Generation 40s – 四十世代

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Swallowing their pride: How Hong Kong officials missed an opportunity to show some humility in lead-in-water scare

South China Morning post
Comment›Insight & Opinion

Gary Cheung

Gary Cheung says the Hong Kong government shouldn’t have been so quick to ban officials from drinking the water at estates hit by the lead scare

The days following the opening of Hong Kong International Airport in July 1998 saw flight delays, passengers waiting hours for their baggage and the shutting down of operations of air-freight handler Hong Kong Air Cargo Terminals.

In early 1999, a report compiled by a commission of inquiry did not blame any officials. Another report released by a Legislative Council select committee held Anson Chan Fang On-sang, the chief secretary at the time, and three key airport officials responsible for the fiasco.

After the release of the two reports, a senior official told me that Hongkongers should not be too harsh with those officials named in the Legco inquiry as “they had done their best”.

My memories of what the official said were rekindled recently when Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor defended “diligent civil servants” amid criticism of district councillors pressuring officials into drinking water from public housing estates where excessive levels of lead had been found.

Speaking in Legco during a debate two weeks ago on two motions to launch an inquiry into the contaminated water scandal, Lam said at least two officials had been pressured by district councillors into drinking allegedly tainted water.

Lam, who admitted inadequacies in the system of monitoring the quality of drinking water, said she had ordered officials not to be pressured into drinking the water, to safeguard the government’s dignity. Lawmakers eventually rejected the motions.

I have several family members who are retired and serving civil servants. I have no lack of respect for the professionalism and diligence of civil servants. And, there is no denying that some politicians have spared no effort to make political capital from the contaminated water saga.

But that doesn’t mean we should easily dismiss the worries of the public housing tenants who have had to use buckets to collect drinking water after excessive levels of lead were found in tap water in their neighbourhoods.

History is littered with examples of officials eating food or drinking water from troubled areas to boost public confidence and show concern for the people.

In April 1997, Taiwanese president Lee Teng-hui ate a pork knuckle before cameras to reassure his people who were plagued by an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease that was devastating pig herds on the island. In October 2013, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited a fishing port in Fukushima, which was hard hit by the nuclear crisis in 2011, and ate locally caught seafood to demonstrate its safety.

Even some mainland officials will put themselves in the shoes of the people they govern. In July, Guangzhou mayor Chen Jianhua swam in the Pearl River to show that the water quality of the once heavily polluted river has significantly improved.

You may argue these men did so as public relations stunts and these incidents are different from Hong Kong officials being forced into drinking possibly contaminated water. But I can’t see what harm would be done if they did drink water before cameras to show their empathy with affected residents, as long as they did not do it under duress.

Undersecretary for Transport and Housing Yau Shing-mu and assistant Observatory director Sharon Lau Sum-yee were the two senior officials who drank from cups offered by district councillors in July. Yau, who grew up in a public housing estate, may know more about politics than Lam.

As the chief secretary claimed credit for having the “guts” to risk being criticised for seeking justice for civil servants, a chance for officials to show humility was squandered.

Gary Cheung is the Post’s political editor

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Expired: Hong Kong government’s ideas about Chinese medicine are clearly past their sell-by date

South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion

Philip Yeung

Philip Yeung says despite a stated goal to nurture this traditional industry, Hong Kong’s fossilised thinking and a lack of coordination between officials mean we’re falling behind the competition

For ages, traditional Chinese medicine has lived in the shadows as alternative medicine. But overnight, with a Chinese medicine researcher anointed as this year’s Nobel co-laureate for medicine, it has acquired a halo of legitimacy.

In Hong Kong, however, Chinese medicine seems about to enter the dark ages. Designated as a new pillar industry, it never got anything except governmental lip service. After six years of inaction under Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, the government is now set to impose tough regulations on proprietary Chinese medical products. More than 8,000 Chinese remedies face being taken off the shelves unless they are standard-compliant, threatening to squeeze the life out of the industry.

Insiders blame the government for three strategic blunders. First, it asks thousands of Chinese herbal remedies to meet tough European standards as Western drugs, not health products, forgetting that ours is too small a market for manufacturers to bear the cost of compliance.

Our medical bureaucracy is top-heavy with Western-trained doctors who do not know that multi-herb formulations are too complex for their active ingredients to be isolated by Western procedures.

To apply US Food and Drug Administration-style requirements on herbal medicine is to cause its death by regulatory strangulation. Why not emulate Canada and treat Chinese herbal medicines as “natural health products”?

Second, the idea of integrating the Chinese medicine market within Greater China has never occurred to our leaders, though our tiny market size can’t sustain its healthy development. China has its own regulatory body for Chinese medicinal products. It makes no sense for Hong Kong to go its own way.

Third, oversight and resource allocation are in the hands of the Food and Health Bureau, while the Commerce and Economic Development Bureau is reduced to being a bystander. This has led to bureaucratic insanities.

For years, the Trade Development Council has co-organised the annual Chinese medical products exhibition. But the Food and Health Bureau forbids any display of unregistered proprietary Chinese medicines. Unable to take samples home, foreign traders leave empty-handed and deal-starved. As the Chinese Medicine Ordinance prohibits sales outside licensed premises, traders are also shut out of e-commerce in this age of the internet. Clearly, Hong Kong doesn’t know the first thing about nurturing industries.

In Macau, by contrast, common sense prevails. The University of Macau’s Institute of Chinese Medical Sciences has state-of-the-art research facilities, while Hong Kong officials fought Baptist University tooth and nail over a parcel of land targeted for a Chinese medicine hospital.

Last week, the University of Macau signed an agreement with the Guangdong-Macau Traditional Chinese Medicine Technology Industrial Park Development Company to jointly develop pharmaceutical products and promote Chinese medicine, with four proposed centres.

Hundreds of Hong Kong’s manufacturers and traders of traditional Chinese medicine are threatening to relocate to the Hengqin industrial park, where the promise of integration with the mainland market beckons.

Will Hong Kong learn from Macau and not consign the industry to the critical list?

Philip Yeung is consultant to the vice-rector for academic affairs at the University of Macau. Dr Albert Wong, from the University of Wisconsin, and founding president of the Modernised Chinese Medicine International Association, also contributed to this article

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Why there’s no safe amount of lead in tap water in Hong Kong, or anywhere

South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion

James Nickum

James Nickum says the WHO standard is outdated, and we need to work to avoid a recurrence of the contamination at Hong Kong housing estates

It has been nearly a year since four out of 30 samples of drinking water in the Kai Ching Estate were found to have levels of lead in excess of the World Health Organisation standard of 10 parts per billion (ppb). The highest was 23ppb.

This revelation set off a circular firing squad of accusations and investigations centring on how lead solder, which has long been banned, found its way into the estate’s water pipes. Terms such as “scare”, “scandal”, “dangerous”, “crisis” and “toxic” filled the media and the speeches of politicians.

The government set up three task forces and the Water Services Department took thousands of samples at both “affected” estates and “unaffected” ones. On May 11, one of those task forces, the Commission of Inquiry into Excess Lead Found in Drinking Water, submitted its report to the chief executive. The government is now mulling over the results.

What tends to get ignored in all this hullabaloo is the magic number of 10ppb. Where did the WHO get this figure? What does it mean? Is 11ppb a scandalous figure? Is 9ppb safe? The answer in both cases would seem to be “no”.

Hong Kong is not Flint, Michigan, where some of America’s poorest people paid one of the highest rates in the country for water that, in some cases, exceeded the levels set for toxic waste (5,000ppb). It is also not the China on the other side of the border, where a 1984 WHO standard of 50ppb is still used.

It is not the US, where users are urged to take action if they discover 15ppb in their drinking water. If it is from their own pipes after untainted water is supplied from the mains, it is up to them to fix it, not the water agency. Over 40 million Americans are estimated to drink levels higher than this. Perhaps that explains the Donald Trump phenomenon.

Compared to a large part of the world, then, people in Hong Kong are actually more likely to drink tap water that is relatively free of lead. So is there cause for worry? Well, for many people, unfortunately yes, but probably not a lot.

The WHO relies on an expert committee, which goes by the acronym of Jecfa, to survey the current state of scientific knowledge regarding possible hazards to health. In 1986, the committee proposed a “provisional tolerable weekly intake” of 25ppb based on studies of infants that indicated they did not retain lead at levels lower than that. This works out to 10ppb for a 5kg bottle-fed infant drinking 0.75 litres of water per day, with the additional assumption that it receives half of its lead intake from somewhere else, such as old lead paint.

Since those other sources of lead have become less common in the past 30 years, and the standards were set for the most vulnerable in the population, 10ppb would seem to be an overly cautious standard. Even doubling that should not be a matter of great concern, possibly even for the most vulnerable populations.

Unfortunately, as the amount of lead we are exposed to has declined, the results from more recent scientific studies are far from reassuring. Lead in any amount appears to affect health to some extent.

Newer epidemiological studies reviewed by Jecfa in 2011 found that there are no safe levels. The old tolerable intake is not really tolerable. It is associated with a decrease of at least three IQ points in children and an increase in systolic blood pressure of three points in adults.

The WHO has kept the standard at 10ppb on practical grounds, not for reasons of health. There is little magic in this number. The only good lead in tap water is no lead. When it is detected at any level – but particularly over 5ppb – the cause should be determined and, to the extent possible, fixed.
In Hong Kong, the contamination came from the use of cheap but prohibited lead solder in the pipes

In Hong Kong, it has already been determined that the contamination came from the use of cheap but prohibited lead solder in the pipes of the estates. This all needs to be replaced, preferably by those who put it there, and oversight systems put in place to prevent a recurrence.

Life is filled with risks, some of which, like eating fast food or walking across a busy street, are our choice. Others, like the air we breathe or the water from the tap of a housing estate, are not. Some risks we know about and others we don’t.

Lead is a known health risk; what was not known was that it is in Hong Kong’s tap water when it should not have been. Now we know. It should not happen again. Think how smart and heart-healthy those of us who were raised in the days of leaded gasoline could have been!

Professor James E. Nickum is an adviser at the Water Governance Research Programme, University of Hong Kong

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Time to overhaul Hong Kong’s water supply system, as lead contamination is only part of the problem

South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion

Asit K. Biswas

Asit K. Biswas says the contamination found in Hong Kong’s tap water only points to mismanagement

According to the World Bank, Hong Kong’s per capita gross domestic product is US$40,169. This is higher than Japan’s, Italy’s or Spain’s, and only 5 per cent less than that of France. However, even for such a developed region, its water management practices are light years behind a place like Costa Rica, whose per capita GDP is about one-quarter that of Hong Kong.

During the past fortnight, Hong Kong’s water supply system received a double whammy – the first punch being excessive lead content found in drinking water at a growing number of housing estates, and then legionella bacteria found in one location.

Let’s assess both short- and long-term implications of these developments and offer a possible road map to move Hong Kong’s water management system from the Third World to the First World.

Normally legionella outbreaks have been traced to humidifiers of air conditioning systems, hot and cold water supply systems and industrial heating and cooling processes. Transmission is primarily by inhalation of aerosols containing the bacteria. We have to wait until the investigations are completed, but it is unlikely that the city’s water system is directly responsible for this outbreak.

While legionella outbreak is an immediate health threat, higher concentration of lead is a different story. It is difficult to decide what the highest permissible level of lead in drinking water should be for health reasons. The lead level in the United States is 50 per cent higher than in Europe or Hong Kong. The European drinking water directive of 1980 allowed five times as much lead as it does now. In 1993, the World Health Organisation amended its guideline value to a maximum of 10 micrograms per litre, and the European Union adopted that standard in December 2013.

What needs to be investigated in Hong Kong is how long this high level of lead has been in the water, how it got into the system, and why the Water Supplies Department’s surveillance system failed to identify the problem promptly. Also, are there other pollutants in the water system?

If this high level of lead has been in the system for one to three weeks, it should not be a serious problem. However, if lead has been present for months or years and was undetected, and if there are other hazardous contaminants in water, their potential synergistic adverse health effects need to be carefully investigated.

Over the long term, the major impact will be that more and more people will lose confidence in the quality of water they receive. Already, an overwhelming majority of Hong Kong households boil water and/or use sophisticated point-of-use treatment systems. It is impossible to find such data in the website of the Water Supplies Department. Based on anecdotal evidence, our guess is that more than 80 per cent of the households now do not trust the city water enough to drink straight from the tap. Lead and legionella are likely to further accelerate the erosion of trust in the city’s drinking water quality.

In an earlier opinion piece, I noted Hong Kong’s water supply now is worse than in many Third World countries. If water management is to improve significantly to reach First World standards, the first action has to be for the department to accept that its policies over the last several decades have been dismal failures.

The fact is the average person in Hong Kong uses 220 litres of water every day; most water-efficient European cities use half that much. The figure of 130 litres often cited by the Hong Kong authorities ignores 90 litres of seawater that is used for hygiene purposes. Thus, comparing it with the European figure, which includes water used for hygiene purposes, would be like comparing apples with oranges.

In fact, if water management were reasonably efficient, there would have been no need for two systems in the first place – one for freshwater, the other for seawater.

In addition, the department failed to foresee the large-scale movement of industry to the mainland due to cost and other reasons, which meant its forecast of future water requirements were too high. Because of continuing poor policies, domestic water use in Hong Kong is twice what it should be. With efficient water management, water imports can be reduced dramatically.

If water management in Hong Kong is to be in the same league as the best in similar affluent cities, the department should look at all aspects of current and future water policies and propose a feasible strategy. This should include issues such as demand management; efficient use of water available; proper water pricing and targeted subsidies for the poor; extensive reuse and recycling of properly treated wastewater; behavioural changes by water consumers through education; prompt adoption of technological innovation; and institutional strengthening.

About three decades ago, it was fairly common to hear that if one wanted to learn something new and innovative, the place to visit was Hong Kong. During the past two decades, the “go to” place has been Singapore, and Hong Kong is not even on the radar. Yet, the city has the knowledge, technology and potential to transform itself to a pre-eminent position.

However, to achieve this, the policymakers will have to make some hard decisions, bureaucrats must accept that water management is in a mess, and instead of making excuses, they should try to be the best in the world. The public must demand a first-rate water service, and the media should hold the feet of policymakers and bureaucrats to the fire when they do not deliver. Hong Kong’s water supply system can be the envy of the world in about one decade.

Professor Asit K. Biswas is the distinguished visiting professor at Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Singapore, and co-founder of Third World Centre for Water Management, Mexico. He received the Stockholm Water Prize, equivalent to a Nobel Prize in the area of water, in 2006