Hong Kong's tainted water scare

After tap water scare, Hong Kong must revamp qualification system for all building contractors

PUBLISHED : Friday, 31 July, 2015, 2:09am
UPDATED : Friday, 31 July, 2015, 2:09am

Confirmation that the drinking water at another public housing estate is contaminated with lead has heightened public alarm. It has been further stoked by news of more results of tests on residents that reveal lead levels in blood in excess of World Health Organisation guidelines, with a medical expert warning of possible exposure to potential health risks, including harm to an unborn baby and to the developing brain and nervous system in children.

Until now confidence in the safety and security of the city's water supply has long been a given. The lead contamination is a reminder that it can never be taken for granted. Public anxiety and anger over the scare is understandable. Officials have responded by ordering tests on all 170 public housing states and regularly updating results, and with blood checks for worried residents, which have overwhelmed laboratories and have had to be outsourced.

The discovery of lead in the soldering material binding joints in water pipes at Lower Ngau Tau Kok Estate brought the total number of estates with tainted tap water to four, with more discoveries seemingly inevitable. Tests on another 609 public housing residents last weekend found 23 with excessive blood-lead levels. They included a pregnant woman, four breastfeeding mothers and 17 children aged six or under. This is in addition to 40 cases out of 302 tested last week.

The supply itself has not been implicated. The source of the contamination of water in the pipes and contributing causes therefore lie elsewhere. The authorities have turned their attention to the involvement of project contractor, works contractors, subcontractors and their credentials, sourcing and supply of a range of equipment and materials, and monitoring of compliance with standards and specifications. It is a reflection of the host of tender processes and procurement of materials that have to be reviewed, not to mention the concerns of public housing tenants, that the government has set up three separate teams to investigate aspects of it.

These probes can be expected to identify any gaps in the building process or blind spots in the monitoring system that allowed this to happen. This newspaper's own analysis has pointed to the need for a tightening of quality control and a revamped professional qualification system for plumbers, with a finer division of responsibilities to ensure that individuals with basic qualifications do not bear too many.