Two public housing estates have been confirmed to contain excessive amounts of lead in their water supply, and the legality of the government’s use of prefabricated modules with pipes installed in mainland China has been questioned.

The government has revealed that water samples taken from Kwai Luen Estate in Kwai Chung and Shui Chuen O Estate in Shatin recorded lead content in water over the World Health Organisation standard. The estate had plumbing contracted to the overseer who completed works for Kai Ching Estate, where lead contamination was first detected.

Kwai Luen Estate
Kwai Luen Estate. Photo: Wikimedia

A licensed plumber has questioned the government’s use of prefabricated kitchen and toilet modules with pipes assembled in mainland China. The prefabricated modules also make it impossible for licensed plumbers to check the pipes, according to an industry representative. By law, only licensed plumbers in Hong Kong are allowed to install plumbing for water supply.In response to the latest spread of lead contamination, the Housing Authority will be setting up a special committee to investigate the contracting and construction process of public housing. The government also hopes to complete temporary alternative piping to provide water to residents of Kai Ching Estate within three weeks.

Further lead contamination at housing estates.

In a press conference on Tuesday, the government announced results from tests at six locations where the plumbing works were completed by the same contractor and overseen by Lam Tak-shum, who was responsible for the works at Kai Ching Estate.

  • The government tested 44 water samples from Kwai Luen Estate in Kwai Hing, five of which contained excessive amounts of lead. The samples were taken at two buildings at Kwai Luen Estate Phase Two, affecting 1,500 households. The five samples recorded 10.4, 10.5, 16.8, 19.4, 23.3 micrograms per litre respectively. The WHO standard is 10 micrograms per litre.
  • One sample from an empty flat in Shui Chuen O Estate Phase Four in Shatin also tested for excessive lead content, although only three households had taken up residence. The government considers the results inconclusive as apartments on the same floor recorded low levels of lead, so further tests will be conducted.
  • Water samples from four other locations have not shown excessive lead, including Cheung Sha Wan Estate in Sham Shui Po, Lung Yat Estate in Tuen Mun, Wu Yee Sun College Student Hostel at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and Kowloon City Government Offices.

Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying has said that the soldering material with lead content used in the pipes is “most likely” responsible for the contamination in Kai Ching Estate.

The new case at Kwai Luen Estate was built by SOCAM Development. The government said there were no prefabricated units for kitchens and toilets used in its construction. Director of Water Supplies Department Enoch Lam Tin-sing said preliminary testing pointed towards the soldering materials for the contamination but further tests were needed.

SOCAM Development Limited is a Hong Kong based company and a member of the Shui On Group.

Legal concerns with prefabricated kitchen and toilet modules with pipes installed.

In a report by SingTao Daily, former chairperson of Hong Kong Licensed Plumber’s Association, Tsang Gwai-yin has challenged whether the government is violating the law. Tsang said that since the prefabricated modules had pipes installed in mainland China, if there were no licensed plumbers present when these modules were incorporated into the building in Hong Kong, it would be a violation of the law.

Tsang further added that in Hong Kong becoming a licensed plumber requires three years of training and testing, while in mainland China there are “no standards, no licensing, and no system”.

In addition, chairperson of the association Tang Gwong-yiu said that in the prefabricated modules, the piping is already sealed inside concrete. Within a module, there could be a number of soldering points and thus it is impossible for licensed plumbers in Hong Kong to check the connections.

It was revealed that Shenzhen Hailong Construction Products, a subsidiary of the building contractor for Kai Ching Estate, is responsible for the prefabricated kitchen and toilet modules. Over 6,200 parts were made in Shenzhen for the estate.

In the press conference, Stanley Ying Yiu-hong, Director of Housing, said that of the seven contaminated water samples taken in Kai Ching Estate, one of them was taken from a prefabricated kitchen unit that had pipes installed in mainland China.

Two other samples were taken from apartments with their toilet units prefabricated in China but pipes connected in Hong Kong, and the last four were prefabricated kitchen units but made in Hong Kong.

According to the Water Works Ordinance, section 15 states that: “No fire service or inside service (pipes and fittings for water supply) shall be constructed, installed, maintained, altered, repaired or removed by a person other than a licensed plumber or a public officer authorized by the Water Authority.”

Kai Ching Estate
Kai Ching Estate. Photo: Wikimedia.

Plan for action.
Regarding the situation in Kai Ching Estate, officials said that they hope to complete the temporary alternative piping from the rooftop water tank to each floor mentioned earlier by the chief executive in three weeks. This would save residents from having to go up and down the building for water.

On top of establishing a special cross-department committee, the Housing Authority will also set up a special task force to review all aspects of construction for the authority. The Secretary for Transport and Housing, Anthony Cheung Bing-leung, said that since two housing estates have been confirmed with the contamination, a review is needed of the entire process for housing projects.

Stanley Ying also announced a new policy under which the goverment will take water samples for testing from all new public housing estates on completion, and check that the soldering materials used in connections do not contain lead

Anthony Cheung Bing-leung and Stanley Ying both apologised to the public over the confusion of information regarding the prefabricated modules, as their statements contradicted the statistics revealed later.

Arthur Lo is an undergraduate student currently on a gap year. During Hong Kong's Umbrella Movement protests, he worked as a fixer, translator and producer for foreign media outlets such as Al-Jazeera.