Hong Kong's tainted water scare

Lawmaker hits out at Hong Kong tainted water action plan

But official counters that taking 670 samples helps city understand general quality of household fresh water

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 21 September, 2017, 9:33pm
UPDATED : Monday, 25 September, 2017, 8:15pm

The government’s action plan for enhancing drinking water safety in Hong Kong fails to tackle head-on the root of the tainted water scandal that hit the city two years ago, a lawmaker has argued, while the official overseeing the supply counters it can still detect metal contamination.

Democratic Party lawmaker Helena Wong Pik-wan insisted “first draw” water samples should be collected for testing to find out whether plumbing materials were tainted or not.

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A first draw sample from tap water is one that has stood motionless in plumbing pipes for at least six hours. It is collected without flushing the tap.

Instead, in a multi-pronged plan announced on Thursday for improving drinking water safety, the government decided to collect random water samples annually from consumers’ taps for testing. Those failing to meet the standard in the first stage of testing would be subject to another sampling: still water samples collected 30 minutes after the tap has run for five minutes.

The action plan came two years after excessive lead was found in tap water in many local housing estates, schools and public hospitals.

The use of leaded solder in the plumbing system was found to be the cause of the tainted water.

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“The testing of random water samples cannot show whether plumbing materials are tainted or not,” the lawmaker said. “Only the first draw samples can point to the source of any tainted water. I feel disappointed. The action plan fails to tackle head-on the root of the lead water incident two years ago.”

Wong also criticised the lack of a water safety ordinance.

The testing of random water samples cannot show whether plumbing materials are tainted or not
Lawmaker Helena Wong

“We need a stricter regulatory regime to ensure compliance of the use of plumbing materials. An independent body is needed to conduct checks and inspections for quality control,” she said.

On Friday, the city’s water supply director, Enoch Lam Tin-sing, defended the plan to draw 670 samples from local taps every year as a way to understand the general quality of household fresh water. She rejected Wong’s contention this method would fail to detect metal contamination.

Other experts including Dr Chan Hon-fai, a member of an investigative task force relating to the scandal, also defended the two-tier sampling and said it could achieve “more or less the same” result as first-draw water.

“Even if a sample is taken any time of day, by the time someone enters a household and chats with residents for a while, the water will have been left motionless for 15 minutes,” he said.

And since Hong Kong pipes are made of copper, Chan added, contamination could be detected in tap water samples that stood motionless for 30 minutes.

Lam said the tally of 670 samples was determined based on the city’s population and took reference from the UK system.

Hong Kong’s lead-in-drinking-water crisis: everything you need to know

Former Chartered Institute of Plumbing and Heating Engineering chairman Hugo Kan Kwok-leung called the new sampling scheme reasonable and a good improvement.

Many households affected by the tainted water still have not had their water pipes replaced.

So Chu-mei, who lives in Kai Ching Estate in Kowloon City, said she still needed to go out to fetch safe drinking water.

The scandal surfaced in July 2015 when the Democratic Party announced test results showing drinking water samples from the estate contained lead exceeding the World Health Organisation standard of 10 micrograms per litre.

Subsequent tests by the government and other organisations showed water samples from 11 public housing estates involving 29,000 households, six kindergartens, 15 schools and two public hospitals also contained excessive lead.

More than 160 people were found to have higher blood lead levels. The government spent millions delivering bottled water to affected residents too afraid to use tap water.