Air Pollution Health Risks Panel Proposes Sports Games Clean-Up Targets in 2009 and 2010
AMCHAM – 29th July 2007
Annual deaths attributable to air pollution are estimated at 10,000 in Hong Kong, Macau and the Pearl River Delta while air pollution is also responsible for 440,000 annual hospital bed-days and 11 million annual outpatient visits throughout the region, according a recent study released by Hong Kong-based think tank Civic Exchange.
Christine Loh, former Hong Kong legislator and CEO of Civic Exchange, a Hong Kong-based think tank, believes the Hong Kong government should take the opportunities derived from the upcoming East Asian Games in 2009 and Asian Games in Guangzhou in 2010 to improve air quality in the PRD
Providing new data on health costs derived from air pollution in the Pearl River Delta region, the study, A Price Too High – Health Impacts of Air Pollution in Southern China, estimates that hospital bed-days, lost productivity and doctor visits associated with air pollution cost RMB 1.8 billion a year in the PRD, HKD 1.1 billion in Hong Kong, and HKD 18 million in Macao.
“Unless we are able to persuade our government that they need to make public health and air quality management and link them explicitly in a policy goal, we are not going to get it,” said Christine Loh, CEO of Civic Exchange and former Hong Kong legislator, at an AmCham luncheon, at the time of the report’s release.
What Civic Exchange is doing both publicly and privately with the government, is to convince them to adopt what we think is the worldwide view of air quality standards, according to Loh.
“In terms of pollutants [over the PRD], it is much worse,” says Alexis Lau, a professor and manager at the Institute for the Environment, HKUST, citing data from the study.
A large amount of ‘monitoring data’ in the PRD only recently released by the Hong Kong and Guangdong governments has enabled the group to carry out the research, according to Alexis Lau, a professor and manager at the Institute for the Environment, HKUST.
“Our health risk estimates are based on many years of observations using daily pollutant levels and daily health events, says Anthony J Hedley, a professor at the Department of Community Medicine, School of Public Health, HKU. “We have literally tens of thousand, or in the case of health events, millions of different items of data.”
Anthony J Hedley, right, professor at the Department of Community Medicine, School of Public Health, HKU, explains in medical terms the effects from air pollution.
“If you take a group of people who live in a heavily polluted city like Hong Kong and put them in Antarctica for a week or two, their white cell count in their body will decline very steeply,” says Hedley, explaining in medical terms the effects of escape from air pollution.
“You only have to stand at the roadside for twenty minutes for you to be able to measure impaired dilatation of blood vessels,” he adds. “If such process is repeated day in and day out, you get stiffening of blood vessels and you get damaged lining cells of arteries.”
Acknowledging the difficulty to directly correlate those who died of natural causes to air pollution, the study reports relationships linking health events and declining air quality in the region.
“We don’t have a list of those 10,000 people who died of air pollution and we do know that heart and lung diseases can be caused by a variety of factors, but we [also] know that on certain bad days, there are more people falling ill and dying of these particular diseases,” says Tze-wai Wong, a professor at the Department of Community and Family Medicine, CUHK.
“A number of studies were performed on kids living in different districts in Hong Kong,” Wong adds. “Those who lived in districts with worse pollution tend to have much poorer health status and higher rate of respiratory diseases.”
In 1990, sharp and immediate declines in cardio-related deaths were apparent in two cities, with restriction on sulfur content to 0.5 percent by weight in fuel in Hong Kong and a ban on sale of coal in Dublin, Hedley also notes.
“What distinguishes us from some other metro areas is the political perspective and will to do something about it,” Hedley says. “If you speak to the authorities in Vancouver or Auckland, there is deep concern about the current and possible future trends in air quality at tiny fractions of pollution levels in Hong Kong.
“[Ironically], there is more interest in investing in air pollution research [in Hong Kong] from the North American continent than there is from this town.”
Loh believes this is not one of those problems that the world doesn’t know how to solve.
“There is no shortage of well-tested methods,” she says, citing California as an example in which the US state has been able to “add vehicles [on the road] but at the same time drive down pollution.”
London and Mexico City are also good examples of how government initiatives have turned the cities around in air pollution control, according to Lau.
“From the second half of 2006 when Guangdong started to release air pollution data, it marked a watershed in national emission control,” says Loh, believing a new era of opening up the discussion has arrived.
PRD Monitoring Data 2002
PRD Monitoring Data 2004
PRD Monitoring Data 2006
With the imminent East Asian Games coming to Hong Kong in November 2009 and the Asian Games to Guangzhou in 2010, Loh believes the Hong Kong government should take advantage of these opportunities to improve air quality.
“A lot of efforts will have to be made in our own region to make sure we improve air quality to an extent that it will not be a public embarrassment,” she says.
“It is about doing quite a number of initiatives and we are going to need to adopt WHO guidelines” but it will require “the concerted and sustained efforts of everybody including Hong Kong and Macau.” Hong Kong’s air quality standards are much lower than WHO standards and are still not being met.
“There is no other place of comparable wealth that is doing as badly,” concludes Loh.
“We have the money here. We have the reasonable capacities of regulators and other experts. We need to act. We need to make that commitment.”