Hong Kong's tainted water scare

First it was lead, now legionella bacteria found in Kowloon City estate’s water supply

Bacteria that can cause legionnaires' disease found in Kowloon City estate

PUBLISHED : Monday, 13 July, 2015, 11:30pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 July, 2015, 12:19pm

The water scare at a Kowloon City public housing estate deepened yesterday after officials said apart from the excessive lead discovered in tap water, legionella bacteria were also traced at several locations in one of the six blocks.

But a health official said it was premature to conclude that the two incidents were connected, and the Housing Department would be disinfecting all blocks in Kai Ching Estate to put residents' minds at ease.

READ MORE: Lead in pipes and banned material ‘probably to blame’ for Kowloon City estate water scare, CY Leung says

The latest development emerged as the government announced it would set up a task force to investigate why the poisonous metal was found in tap water. Its source remains unknown.

A plumber at the centre of the tainted water scare, Lam Tak-sum, yesterday also said he could not be held fully responsible for what had happened, as he was not in charge of the materials pre-fabricated outside Hong Kong.

It was revealed at a government press conference yesterday that a man, 72, was admitted to Prince of Wales Hospital in late May with respiratory problems. He was later diagnosed with what was thought to be legionnaires' disease. The bacteria were found in his kitchen and bathroom in Mun Ching House.

"We immediately arranged to have the pipes replaced, and normally the problem would have been solved," said Dr Regina Ching Cheuk-tuen from the Centre for Health Protection.

"But samples taken later from his flat still contain legionella. We also found the bacteria in another unit as well as another water supply point on the first floor."

Ching said residents in Mun Ching House should use boiled water for showering and brushing their teeth and avoid using shower heads that generate aerosols to help prevent the spread of the bacteria.

In severe cases, the disease can cause respiratory failure or even death.

Residents in the block criticised the government for failing to ensure their safety since they moved in two years ago.

"We used to feel safe living here, but now it's becoming really chaotic," a woman said.

Meanwhile, the government is setting up a task force comprising officials from several departments to get to the bottom of the lead scare and put forward recommendations to prevent similar incidents from happening again.

Director of Water Supplies Enoch Lam Tin-sing said his colleagues met with the plumber responsible for the Kai Ching Estate project yesterday, and records showed that he did all the water pipe work for the estate - contrary to Lam Tak-sum's comment to the Oriental Daily newspaper that he was only responsible for the pipes connecting the water mains to the blocks' water tanks.

"The government should make clear who is responsible for what," Lam said from a wheelchair. "My responsibilities only lie within Hong Kong's borders. I can't sign for things that happen outside Hong Kong and I can't be held responsible for the [pre-made units]."

However, Director of Housing Stanley Ying Yiu-hong said only a "small amount" of pre-fabricated pipes were installed in kitchens and bathrooms in the estate. He did not give any numbers.

He would only say that the two unused flats, where lead was found in soldering materials at pipe joints, did not have preinstalled piping.

But in a statement issued last night, the government said the bathrooms in all six blocks of Kai Ching Estate were basically pre-fabricated ones, with the pipes of about half of them being fitted on the mainland.

It said the kitchens of only two blocks were pre-fabricated ones, with the pipes of about half of them fitted on the mainland. The two kitchens from where lead in soldering materials was found earlier were not pre-fabricated ones.

Also, of the seven water samples found earlier to have lead content exceeding the World Health Organization standard, only one was taken from the pipe of a pre-fabricated kitchen fitted on the mainland, the government said in the statement.

He also said that the department required contractors to provide certification to prove that the materials used were up to standard.

The department was now discussing the replacement of pipes at Kai Ching Estate with the contractor, Ying added.

Authorities will also take water samples from a Chinese University student dormitory and the Kowloon City Government Offices to check for lead, because the two projects were also handled by Lam.

China State Construction International, the main construction contractor of the Kai Ching Estate, declined to comment on its role in the tainted fresh water supplies.

Additional reporting by Shirley Zhao