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County to get health checks over uranium in tap water

July 09,2019
The South Chungcheong provincial government announced Monday that it would conduct mandatory health examinations of thousands of residents of Cheongyang County after trace amounts of uranium were detected in the area’s tap water.

The measure follows a report by the broadcaster KBS earlier this month that said 105.7 micrograms of uranium were detected in water supplied by a treatment plant in Cheongyang County in February, almost three times the Environment Ministry’s guideline limit of 30 micrograms per liter. In March, around 63.5 micrograms of uranium were found in each liter of water.

The plant, located in the county’s Jeongsan-myeon, has provided 1,800 cubic meters (63,566 cubic feet) of water every day to around 1,100 households in the area since it opened in 1997. County officials concluded that the small amounts of uranium in the filtered tap water came from eroded rock found naturally in the county’s reservoir, and that the rise in its concentration was due to dry weather during the winter that contributed to erosion.

The discovery of the radioactive material in the water fueled widespread concern from county residents, who demanded local government officials take measures to deal with the issue. Provincial officials announced they would provide health exams to a total of 2,947 people in the county and conduct a series of inquiries into the safety of local water.

Naturally occurring radioactive elements like uranium can be found in granite as well as most natural stones. In some cases, granite can trap radon gas, which is formed by the decay of uranium and can cause lung cancer in humans.

The World Health Organization increased its drinking water guideline for uranium to 30 micrograms from 20 in 2011, and Korea’s Environment Ministry also set its guideline limit at 30 micrograms beginning this year.

One official from Cheongyang County told the JoongAng Ilbo that this guideline on uranium was added in January, so they were unable to include the uranium detection in their regular reports filed to the Environment Ministry on examinations of water quality at the treatment plant. After April, no uranium was found in the water, the official said.

After detecting uranium in two of the six pipes used to supply water to the county in January, officials added another filtration system. But after uranium was detected again in February and March, they blocked the pipes in question and installed replacements.

Yet local officials’ decisions not to stop supplying water from the plant to residents and their failure to report the findings to the Environment Ministry continue to generate controversy. The results of the test were only published on the county’s website in April, and no measures were taken to provide alternate sources of water to residents.

As a result of the incident, the South Chungcheong government also promised to connect Cheongyang County’s water supply system with Daecheong Dam, located north of Daejeon, by the end of next year, speeding up a project that was originally slated to be completed in 2022.

BY SHIM KYU-SEOK, SHIN JIN-HO [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]