HONG KONG, China -- A microbiologist has warned of a potential health time bomb after it was disclosed that two government departments were sitting on their hands nearly two months after police had accused three Mong Kong fish vendors of filling their tanks with toilet water.
Both the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department and the Water Supplies Department have yet to charge the vendors despite mounting concern among the public.
The vendors have been accused of illegally diverting flushing water from neighboring premises.
The discovery, which came into the public domain Monday, was reported to the two government departments on August 1 following complaints of "unstable water supply" by the owners of two buildings located near a cluster of seafood vendors on Nelson Street.
But confusion over the responsibilities of the two departments saw the matter remain unresolved as of Tuesday night.
In separate interviews, both departments claim they had acted on complaints passed on by the Mong Kok district office early last month, but neither could provide clear conclusions.
A spokesman for the Water Supplies Department said it conducted two inspections within two weeks of receiving the complaints but found no evidence of any shop in the area diverting flushing water.
Finally, late last month, the department conducted one last surprise inspection with police and found three of the 24 visited shops were illegally channeling flush water for non-flushing purposes, a crime punishable by a fine of up to HK$5,000 under the Waterworks Ordinance.
When Water Supplies Department officials questioned the shops as to the purpose of the diverted water, the vendors said they used it to clean the floors.
"We found nothing, no evidence like hoses connected to fish tanks," the spokesman said, adding: "It's up to the FEHD to find out whether the water was used in fish tanks ... there was no need for us to inform the FEHD because they were informed by the district office at the same time we were."
He said his department was "still in the process" of issuing summonses to the three vendors.
According to a spokeswoman for the FEHD, an inspection conducted at the site earlier Tuesday found "no irregularities," but the department would proceed to examine 11 fish-tank water samples taken during the inspection.
She added the department mounted two operations at the site last month after it received the complaints, but did not find that flushing water was being used to keep seafood.
When asked whether water samples were also taken during those operations, the spokeswoman said: "It's difficult to say."
The FEHD spokeswoman also could not say when the department last inspected the premises of the three vendors, though she said that, "generally speaking," fresh-provision shops are inspected once every eight weeks.
"It's absolutely ridiculous that the matter has been neglected for this long. Clearly the communication between the various government departments is lacking," said medical sector lawmaker Kwok Ka-ki. "Disappointingly, their mentality seems to be that a case is finished as soon as someone has taken up the responsibility, with no regard for whether it is properly dealt with or not."
Biologists and doctors also expressed alarm at the situation Tuesday, warning of potential mass outbreaks caused by the bacteria found in untreated seawater, including Vibrio cholerae, E. coli and Salmonella.
Apart from chemicals used to kill odors, flushing water in Hong Kong is usually channeled directly from an intake in the seawall and undergoes minimal sewage treatment.
"A lot of this seawater goes through sewage pipes and so it's not meant for food preparation or other domestic uses," said Thomas Ling Kin-wah, an associate professor of microbiology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and Prince of Wales Hospital. "Vibrio cholerae would present the worst-case scenario. If the fish is not well-cooked, then the consumer will develop severe diarrhea, vomiting and dehydration. But it will usually take a group outbreak before the cause is detected."
Ling said the pathogen was "highly communicable" to friends and family members through the "fecal-oral route," most commonly instigated by a failure to wash one's hands after using the restroom.
Samuel Yi Chung-toi, a senior engineer at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology's safety and environmental protection office, said the Mong Kok incident pointed to a "larger problem" of monitoring seafood handling in the territory.
Yi said he believed the quality of toilet water was actually "reasonable" compared with the polluted seawater some vendors in areas such as Sai Kung use to keep their fish.
"You see a lot of fisherman out there pumping the water directly from the sea into the boat. Between the two, I'd rather have flushing water than polluted seawater, especially if [the seawater] is from typhoon shelters where boats discharge their waste," he said.
"From a layman's point of view, I do have concerns about our health, especially since these food contamination incidents seem to be quite recurrent," said Paul Shin Kam-shing, associate professor of biology and chemistry at City University. "In this case, the government took too long to act. People have probably continued to buy fish from that store, and depending on where the water came from, that could mean high health risks for the public."
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