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It's time for Hong Kong to get the lead out...of its water

Pacific Prime looks at the recent crisis in Hong Kong where lead has been found in a number of public housing estates, and how health insurers will cover you.

Posted on Jul 17, 2015 by Rob McBroom

Over the past few weeks in July there has been one story capturing headlines in Hong Kong: Lead, more specifically, lead in the drinking water of some buildings in Hong Kong's various Public Housing estates. As of 16th July, the press upgraded this issue to crisis levels, causing many in the city to question whether their health was at risk and if this crisis had any impact on their health insurance.

As with most health crises it is important to be aware of the health impacts, and if you do get sick, how your health insurance will cover you. To help, we have created a short guide on what you need to know.

First, what exactly is the situation?

Before going into the health impacts, what can be done, and your health insurance options, it would be a good idea to cover what we know about the crisis so far. As of the writing of this article, the crisis stems from lead being found in apartments in one public housing estate - the Kwai Luen Estate in Kwai Chung. According to an article published by Ejinsight, it was "revealed that five samples out of a total of 44 collected from two buildings at Kwai Luen Estate Phase Two had lead levels that exceeded the World Health Organization standard."

The WHO notes that in order for water to be safe to drink, lead levels need to be lower than 0.1 mg for 1 litre of water. Water from some taps in the various public housing estates in Hong Kong that were tested recorded to have a concentration of lead up to five times more than the 0.1 mg standard level set by the WHO.

Is lead poisonous?

In short, yes. Exposure to high quantities of lead can have harmful effects on your health including damage to the nervous system, reproductive system, and kidneys. According to the WHO, " Lead is especially harmful to the developing brains of fetuses and young children and to pregnant women. Lead interferes with the metabolism of calcium and Vitamin D. High blood lead levels in children can cause consequences which may be irreversible including learning disabilities, behavioral problems, and mental retardation. At very high levels, lead can cause convulsions, coma and death."

However, if the concentration of lead is below the recommended amount, then people will be safe from lead poisoning or lead related illness.

What is being done about this?

Since the news first broke, the city has set up temporary water for residents of numerous public estates, the SCMP reporting that the government has expanded testing to at least 10 public housing estates. They have also set up clean drinking water stations for residents in the area while they are testing the buildings.

For now, it looks like the issue is focused on the 10 public housing estates. While a big issue, the vast majority of people in Hong Kong are more than likely safe. Beyond that, the government is taking steps to ensure the city’s whole water supply is potable, which should bring even more reassurance.

Can I do anything about this?

While this issue is worrying, especially for those living in the estates, sources have noted that the drinking water in Hong Kong is safe to drink - it leaves the water purification plants clean - but lead is often introduced closer to the tap, usually from soldering of older pipes or the tap itself which may be made of lead.

That being said, this crisis highlights the fact that while the water is clean, you could be exposed to higher concentrations of lead. One of the best things you can do to minimize the chance of this happening is to educate yourself on lead in water. The SCMP actually has a very informative article that covers the issues in-depth and is a good place to start your research.

Some useful information includes running taps for a few minutes before drawing drinking water, or installing a filter that can filter out lead (these can be quite expensive and you can be sure that they will be in high demand in Hong Kong for the foreseeable future). One of the most practical pieces of advice however, is to get the water from your taps tested yourself. The article explains how to go about this and where you can get it tested.

Will my insurance cover this if I get sick from lead poisoning?

Finally, because there is always a chance of having lead related health issues, it would be beneficial to know how your health insurance plan will cover medical care. Generally speaking, this is not something that can be controlled by most people so most, if not all, health insurance providers will cover care. The key here is that because lead poisoning will affect children more, it will be important to ensure that you have the best insurance for your children. If you are looking to secure a health insurance plan for your kids, please contact the experts at Pacific Prime.

 

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