The recent development of elevated lead levels found in potable water samples collected from some of the public housing estates has triggered a widespread fear among local residents. A sense of distrust and anger against the Government pervaded the housing estates where the problem was first revealed. Although an independent investigation committee has been appointed by the Government, the community will probably have to wait in anxiety for months before a clear explanation of what caused the problem and a plan for remediation are available. Understandably, similar concerns have been raised by our campus residents. It is very much a priority for the University to address such concerns, therefore an all staff/student email was sent on 13 July 2015 to inform the campus community about the procedures implemented to safeguard the quality of our potable water. This article will provide more details about this effort.
At HKUST, the Health, Safety and Environment Office (HSEO) has established a potable water monitoring program dating back to the mid-nineties when the University was still in its infancy. Potable water quality has always been treated as an essential public health matter at HKUST. Although not a legal requirement, HSEO established a monitoring program with the purpose of assuring the campus community on the quality of potable water on campus.
In the early days, HSEO collected water samples randomly from drinking fountains, water tanks, and water taps from Academic Building, student halls and staff quarters. Typically about 40 water samples were collected in a year for water quality evaluation. The water monitoring effort has since evolved from a spot checking type of survey to become a comprehensive monitoring program, which covers all campus buildings on an annual basis. The number of routine samples collected each year has grown from around 40 to 350. The number of samples may be more, and sometimes significantly so, whenever a water quality issue arises that requires immediate attention, like what our community is currently experiencing.
While the general public has more or less focused on the lead content in potable water, the University’s potable water quality monitoring program covers more than that. Other than lead, we also test for a list of physical, chemical and biological parameters to ensure compliance with applicable standards. The survey parameters are reviewed and updated periodically to optimize resource allocation and to address new concerns. The standard for each parameter is regularly reviewed to ensure the acceptance criteria match the most up-to-date standard available.
The program has been proven effective on several occasions in which potable water contamination problems were detected during routine survey. Problems identified were not necessarily heavy metal related, rust, oil and grease, and microbial contamination were also recorded in isolated instances. Many of these problems cannot be detected with naked eyes, therefore laboratory analysis is required to detect and quantify the problem, then investigation and follow-up sampling are needed to reveal the extent and cause, before a remedial plan can be formulated. HSEO always works closely with Facilities Management Office (FMO) colleagues to rectify the problems and perform further sampling to ensure the problem is solved.
More recently, water quality testing has been included as an integral part of the new campus building pre-occupancy environmental quality assessment exercise. UG Halls 8 and 9, LSKBB, IAS, all went through vigorous and extensive environmental quality testing to ensure compliance with various local and international standards before occupancy. Once the potable water quality of the new building is found acceptable, the newly occupied building will be added to the continuous monitoring schedule. A similar approach has also been adopted to cover projects involving major modification of water piping system in existing buildings and installation of new drinking fountains.
The campus water monitoring program actually covers potable sources other than regular taps and drinking fountains, such as water jets on dental chairs, and edible ice served by campus catering outlets. It also extends to non-potable water systems like water fountains and swimming pools.
Our campus water monitoring program in the past two decades is a vivid demonstration of the University’s commitment and proactive effort to safeguard environmental health of our campus community. Similar to any preventive measures, the value of such effort may not be obvious until certain event alerts and raises awareness of the community. We hope the widely publicized problem of elevated lead in potable water will reaffirm our commitment to proactively protect environmental health of the university campus, so that it will remain a healthy place for all of us to study, work, and live in!