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 to supply drinking water to homes. 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”.