recycling old arguments and old media techniques

For some reason, The Australian newspaper has been running story after story raising fears about long-standing plans to purify and recycle water back into Brisbane’s dams.  It looked bizarre enough a week ago, but we’re now reaching the two week mark with no sign of a let up.  The headlines have been a disgrace – from “Flush then drink in the sunshine state” two weeks ago, to today’s outrageous scare “cyanide to be recycled for drinking” – as though water has never needed to be treated  prior to drinking.(the print edition today comes complete with a graphic of a glass of water labelled ‘what you could be drinking’ alongside a long list of waste products and chemicals which have long been allowed to be put into Brisbane’s sewers).

I haven’t seen such a single-minded, prolonged determination from The Australian to manufacture a major controversy since they used a minor issue as the spark for launching a two week long series of grossly distorted attacks against Griffith University’s Islamic Research Unit earlier this year.

The water recycling issue has been debated for many years in south-east Queensland, and there is little in this recent flurry of stories that hasn’t been raised many times in the past. 

But there is quite a disconnect between the way The Australian is reporting this issue and what Brisbane’s local paper, The Courier-Mail, is saying.

 Yesterday’s effort from The Australian was built around the opening statement that the National Health and Medical Research Council water quality advisory committee chairman, Professor Don Bursill, had “warned the Queensland Government it should not proceed with its $2.5 billion plan to recycle sewage and industrial waste for drinking water unless it is ‘absolutely necessary’.”

The story went on to say “I think that recycling waste water for potable purposes should be a choice of last resort,” and “there are opportunities for problems to occur and if it can be avoided, I think it should be.”

But in the Brisbane print edition of the Courier-Mail today, it states “the NHMRC yesterday said Prof Bursill had not been interviewed by the newspaper and had never warned the Queensland government.” 

Oddly, this rather important statement is not in the online version, although it retains a statement that Professor Bursill said steps were well advanced to ensure the water’s safety and “the Queensland Government has prepared itself well for this strategy.”
It is reasonable to deduce that Prof Burchill felt his views not been accurately reflected in The Australian’s report, although there is no sign at all of this in that paper’s cyanide-scare report today. The only mention of Prof Burchill is to repeat the view attributed to him the day before by way of saying the Opposition leader “echoes his sentiments”.



I’ve always found it a real shame that governments in other cities and states haven’t had the sense and courage to also proceed with water recycling, but this sort of media treatment shows why. If only they showed the same sort of determination to highlight the multitude of environmental, financial and water security flaws in the justifications being put forward for the Traveston Dam, instead of trying to whip up scare campaigns about alternatives that are cheaper, cleaner and more reliable.

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  1. I dont know how Murdoch lives with himself and what his bloody newspapers churn out.I listened to the ABC and heard even more media types get paid by him,like Patrick Cook whose cartooning skills and commentary are pretty sharp,so why is he accepting money off them!?.The Murdochs dont change their spots,they are the world’s greatest predators..character assassinations everyday.If they were taking a microscopic view of cynanide poisoning in the build up of water filtration,why dont they make their newspapers free of all toxicity.It may then be a message to build up in people’s minds,a sort of kindling effect,that some attribute to methodological propaganda,that says this or that person is psychic,to some.Stay tuned for all things cyanide to cynamide to sign a tide shine a ride to tine on your side.

  2. Yes, but do we really want to drink recycled water if there’s an alternative?

    For me, the answer is “No”.

  3. Andrew,

    I don’t buy The Australian newspaper often, but the last time I did it had the ‘Flush then Drink’ article you mention and I remembered why I rarely buy it. I assumed the article was about entertaining the readership, it certainly had no information value.

    Ofcourse there is always good online alternative media, and if you really want to be entertained on this subject you might enjoy the following which I republished from OLO with permission some time ago:

    “The World Health Organisation (WHO) today issued an unprecedented global alert for the entire world’s population to avoid drinking water which, it has found, is actually recycled urine.

    “The Director-General of WHO, Lee Jong-wook, was visibly shaken as he read out a statement. “It is my solemn duty to inform the people of the world that WHO scientists, operating independently in over 80 countries, have confirmed our worst fears. They have reached consensus that the water we drink, whether it is comes from a tap, a sealed bottle, or straight from a well or river, is actually recycled urine.”

    … will post part 2 as a new comment

  4. Continuing from earlier post …

    “The urine-water link has been blamed on the so-called hydrosphere effect, a radical hypothesis in which water from your toilet is flows out into the ocean and evapourates into the sky; from where scientists believe it falls as rain upon mountaintops, and make its way via rivers directly back into your household tap.

    “Said Mr Lee, “the hydrosphere effect is so far out of control there seems little chance of turning back the tide. We took samples from thousands of patients and found their bodies were riddled with water, in some cases as high as 75%. It’s too late for us, but maybe not for our children.”

    “The finding has set public health officials scrambling for alternatives. But AMA Secretary Dr. Robyn Mason said that water is in everything we drink. “We tested fruit juice, milk and even beer, and found water content as high as 96%,” she said. According to the AMA, safer alternatives include cask-strength whisky (29% water, 1% barley, 70% alcohol) and cat’s milk, which has far less water than dairy varieties.

    “Some have expressed hope of obtaining super-pure water from deep aquifers or Antarctic ice. But Mr Lee has poured water on these plans, stating that even the deepest groundwater sources are comprised of ancient number ones from prehistoric fish.

    ““There’s no escape. And don’t even think of swimming in the ocean – there’s a reason it’s salty you know. I’d rather take my chances in a pool full of primary school kids.”

    Posted by Mercurius on Monday 31 July 2006 at On Line Opinion.

  5. Jennifer.. love your work!
    I haven’t laughed so much since my uncle steered his car into a lake the first time he ever drove at night!
    It wasn’t an accident either. He later told me that he saw another car approaching in the gloom and just needed to dip his headlights.

  6. The push to use recycled water for drinking purposes has been described by some scientists as The Armageddon Approach (extremist Doomsday cultism).

    Anna Bligh says she is deferring commencement of the use of recycled water to February or March next year. One of her minions said we are waiting for community acceptance, which has recently dropped from 70% to 50%.

    Why don’t they just use the recycled water for industrial purposes?

    Adelaide has traditionally received fairly low rainfall. They use desalinated water, not recycled sewerage and hospital effluent.

  7. Lorikeet:

    The water should be used for industrial purpose only. The Atkinson Dam is on 10% and that supplies water to the farmers in the area.

    By having the recycled water for industry and agriculture we’ll take pressure of the dams and in areas like the Atkinson provide a much needed boost to the tourist industry in the area. It would also help with the breeding programme they were trying to achieve with the lung fish there. …. Great for farmers…..Great for the environment.
    (Thats why she wont do it)

    Queensland will get heavy rains over the next few months which should help fill the two dams that are low.


  8. Hi Tony:

    Yes, that does make sense. I’ve had enough of both Labor and Liberals paying lip service to everything, while poisoning our health, education and economy.

    Today Malcolm Turnbull really turned me off with his double standards on the National Press Club address … at least at times when I was actually able to stay awake through the boredom.

    The major parties don’t give a stuff about agriculture. Just look what’s happening to the banana industry. What about Japanese being allowed to unload greenhouse waste in Queensland’s backyard?

    I emailed some bigwig about the planned closure of the Royal Children’s Hospital. I said we were living in a Banana Republic – now it seems like not for long!!!

    We also have the USA bailing out BIG BANKS, for Chrissake! As if they haven’t already robbed citizens of enough. This is probably also soon coming to a bank near you.

    I almost feel like running for any party that will have me. I keep getting middle-aged men asking me to nail some hides to the wall.

  9. Adelaide does not yet use desalinated water – there’s a controversial plant that’s still in the planning stages.

    However, it does use recycled water: treated sewage is used to irrigate market gardens, & the majority of Adelaide’s potable water is effectively treated sewage from the River Murray.

  10. Feral:

    One of my scientist friends has lived in Adelaide for more than 30 years. I’m sure he said they were drinking desalinated water due to the city’s proximity to the ocean. That was at least a couple of years ago.

    I will email him later and ask. Unfortunately buses don’t wait for nursing home visitors, so I have to rush off now.

  11. The Feral Abacus

    I didnt know that hospitals and abattoirs were dumping their waste into the murray.

    There’s real concern now about the danger of radium from hospitals xrays etc going into this putrid recycled mix.

    Remember no one has every voluntarily pumped a mix like this into their populations drinking water at these levels before. Yes Singapore may use 1% (but no waste from hospitals etc) but nothing like the percentages this government is proposing.

    It seems to have become an almost ideology with this government, and its about time that the Premier took some notice of the health concerns being raised.


  12. Feral:

    Still waiting on an answer from Adelaide. My friend may have gone into the desert to check on his communications equipment.

  13. Lorikeet: Looking forward to hearing your friend’s response. To the best of my knowledge there are 2 or 3 proposed desalination plants in SA, but none actually in operation. One of the major concerns is that all the proposed plants are sited in areas with shallow water & little oceanic ‘flushing’. So hypersaline plumes from plant outflows pose a potentially major ecological problem.

    Tony: Are you sure? My understanding is that radium has not been used as an X-ray source subsequent to the widespread adoption of the Rontgen tube in the early 20th century.

    In any case, I thought the disposal of radioactive materials was tightly regulated in Australia. If you are aware of any hospitals disposing of radioactive materials inappropriately, I’d urge you to contact your local EPA immediately.

  14. In any case, the Qld attitude to recycled water always looked a bit odd.

    SEQ catchments are riddled with old sheep dip sites — full of heavy metals and nasty organochlorides.

    And then there is the matter of the huge amount of herbicide applied to the widespread prickly pear infestations of the ‘Teens and ‘Twenties. They didn’t muck about with namby-pamby environmentally-friendly chemicals in those days – arsenic pentoxide (and lots of it) was the poison of choice up until the mid-1950’s.

    Personally, I’d rather take my chances with recycled sewage than deal with the toxic & carcinogenic legacy of Qld farming practices of my parents’ & grandparents’ generations.

  15. Feral:

    No wonder lots of people are getting sick, but I see no reason to add more toxins, viruses, bacteria etc to the mix.

    There’s still no word from Adelaide. Perhaps I should email him again.

    When I worked for a university at a major teaching hospital in Brisbane in the late 1970s, radioactive materials were very carefully handled in both the hospital and university laboratories.

    To my knowledge, radium was still in use at the Queensland Radium Institute attached to the hospital to treat cancers. Perhaps that is what Tony meant.

    Cancers are certainly still being irradiated, depending on type, location and spread.

    If something had changed, wouldn’t they now be irrontgenated or similar?

  16. I live in South Australia. We do not drink desalinated water. Most of Adelaide’s water comes from the Mt Lofty Cachment Area, supplemented by water from the Murray when needed. Outside Adelaide, where I live, most use either groundwater or reservoirs, but a lot of the water also comes from the Murray in pipes.

    Some water in SA is treated but none is desalinated .. although a plant is proposed – many are against it becuase of fears of adding extra brine to saline waters currently in ecological balance, more or less.

  17. I subscribe to the Armageddon theory(I thought I coined that phrase)
    Water Corporations all over Australia (and the world) seem to deny that it is the atmospheric engine producing precipitation which is primary in the supply of all potable water on the planet. Any long term approach to sustainable water supply has to start with this planetary reality.
    The self interest of the international sewerage industry is never questioned as a factor. It is crazy to recycle sewage while continuing with a Roman lifestyle of exotic gardens, spa baths etc on the driest continent. Here in W.A. our Water Corporation is already moving towards the recycling of sewage while outlawing a more sensible approach using technologies like composting dunnies and so on. Ironically, an argument for recycled sewage is that people oppose it on “emotional” grounds. Of course the popularity of seeing your daily poo disappear beneath a swirling flush of water is also emotionally popular, and accounts for most of the acceptance of deep sewerage.
    We could also factor in the costs associated with sewer rates.
    Many would be willing to give the new approach to water use a go if a financial incentive were offered.

  18. Sorry, I still haven’t had a reply from Adelaide, but now we have access to Dolphins’ link. Thanks.

    On the Gold Coast, we have a desalination plant up and running which Anna Bligh says will service 700,000 residents, based on usage of 170 litres per person per day.

    The same contractor started setting up another plant at Byron Bay about 2 years ago. I don’t know if it’s up and running yet.

  19. Lorikeet – WRT your comment on the Emissions trading thread: I’ve seen data showing that there’s synthetic oestrogen in the water in Wivenhoe Dam. So recycling per se isn’t the problem – at least WRT oestrogen & its synthetic analogues. Rather, the problem lies with effluent treatment prior to the effluent entering watersheds.

  20. The Feral Abacus:

    What hiding over here feral. Dont want to be part of the tax rippoff.

    Feral says: I’ve seen data showing that there’s synthetic oestrogen in the water in Wivenhoe Dam

    If thats the case and it is coming from a tiny community in Esk what do we have to look forward to when Anna pumps it into the dam at levels never before seen

    Yes it is frightening…… No government ever has deliberately pumpled this sort of mix in these quantities every beforre into the populiations drinking water.

    Terrible isn’t it ?


  21. Tony – you’re quick off the mark tonight! But sometimes it’s worth spending a little more time in formulating a response.

    So let’s think a little further. One of the big objections raised against recycling effluent is that oestrogen & its analogues will enter the potable water stream. But – as my last post points out – its already in the potable water stream at measurable concentrations.

    Esk – the small town that has the bakery with the cabinet display of Crocodile Dundee-style hunting knives for sale. Pig- and deer-hunter’s heaven. Mightn’t expect too much oestrogen to emerge from there, but the data are unambiguous – lots of oestrogen from an upstream source, & it’s going straight into Brisbane’s drinking water.

    Isn’t your argument that QLD-landers will be better off by not allowing treated effluent into potable water? I’d counter that since there’s currently untreated (or poorly treated) effluent going into the potable water stream (not to mention the heavy metal pollution from old sheep dips & prickly pear herbicides) that the quality of piped water may very well improve should Brisbane’s water supply be properly filtered.

  22. Feral:

    With regard to the oestrogen issue, there will probably be thousands of times more hormone in the town water supply if treated sewerage is going to be added to the mix.

    Esk is a pretty small place. Do you know where all of that oestrogen is coming from? Is it human oestrogen? Animal oestrogen? Not that it makes much difference.

    Do you think it could be leaching out of septic tanks, or maybe used thunderbox holes?

    With all due respect, I think your view fails to take into account the deadly prospects associated with glitches occurring in the system and human error.

  23. Lorikeet – its some time since I read the report, so I don’t remember whether the form of oestrogen was specified. However, I’d hazard a guess that at least some of it originated from herbicides – there is a class of herbicides whose active ingredient binds to the oestrogen receptor sites on cells, thereby mimicking the action of the real thing.

    My vague recollection is that these compounds don’t have especially long half-lives under outdoor conditions, so while septic tanks are a likely source, I suspect old thunderbox holes wouldn’t represent a great problem.

    The concentration of contaminants in effluent going into a treatment plant has little to no effect on the concentration of contaminants in the treated water coming out of the plant. So the higher oestrogen levels in effluent doesn’t pose a problem for treated water quality. And it also means that treated effluent will most likely contain less oestrogen than Brisbanites all drinking right now.

    Human error & system failures should be manageable. Remember too that it takes days to weeks for water to reach taps from dams, so even in the unlikely event of contaminated water entering the network there would still be time to detect the problem & do whatever was necessary before the water could reach the consumer.

  24. Feral:

    I hope you’re right about the length of time the water takes to reach the consumer, but once huge amounts of under-treated sewerage etc get into the dams, how are they going to get it back out again?

    After recent terrible storms in Brisbane, I’m sure the town water was superchlorinated, which reached my tap in a flash. When I lifted the washing machine lid, I nearly got knocked over by the smell.

    Now it’s interesting to note also (on the oestrogen issue) that plenty of women don’t seem to be going through the menopause at the appropriate time. My medical specialist has almost given up hope of ever prescribing HRT for me, and the neighbour said his wife is in a similar position.

    Perhaps we could have also found a new cause for men’s diminishing sperm counts???

    Don’t you think that the contents of old thunderbox holes could leach through the water table? They don’t even have a tank standing in the way.

  25. AB

    Even I am stunned by your minimising the scandal of GU Islamic Research Centre! Why shouldn’t the media have covered it? That’s the media’s job! Why didn’t any pollies raise it?

  26. “scandal” ?!

    You have to be kidding me. A massively overblown media beat up about a minor issue which was clearly and openly addressed by the University. Also a very irresponsible beat up, given how it openly played on prejudices about Islam.

    In regards to politicians raising it, I did raise it while I was still in the Senate. I put out two media releases and a letter to the paper in question (not published of course) and gave a speech in the Senate defending the valuable work of the centre at Griffith Uni and how destructive and counter-productive the malicious overblown beat ups in the relevant newspaper were.

    Even The Courier-Mail – also a News Ltd publication – has openly talked about the anti-scientific scare campaigns run about recycled water in “other media”. This sort of determined anti-rational approach is something of a feature of The Australian – not every story or every writer of course, but there are certain topics where they obsessively go to town in a manner even more over the top than some of the worst wingnut blogs.

  27. Lorikeet – water chlorination levels are based on assumptions re the length of time that the water will be in the pipes. The objective is to ensure that chlorine levels will be relatively high up until a day or two before the water is likely to flow out a tap.

    You may be interested to know the water supply in parts of Sydney is essentially recycled water. A fair part of outer north-western Sydney has for many years been drawing its water from the Hawkesbury/Nepean River downstream from some half-dozen sewage plants. These sewage plants disharge their effluent – which is not nearly so well-treated as that proposed for SE Qld – directly into the river. I’m not saying this is a good thing, but AFAIK there have been no adverse health outcomes. As you might imagine, the locals struggle to comprehend the debate in Qld…

    I don’t doubt that ‘old thunderbox holes’ could contaminate a watershed, though whether that occurs through groundwater or through surface water may be determined by the local geology of the watershed. However, my guess is that contamination of water by thunderbox hole oestrogen or its analogues is unlikely – assuming that those molecules are not especially persistent in the environment. But don’t take my word for it: check to see whether there are any available data on oestrogen half-lives – my assumption might be incorrect.

  28. Feral:

    I don’t know why Sydneyites would struggle to comprehend the debate in Queensland. Some years ago, there was a fairly widespread outbreak of giardia lamblia in Sydney, which is a notifiable disease. It came through the water supply.

    In 1994 all of the adults in my household had the same disease. It was confirmed by laboratory testing, and the Health Dept had to be notified.

    My baby didn’t get sick because he was no longer breastfeeding, and I was still boiling all of his water.

    If Anna Bligh goes ahead with putting recycled water in the town water supply, I think she will be out on her ear even more quickly.

    I don’t think we have any proven reason to believe that we cannot get by with water solely from other sources. For example, we already have one desalination plant up and running, the recommissioning of old dams, people installing water tanks, and water restrictions in place.

    Let them spray the recycled water on crops and use it for industrial purposes. What’s wrong with that?

    Rainfall seems to have returned to normal. Even the gum trees across the street have resumed losing their bark at the appropriate time.

  29. Lorikeet – Christmas is catching up with me so this will be rather cursory…

    Re giardia: a couple of issues here. 1) from memory, this disease is spread via bird faeces, so can be contracted by drinking rainwater collected off roofs as well as from reservoir water. 2) advances in analytical techniques mean that it is now much easier to detect the presence of giardia in water than it was 10-15 years ago.

    So the apparent spike in giardia cases in the early-mid90s may be an artefact of technological advances. In fact, these data support the introduction of post-harvesting water treatment to remove undesirable contaminants, regardless of whether the water is obtained from primary or secondary sources.

    “Let them spray the recycled water on crops and use it for industrial purposes. What’s wrong with that?”

    Absolutely nothing, unless the water can be put to even better use.

    “Rainfall seems to have returned to normal.”

    Conditionally agreed, while noting that rainfall deficiencies south of Sydney, and to the west of the Great Dividing Range, have persisted.

    Merry Christmas & a Happy New Year to everyone…
    even Ken!

  30. You too feral –

    By the way lorikket, there was no outbreak of any disease here in Sydney.

    It was 1998, and what there was, was an unusually high concentration of Cryptosporidium and giadia organism whihc led to boil water alerts. the matter has been extensively reporetd on by Peter McClellan QC and the report are avaialbe on line.

    in summary, no one got sick, at any rate other than what normally occurs.

  31. Ken:

    The outbreak of giardia lamblia I was referring to occurred in Sydney many years before 1998. It was reported in the media.

    I didn’t hear anything about the 1998 problem.

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