Tamar disease fears on rise as inspectors comb complex

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 04 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 04 January, 2012, 12:00am
 

Senior officials put on a brave face yesterday as health inspectors battled to find out how potentially fatal bacteria got into the government's new headquarters.

They returned to their offices amid health concerns voiced by a civil service union and questions about the rush last year to finish the Tamar complex in Admiralty on time.

Officials yesterday released the names of the five bureaus whose chiefs' toilets were found to contain the bacteria that causes legionnaires' disease: Financial Services and the Treasury, Labour and Welfare, Transport and Housing, the Civil Service, and Security, which are in the east and west wings. Bacteria was also found in the chief executive's office and the Legislative Council.

Leung Koon-kee, director of Architectural Services, said inspectors were combing the building for the source of contamination, including the design of the water system.

Legionnaires' expert John Herbert, director of building environment consultancy Kelcroft, said the investigation seemed inefficient and may be focusing on the wrong places.

'Looking into a water tank is a waste of time,' he said, since the bacteria grew in hot places. The source was likely to be in hot pipes near heaters.

The bacteria might have entered the water system when the building was still under construction and was then spread by water pressure when people moved in. In that case it may be 'basically impossible to eradicate it completely', Herbert said.

Some experts faulted the last-minute rush to get the Tamar development into service by September. Tsang Kam-lam, of the Hong Kong Productivity Council, said: 'Bacteria that accumulated in the system might not have been disinfected thoroughly because of the rush to hand over the completed building.'

Leung acknowledged that the complex was not tested for legionella bacteria after construction was finished. 'We did seven water tests, and all were normal. A legionella bacteria test was not required under the international standard,' Leung said.

A microbiology professor at the University of Hong Kong, Dr Ho Pak-leung, urged officials to give risk assessments of how safe the buildings were for employees.

Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen and other senior officials put on a brave face when returning to their sterilised offices.

However, some civil servants said they were worried about working there. Leung Chau-ting, chairman of the Federation of Civil Service Unions, said: 'We still don't know which part of the complex is safe. The government should disclose the spot lists to show where they have done tests, so staff can feel more secure.'

The water supply remains shut off in the Legislative Council building, where the bacteria was found in a tap in a first-floor kitchen. A coffee shop on a podium is also closed.

Lawmaker Wong Kwok-hing said the contamination was 'a scandal'. 'If the situation persists, we should move back to the old Legco building, just to make sure things are safe.'

Centre for Health Protection controller Dr Thomas Tsang Ho-fai said more details of the contaminated water samples were expected within a week. The tests began after education minister Michael Suen Ming-yeung was diagnosed with the disease on December 21 and the bug was found in water from a tap in his private office toilet.

$5.5b

The cost, in HK dollars, of the government's new headquarters on the Tamar site. It covers 4.2 hectares and will house 3,000 civil servants

Trouble spots

Places in the Tamar complex that tested positive for Legionella pneumophila

Washrooms in offices:

Secretary for Transport and Housing (22/F)

Secretary for Security (10/F)

Secretary for Financial Services and the Treasury (24/F)

Secretary for Labour and Welfare (10/F)

Secretary for the Civil Service (9/F)

Chief Executive's Office

Taps in kitchens:

Canteen on 1/F

Dining hall in the Legco building

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