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Panic after chemicals found in Daegu’s water

June 25,2018
The city of Daegu is in panic after a local television station reported on harmful chemicals in its tap water on Thursday. Residents lined up at stores to buy bottled water, and a petition on the Blue House website called on the Moon Jae-in government to act.

The report by the Taegu Broadcasting Corporation said the city’s tap water contained chemicals that could not be boiled or filtered away. In a citywide panic, bottled water sold out at several supermarkets, and many residents resorted to soft drinks to quench their thirst. Some food businesses have stacked jugs of water at their storefronts to show customers that they only use non-tap water.

A petition on the Blue House’s website received over 40,000 signatures in two days. “It drives me crazy that I’ve been feeding and bathing my baby using toxic water,” the petition read. “First fine dust, and now this?” one woman said. “I feel like I’ve been feeding my kids poisoned food.”

The uproar began on Thursday when the Taegu Broadcasting Corporation reported on a document from Daegu’s Waterworks Headquarters that said water intake stations in Daegu had above-average levels of perfluorinated compounds.

Two types of perfluroinated compounds were found in Daegu’s tap water: perfluorohexane sulfonic acid (PFHxS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). PFHxS is used to wash semiconductors, coat frying pans and kill pests. It is known to decrease cholesterol levels, slow blood clots and cause weight loss and changes in thyroid hormones. PFOA is recognized as a carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.

According to the Ministry of Environment, an average of 5.8 micrograms of PFHxS per liter was found in the Gumi Sewage Treatment Plant from May 17 to June 8. This amount is 10 times the recommended maximum in Canada’s water quality guidelines and 80 times that of Australia’s.

For Daegu residents, this revelation is a concerning repeat of the phenol incident of 1991, when 30 tons of phenol, a toxic chemical, were leaked into the Nakdong River, where most of southeastern Korea gets its water.

Since then, distrust of the quality of tap water runs high in Daegu.

The Environment Ministry said the issue was addressed on June 12 when it took corrective measures with a factory in the Gumi industrial complex that leaked the chemicals. As a result of these measures, PFHxS levels dropped to 0.092 micrograms per liter on June 20.

The Daegu Metropolitan Government said the tap water is safe to drink because most of the chemicals found were PFHxS, not the carcinogenic PFOA. Perfluorinated compound levels are not part of water quality standards in any country; there are only recommended maximums.

“Ninety percent of PFHxS can be filtered through activated carbon and reverse osmosis,” the Environment Ministry said. “The PFOA levels in Daegu are minimal compared to maximum levels recommended by foreign governments.”

The Ministry of Environment is planning to add perfluorinated compounds to the list of chemicals monitored in industrial waste. The city of Gumi, where the chemicals were leaked, plans to oversee its factories more closely and stop them from using toxic raw materials.

BY BAE JAE-SUNG, KIM JUNG-SEOK and KIM YOUN-HO [noh.shinyoung@joongang.co.kr]