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Mum of three left feeling like failure as parent after lead found in infant son's blood

A mum of three living just minutes away from the East Otago town of Karitāne has been left feeling like she has failed as a parent after high levels of lead were found in her young son’s blood.

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Jazz Hansen says officials aren’t doing enough for the east Otago towns affected by the lead contamination. Source: Breakfast

Lead was detected in children’s blood after it was reported that water in East Otago was contaminated.

A sample taken on December 8 showed contamination levels were 40 times the acceptable level, but the results were not known publicly until early January — because a staff member who was emailed the result was on holiday.

Residents in Waikouaiti and Karitāne were told not to drink tap water on February 2. They were tested last week, with the results coming in now. 

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Fiery clashes as residents vent at lead contamination meeting in Otago

Mum Jazz Hansen, who lives in Hawksbury, just five minutes from Karitāne, told Breakfast she was left feeling "pretty devastated" after lead was found in her five-month-old son’s blood test.

"I feel pretty devastated for our community and for everyone that lives here, especially people that have lived here for a really long time like the elderly," she said.

"It's pretty heartbreaking to have had this happen and not know about it and not have any choice in drinking the water. Like, nobody said to us anything so if we’d had a choice, I would’ve brought water from Dunedin like most families would’ve."

Hansen’s youngest child, Taika, was found to have 0.10 micromillilitres of lead per litre of blood. She says while the level is under the safe limit of 0.24 micromillilitres, "to me, that's not OK". 

"He’s five months old and there’s no other way he could’ve got it."

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Mayor, Aaron Hawkins fronted up tonight at a public meeting over lead spiking water supplies in two Otago towns. Source: 1 NEWS

Hansen described her son as a "very needy baby" who is often being worn in a front pack "so he’s not really on the ground or he's in a little bouncer or he’s asleep".

"The only way he would’ve got it is from me giving him a bottle from tap water, which I boil in the jug because, you know, you think that's the way to go about it.

"I just don’t think it’s OK. I think a lot of people are trying to say it’s OK so that it doesn’t cause an uproar."

She said while people have come forward with research showing that her son’s levels are "right in the middle", she's still rattled. 

"It’s not [OK], really, because you’ve got lead in your body and your five months old."

Hansen described feeling "angry" and "pretty upset for him" after receiving the results of the blood test. 

"It makes me feel like, as a parent, I failed because you do everything you can," she said. "I did something that I thought I was doing right but I wasn’t in the end.

"It just makes me feel gutted for him that I didn't know that I was giving him lead."

Hansen said there has been "a mix of emotions" within the wider community, adding that while some are feeling "OK-ish" due to their own children not being impacted, there are "a lot of mothers that are feeling very worried".

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Canterbury University’s professor Sally Gaw says more should be done to reduce our exposure. Source: Breakfast

“I’ve heard from quite a few mothers. As I’ve been in the media, they’ve come forward and said, ‘What can we do?’ or ‘What do you think we should do?’ and talk to me about it. But there’s not anything we can do."

She added that there are other children with higher levels of lead in their blood who are "really panicking and I don’t blame them because it is scary and you know they’ve got to go get tests and things like that".

"Even if there’s nothing wrong, it’s still the point you lose sleep because you have to go get these tests."

Hansen said she has not had any communication from Southern Health, which said in a press release that it would help provide follow-up advice and care maybe needed to anyone found to have any level of lead in their blood.

"WellSouth gave me my results and that was it."

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Elevated lead levels have been found in Waikouaiti and Karitāne’s water supply. Source: 1 NEWS

She said that communication from officials has been "pretty patchy", adding that "you can kind of tell when we went to the [public] meeting that even the council were not prepared for the meeting".

"They were not prepared to answer the questions that we had given them and you did get the feeling that they were fumbling through the meeting and sort of looking at each other like, 'Who's going to answer this question?' and things like that so I would say the communication hasn't been great."

She said she wants officials to "sit back and think, 'OK, so we haven’t poisoned you but yes, you do have lead in your system,' and to really understand what it's like for a parent at home who has a child who has the lead in their system".

Hansen also called for better communication with the public and to "come from a place of understanding, not come from a place that’s so just professional" and to put measures in place that "actually help us and make sure that they get in contact".

"If I'm someone that hasn't heard from a medical professional, then I’m sure that there’s plenty of others that haven’t."

The Dunedin City Council declined to be interviewed on Breakfast today, but group manager for 3 Waters Tom Dyer said in a statement on Tuesday that while the latest results are encouraging, "efforts are continuing to identify and remove any potential source of elevated lead readings".

The Southern DHB also declined to be interviewed, but Medical Officer of Health Dr Susan Jack said in a statement today that while most people have "detectable but very low levels of lead" and some cases of "more elevated results coming through", it is not unexpected. 

“The results require careful interpretation, taking into consideration individual exposures and available literature. We are working with the Ministry of Health and expert ESR scientists to build an accurate picture," she said.

"While we understand people’s interest in seeing results as soon as possible, it’s not as simple as reporting back raw results. We want to make sure the information we share can accurately inform our next steps. This does take some time and we thank the community for their patience."