Despite the fact that South Korea has some of the highest quality tap water in the world, many native Koreans still refuse to drink it. In a survey of about 12,000 individuals taken by the Environment Ministry in 2013, only 10% of respondents said they drank water straight from the tap. About 55% of them said they only drank tap water if it was boiled first. According to a 2003 report from the United Nations, South Korea’s water quality was ranked eighth in the world while US water was ranked twelfth. On top of that, local municipalities impose even stricter regulations on water quality than those set by the World Health Organization.
Even so, Koreans still abstain from drinking water from the tap out of fear for their health and safety — a distrust that many believe stem from a national water scare from nearly 25 years ago. In 1991, 30 tons of undiluted phenol (a highly toxic chemical used in processing circuit boards) from a Gumi electronics manufacturing company leaked into the Nakdong River and subsequently contaminated Daegu residents’ water supply. This resulted in pungent odors in the region’s tap water, and severe headaches and vomiting among those who drank it.
The Seoul government hopes to improve the public’s view of tap water with several programs that include free monthly home-water tests, water pollution insurance, and installing water fountains that use tap water.