THE sun beat down and amid stifling humidity yesterday men, women and children filled buckets, bottles and saucepans with water from a communal tap.
The scene was reminiscent of equatorial Africa, but it was 21st century Ireland.
Residents in three estates in Cobh, Co Cork, had communal taps installed by the county council after dangerous levels of lead were found in their drinking water.
Two taps were installed in the largest affected estate, Belmont Place, on the north-eastern side of the town.
“We’ve been very inconvenienced by this,” Belmont Place resident Christina O’Dwyer said. “I think a lot of people here always suspected our water wasn’t good. I was told that seven out of 18 houses sampled on the estate had high levels of lead detected, but the council didn’t tell us how high.”
The county council also dropped warning leaflets at Park Terrace and Aileen’s Terrace on the north-east side of the town. They instructed householders not to drink the water, or use it for food preparation. However, it is fine for flushing toilets, which is just as well because in these older houses some cisterns take four gallons of water.
Householders were also told to discard ice cubes and filtered water stored in their fridges.
Christina stocked up with bottled water while she waited for council workers to erect the communal taps, a few feet from her front door.
“You’d expect to see this kind of thing in the Third World. I suppose clean water is something we take for granted,” her husband, Peter, said.
Father-of-three Joe Ryan said his wife, Una, had been living in the same house in Belmont Place for the past 47 years. The taxi driver said his family hadn’t seemed to suffer any health problems from the water, but were now obviously concerned they could be affected by the high lead content.
What concerned him as much was news that the county council was waiting for money from the Department of Environment to rectify the problem and it might be as late as next spring before new pipes were laid to replace the lead ones.
Paddy Woods, aged 76, and the longest inhabitant of the estate, was busy filling saucepans.
“I’ve been living here since the 1940s and I’ve been drinking the water all that time. I was told in the ’50s by a plumber that lead pipes in the estate should be removed as they were dangerous. The work should be carried out straight away. There’s enough people idle in this country at the moment and they include plumbers,” Paddy said.
His near neighbour, Ramona Kenneally, said she and her two young children were going to get blood tests taken by their GP.
“We have had the (toxic waste) dump in Haulbowline and cancer rates far higher than normal in Cobh. Now we have this. What’s going to happen next, will we all turn green?” she said.
Niamh O’Leary and her boyfriend, Brian O’Reilly, were busy stocking up with uncontaminated water at their Aileen’s Terrace home.
“We’re both very big water drinkers,” said a concerned Brian.
A quarter of a mile away a council crew was digging up the road to attach a communal tap to a cast iron pipe, thus bypassing the lead pipes which service the whole of Park Terrace.
Mother-of-two Noreen Saint-John Crowley, who has been living in the same Park Terrace home for the past 26 years, said she never thought anything was wrong with the water, but was now worried about the health impacts it may have had on her.
It was an ill wind that didn’t do somebody some good, though. Shops and supermarkets made a killing on bottled water while people waited for the council to put in communal taps.
Kevin O’Connell, manager of the SuperValu outlet at Tiknock, said that yesterday morning his stock of bottled water, especially the big packs, almost sold out.
“Normally we’d be OK for stock over a few days, but I had to put in a further order from Musgraves and the earliest we can get it in is on Saturday,” he said.
Kevin may find more people staying with bottled water.
Ms Saint-John Crowley, for one, said she’d certainly be buying more of it.
Some of the estates were visited yesterday by county councillor John Mulvihill (Lab) and Sean O’Connor (Ind).
“We were told by the county manager that it will be the first quarter of 2011 before work can be done to replace the old lead pipes in these estates. The council will have to apply for 90% of the cost from the Department of the Environment. We want this work fast-tracked,” Cllr Mulvihill said.
“You can’t expect old people to trek out to these communal taps in the winter, especially if we have another severe one like the last,” Cllr O’Connor added.
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