokesman.
Contaminated water supplies across Scotland
council / number of major private water supplies/ number of samples that breached E.coli standards in 2014
Argyll and Bute / 471 / 76
Highland / 708 / 75
Perth and Kinross / 264 / 43
Dumfries and Galloway / 167 / 28
Scottish Borders / 143 / 27
Aberdeenshire / 222 / 21