SEOUL — When Hannam Village housing residents returned home Friday, they found a warning that raised more questions than it answered: “Don’t drink the tap water.”

What the warning didn’t explain, they say — and what residents didn’t realize unless they saw an item on the Area II Web site — was that unsafe levels of mercury were discovered in drinking water at their Yongsan Garrison satellite housing and the nearby Army Corps of Engineers Far East District Compound.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency warns that mercury exposure can cause kidney disease and states that the maximum tolerated mercury level in water is .002 parts per million.

Hannam Village slipped slightly above the EPA level with a rating of .0024 ppm, Yongsan’s Public Works Director Michael Chung said in a news release. The FED compound registered “about three times the acceptable level,” with a count of .0092 ppm, he said.

The water is provided by Seoul. Yongsan spokesman David McNally said late Friday night that the U.S. military alerted city officials to the problem.

Hannam Village and the FED compound water samples are tested monthly at a facility on Okinawa, Japan, according to the Yongsan news release. Test center officials alerted Yongsan to the increased mercury levels about 3:50 p.m. Friday.

“This has never happened before,” Yongan Garrison deputy commander Don Moses said in the release. “We’re sending additional samples to an authorized test center in Suwon. In the meantime, we want people to stop using the water for drinking or cooking.”

Stars and Stripes was unable to contact South Korean officials late Friday to see what, if any, action was taken.

“I’m glad they caught it, but how long have we been drinking bad water?” asked J.D. DeGray, a Department of Defense contractor living at Hannam village.

McNally said Yongsan Garrison, K-16 Air Base, Camp Market and the U.S. religious retreat center aren’t affected because they either have their own water treatment facilities or use well water.

Yongsan officials said tap water is acceptable for washing and showering if bathers use soap and don’t get water in their mouths.

Residents say rumors are already making their way through the housing complex.

“One lady here got sick and threw up. Then she brushed her teeth and got even sicker,” said Master Sgt. Tony Anthony. “A lot of people are scared to say anything about the problems here.”

Yongsan officials queried late Friday said they are researching answers to residents’ questions. They said they’re trying to reach residents through the American Forces Network, the Commander’s Channel and through signs posted on every door at Hannam village.

U.S. Forces Korea officials praised efforts to alert the audience.

Col. Franklin Childress, USFK spokesman, said the Area II command did an outstanding job with the situation.

Water was provided for those at Hannam Village by two 2,500-gallon water tankers, but residents said that posed another set of questions.

“First of all, they didn’t give us anything to move the water with,” Anthony said. “How is my wife supposed to move this water if I’m not home?”

He and another resident pointed out that the water is dispensed, sometimes at high volume and speed, through a two-inch wide metal hose hook-up.

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