Monday, April 27, 2009

Tap Water in Korea and Masan: Is it drinkable?

Here's the question:


I live in Masan, and have been here for three months. I was told many times not to drink the tap water, that I had to buy bottled water for that, but I could boil tap water for coffee, or when cooking, etc. Now I have met someone who has been here for over a year, and he drinks the tap water. He also pointed out to me that everyone, myself included, brushes their teeth and showers with it. What's the story on tap water, is it really not that bad? Does it depend on where you live?


Just like the toilet paper issue I wrote about in the Korea Times (and my other now-sleepy blog), this is one of my favorite subjects. I also touched on the subject here, but that was a more Seoul-centric approach to the issue.

Before delving back into the psychology of drinking tap water, let's take a few looks at Masan and what's going on with their water. First of all, Gyeongsangnam-do province where Masan is located has consistently tested poorly for water quality standards. In fact, the area has the highest exceeded limitation rate of sewage and pollutants in the country with 13.7% of its facilities over the legal limit for contaminants.

There are reasons for this though. The entire Gyeongsangnam province produces the majority of the fisheries for the nation. Judging by the pictures, it looks pretty clean, however, the fisheries industry has had a severely detrimental affect on Masan Bay making it the most polluted bay in Korea. The quick non-scientific explanation goes like this. Masan Bay has been extensively used over the past three decades causing a huge increase in pollutants which have depleted a lot of oxygen in the water and made the surface almost acidic. That polluted water is contaminating the sediments and water columns which has a direct affect on the quality of drinkable water in the area. Even though they have built water treatment plants to combat the pollution, there seems to be little improvement in overall water quality.

Nonetheless, people like your friend insist on drinking it. I have a friend whose wife is from Masan and while she doesn't dare drink it, he has no problem sucking it back. Your friend is also right about washing and brushing as well. We all brush our teeth and wash our hair with the tap water, so why not drink it?

This issue boils down to a few things. From a Korean's point of view, they will not drink it for several reasons. Of course the smell is strong and taste is pretty bad compared to bottled or purified water, but their overall distrust stems from generations of contempt for the government. Koreans, for the most part, simply don't trust the government and if the government claims that the water is clean, they will not believe it. I actually conducted a taste/smell test with about 50 of my adult students and some of them thought that the tap water wasn't that bad. When I asked them if they would drink tap water if it tasted and smelled the same as bottled water, they all said 'no'. Why? They don't trust the results.

Expats here assimilate in many ways, but adapting to food and drink culture is one of the most common. So, even though many of us come from nations where it is the norm to consume tap water, we adopt the Korean mindset and avoid it.

If I were you, however, I would advise you to avoid drinking the tap water. Looking at the facts, it just doesn't seem that clean. That said, if you live in a new apartment building with new pipes, then I would perhaps be more apt to dabbling in the stuff, but if you're in an old villa, I'd stick to the bottle. You know the facts and it's just not worth it in my opinion.

If anybody has any questions, just send me an email at or leave a comment


Unknown said...

I have been drinking the tap water for the last month and now I have parasites. Worst month of my life. I wish someone would have said something to me when I got here. Everyone at my work looked scared when I told them.

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