Council aware about potential toxic chemicals six days before media report

Cllr Brian Milnes addressed concerns about the water supply at the South Cambs District Council meeting

Cllr Brian Milnes addressed concerns about the water supply at the South Cambs District Council meeting - Credit: South Cambs District Council

The possibility of toxic chemicals being found in drinking water near Duxford was known to South Cambridgeshire District Council six days before the first media story.

The district council was questioned on when it was made aware of the issue at a Full Council meeting yesterday (Tuesday, February 22).

Ben Shelton said people in Stapleford and Shelford found out about the issue that the water supply to households could be dangerous from the first media report on February 8.

This is when The Guardian published a story that Cambridge Water had removed a supply containing over the legal limit of perfluorooctane sulphonate (PFOS) in June 2021, but said the company had not informed customers about the issue.

Mr Shelton said this report “naturally” caused panic and concern, and asked the district council when did first know that there was a potential problem with the water supply affecting those areas.

Responding to the question on behalf of the district council, Councillor Brian Milnes said: “South Cambridgeshire District Council first became aware of the claims around PFAS and the specific PFOS when contacted by a freelance journalist on Wednesday, February 2.

“We immediately sought to gain clarity on this claim from Cambridge Water who were the responsible body and also seeking guidance from the drinking water inspectorate, [the] UK Health Security Agency, and the Environment Agency, in order to assess the information in this emerging area.

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“Replies of course were not instant and there is little official guidance on this topic available online.

“Our aim was to gather facts to allow a proportionate and helpful response rather than simply responding with an immediate public statement, which may not have provided the clarity or reassurance for residents.

“Via email on Thursday, February 3, we received advice from Cambridge Water that the affected borehole had been taken out of service in June last year and that there was no continuing risk to customers.”

On February 18, Cambridge Water released a statement saying that tests of drinking water on February 12, had shown “unequivocally” that the water was safe to drink.

The company said that measurable levels of the compound called PFOS had been found in samples taken in 2021, but stressed that the water had still been safe to drink.

Cambridge Water said it disconnected the Duxford Airfield aquifer from its network in line with guidance and that this decision was taken out of an “abundance of caution”.

The district council also announced on Monday (February 21) that tests it had arranged for private water supplies in the Duxford area had confirmed that the water is safe to drink.

Pippa Heylings, the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Candidate for South Cambridgeshire, is calling for answers from both Cambridge Water and the government.

She said: "This issue is all about trust. Residents need to be able to trust the water company to supply clean water. When that trust is undermined, it leaves residents incredibly anxious about the health implications of potential exposure to toxic chemicals.”

“Liberal Democrats in Parliament posed a key question to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs asking when she knew about these high levels of PFOS.

"The reply received from the government on February 21 gives us concern.”