Is it Safe to Drink the Water? Part 1

By Dante Archangeli

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Hong Kong through the Looking Glass: A Series on Sustainable Planet, People, and Prosperity

Public drinking fountains on the University of Hong Kong main campus are almost impossible to find. Around the new LEED Platinum Certified Run Run Shaw Tower I’ve only discovered one after five months of looking. It’s hidden under an escalator and looks lonely and like an afterthought. But beverage vending machines are all over campus and much more visible.

Drinking fountains in Hong Kong are hard to find.
Drinking fountains in Hong Kong are hard to find: here’s one hidden under an escalator at The University of Hong Kong.

Unlike U.S. public buildings where there seems to be a drinking fountain outside almost every rest room location, fountains here are so scarce that a while ago the HKU Sustainability Office produced a map of their locations. It shows 25 “water dispensers” on a campus of more than 33,000 students and staff. Since the map was produced before the Run Run Shaw Tower was built, I guess that there are at least 26 drinking fountains on campus, or roughly one per every 1,300 people. U.S. building codes require one drinking fountain for every 100 “occupants” of a school or office building. So as a rough estimate a similar sized campus in the U.S. might have 330 drinking fountains or approximately 13 times as many as HKU has.

At a forum about improving campus sustainability I suggested what seemed an obvious idea. Install more drinking fountains so that people aren’t forced to buy bottled water and beverages. Voila! Energy use (to create bottles and transport liquids) and waste would both be reduced and convenience would be improved.

Traditional restaurants serve tap water hot.
Traditional Hong Kong restaurants serve tap water hot because of consumer concern that tap water may be contaminated.

But there were doubters. Although in the U.S. people universally assume that water from the tap is generally safe to drink, in Hong Kong many people assume that water from the tap is not safe. Many traditional Chinese restaurants only serve tap water hot and we assume it has been boiled. The drinking fountain skeptics thought that more fountains probably wouldn’t be used… well they might be if they provided hot water. Many of the existing HKU fountains already do this and/or they have obvious filters to reassure users that possible impurities have been removed.

Is tap water safe?

In both the U.S. and Hong Kong, water utilities check the water that they deliver for possible impurities. These include microorganisms, disinfectants, disinfection by-products, organic and inorganic chemicals including heavy metals, and radionuclides.

U.S. EPA regulations require that utilities ensure that approximately 90 “contaminants” do not exceed prescribed levels. Regular testing is required and test results have to be publicly published. Annual “Water Quality” reports must be sent to all customers and are also readily accessible on the web. For example, Tucson Water’s 2012 report shows that only 16 of the EPA monitored contaminants are present at detectable levels in Tucson’s water and none of those exceed the EPA’s allowed Maximum Contaminant Level. Only four–lead, alpha emitters, radium, and uranium–exceed EPA’s Maximum Contaminant Level Goal which is zero for these specific impurities.

Hong Kong has adopted the 2011 World Health Organization Guidelines for Drinking Water Quality. These guidelines are similar to EPA regulations both in the number of contaminants to be monitored and goal and allowable levels. Hong Kong’s Water Supply Department (HKWSD) publishes testing results annually on the web. Its annual report for the period October 2012 to September 2013 shows that although all 86 WHO chemical contaminants were detected (making one wonder if HK testing is more sensitive than Tucson’s or if HK water is that much more contaminated) levels were all below WHO goals or provisional guidelines.

A source of contamination?
Are cisterns atop Hong Kong buildings a source of contamination?

So with respect to monitored contaminants, water delivered to buildings in both Tucson and Hong Kong is definitely safe to drink. But does that mean it’s safe once it comes out of your faucet?  That’s another question.

In the U.S., copper piping is common and prior to 1986 was installed using lead solder. A 2011 government survey found that half of the owner-occupied homes in the U.S. were built before 1976. So many homes have lead solder and lead can be leached into water by corrosion of a building’s piping. Relatively low levels of lead harm the physical and mental development of children and causes kidney and high blood pressure problems in adults. It’s a significant enough health risk that the EPA maximum drinking water contaminant level goal is zero (although up to .015 mg/L is allowed) and EPA regulations require that water utilities test water coming out of customer taps for lead every six to 12 months. However, the amount of sampling required is small. For systems having greater than 100,000 users, only 50 to 100 tests per testing cycle are required depending on test result history. At best this means that 99.9% of taps aren’t tested if a utility does not go above and beyond regulations.

routine maintenance, not a given
Routine maintenance in buildings and building water systems may not be a given.

HKWSD takes a different approach to trying to safeguard the quality of drinking water once it enters a building. It has established a voluntary “Quality Water Recognition Scheme for Buildings”. In many Hong Kong buildings water is stored in a cistern at the top of the building before being distributed to occupants. Concerns about contaminants entering water due to unclean cisterns arise given the area’s apparent widespread poor building maintenance. (Our building, 13 stories tall and built in the 70s or 80s, recently had its water tank cleaned.)  Under HKWSD’s program, buildings that perform quarterly water tank cleaning and annual water sampling at one tap per tank by an independent third party are recognized on the department’s web site. Currently 3,672 buildings are listed, which indicates much more tap testing than the EPA would require. However, the testing performed is primarily to check microorganism levels and does not check lead levels. In general, the Hong Kong government is less concerned about lead than is the U.S. EPA. Although lead paint and solder are both banned in the U.S., that does not appear to be the case in Hong Kong.

more energy, more waste
Bottled drinks require more energy and results in more waste.

Like Babe in Marathon Man when asked “Is it safe?”, water utilities and water and beverage bottlers tell us, “Yes it’s safe. It’s very safe. It’s so safe you wouldn’t believe it.” But beyond testing for a prescribed list of possible contaminants, it’s not certain that providers understand the questions of comprehensive safety and sustainability. We’ll explore those in my next blog. But without a doubt it takes much less energy to deliver tap water to consumers than it does to deliver bottled water and beverages — and there is no bottle waste. So drinking tap water rather than bottled beverages is better for the environment. And since water utilities do perform extensive contaminant testing as well as provide much more information about what’s in their product than do bottlers, I make tap water my daily beverage of choice in both Hong Kong and the U.S.




Dante Archangeli recently moved to Hong Kong from Tucson, Arizona, USA, where he focused on sustainable construction and development.  He is an MIT and USC educated project manager, entrepreneur, and builder. Photos by Dante Archangeli. is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, artwork, case studies, and more since 1997.