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July 24th, 2009:

Report urges wider monitoring of damaging superfine particles

Joyce Ng, SCMP

The superfine particles in Hong Kong’s air that critically affect people’s health should be monitored at all 14 air-monitoring stations, consultant firm Ove Arup says, while setting the loosest target for the government to meet.

None of the annual average readings of the five stations that record the concentration of the superfine particles known as PM2.5 – in Tsuen Wan, Tung Chung, Yuen Long, Tap Mun and Central – met the lowest World Health Organisation standard between 2004 and 2007, according to data released by the Environmental Protection Department yesterday.

Last year stations reported 24-hour average concentrations of superfine particles exceeding the WHO standard 39 times. The particles can penetrate deep into human lungs and cause respiratory and heart diseases. US and local studies have shown the particles can cause lung cancer and affect lung growth in children.

Ove Arup, noting the impact of the particles on public heath, recommended that the government monitor PM2.5 at all 14 monitoring stations and publicise the readings – based on the least stringent of the three interim WHO standards.

At present, the department only releases readings on the larger PM10 particles to the public, although it also measures PM2.5 at five stations. Ove Arup blamed regional rather than local sources for PM2.5 pollution, pointing to the case of Tap Mun island in Sai Kung, which is free of any local emissions but still recorded PM2.5 pollution readings exceeding WHO guidelines by 13 times last year.

“Based on air-quality monitoring data and the fact that Hong Kong’s particulate-matter emissions account for only about 1 to 2 per cent of the entire emissions in the Pearl River Delta region, it is apparent that the concentration in Hong Kong is subject to very strong regional influence,” Ove Arup’s report said.

Ameliorating measures could still be taken locally, it said, proposing the early retirement of heavily polluting diesel buses and trucks, because road vehicles contributed 25 per cent of the city’s PM2.5 emissions.

If phase one measures were implemented, about 4,200 unnecessary hospital admissions would be avoided, it estimated.

Wong Tze-wai, head of the community medicine department at Chinese University and a member of the panel that advised the government on its air-quality-objectives review, said the standards for reducing fine particles were too lax but it was inaccurate only to blame regional sources for high PM2.5 concentrations.

“These fine particles are easily dispersed. They can disperse from traffic in Tai Po to Tap Mun. So the pollutants in Tap Mun do not necessarily come from the mainland,” Professor Wong said.

Marine transport was also a source of PM2.5, he said, but the government was not willing to ban vessels entering Hong Kong from using cheap and dirty bunker fuel for fear of hurting the logistics industry.

Tougher steps on air quality rolled out – Goals on pollution, ideas to meet them

Cheung Chi-fai, SCMP

The government yesterday rolled out proposals to toughen air quality standards, and measures to achieve this, as Hong Kong seeks to catch up with the developed world.

The administration said the steps, which largely meet World Health Organisation objectives, could extend average life expectancy by a month.

The proposals include using more gas to generate power, phasing out highly polluting vehicles and declaring low-emission zones from which such vehicles would be barred. Car-free zones would be extended.

Members of the public have four months to comment on them and indicate their willingness to pay for cleaner air and how soon they want it.

Released by the Environment Bureau after a two-year study, they do not include a timetable for their implementation, and officials admit a bumpy road lies ahead given the widely divergent views of different groups in society.

Green groups said the proposals were not detailed enough for people to make informed decisions. Transport operators said they would push up their costs and raise fares.

The new objectives, 10 to 64 per cent more stringent than existing ones, will replace outdated air quality standards enacted in 1987 and narrow the gap to the standards of the United States and European Union.

The government said it would not fully endorse the WHO guidelines at this stage because regional pollution was beyond its control, although the most stringent standards in the guidelines will be adopted for four of the seven air pollutants.

It said the measures, if adopted, would save HK$1.2 billion a year in health and energy costs at a cost of HK$600 million a year – although it admitted the cost estimate did not reflect all the costs to the community.

The government is proposing 19 measures to help attain the new targets. Officials said some of these would inevitably require consumers to pay more. Power tariffs would rise by at least 20 per cent and bus fares by 15 per cent. But the measures would save 7,400 life-years – equivalent to an extra month of life for each Hongkonger – in a city where life expectancy is already among the longest, and avoid 4,200 hospital admissions.

An average Hong Kong man has a life expectancy of 79.5 years, and a woman 88.5 years, the second-longest in the world behind Japan.

A recent report by independent think tank Civic Exchange found nearly 1,600 deaths, 64,000 hospital bed-days and HK$2 billion in direct economic losses each year were attributable to air pollution in Hong Kong. Mike Kilburn, environmental programme manager for Civic Exchange, said the 19 measures were too conservative and limited in scope, and called for a broader debate.

Cargo van operator Ben Leung Wai-bun said he would have to close his business if his entire fleet was banned in the busiest districts. “More than half of the industry will be dead by the time we can see clear sky,” he said.

A senior environment official said the problems of air pollution from vehicles, power generation and over the border had to be tackled simultaneously. “All we need now is recognition and endorsement from the public that the whole package is reasonable, feasible and something that has to be done,” he said.

The official said it was premature to say how much the package would cost the public, since more negotiation was needed with major stakeholders such as bus companies and power utilities. Such talks were already happening, he said.

A timetable for delivering cleaner air could not be given because of the uncertainties surrounding the implementation of the measures, this official said. For instance, whether or not more natural gas could be used would hinge upon the supply of gas from the mainland after 2013 and planning for new power generators.

Plans for cleaner air are welcome, if overdue


If there is one thing on which there has long been consensus it is that we would like to breathe cleaner air – for our health’s sake. The public consultation announced yesterday on an upgrade of the city’s air-quality objectives should therefore convey a sense of urgency. Instead it lacks a timetable and is hedged with political caveats on proposed clean-air measures, such as whether people are prepared to meet the cost or adjust to inconvenience.

Of course, some will object to paying more for electricity or bus rides, or doing without under-patronised off-peak bus services, or replacing polluting commercial vehicles. No one wants to be presented with the bill, least of all the less well off. But the time has long since passed when such difficulties justify not doing more to reduce air pollution. If the consultation does not tackle them, the government must, even if this means devising a socially equitable sharing of the burden and subsidising costs.

For all that, the consultation is welcome, if overdue. It is nearly three years since the World Health Organisation issued revised global air-quality guidelines to minimise risk to health and life expectancy, with softer interim targets to enable governments to take into account local economic and political factors. It was two years before the government committed to adopting new targets in stages for our city’s air-quality objectives. The consultation paper, based on a review by a consultant, is the result.

Meanwhile, the government has made incremental progress in tackling emissions from power generation, transport and industry, and co-operating with the mainland to mitigate pollution. But the resulting improvement in air quality at rooftop level has raised false hopes. As this newspaper reported earlier this month, analysis of roadside pollution levels in Central, Causeway Bay and Mong Kok during the first half of this year showed that it was above the “very high” 100 mark for the equivalent of 44 days – six times worse than in 2005.

The government has adopted less demanding interim targets than the WHO guidelines for the key pollutants sulphur dioxide, ozone and fine air particles – the ones that were tightened the most. But this takes account of the contribution of pollution from the mainland. And for the first time Hong Kong is to have a standard for fine air particles – the most dominant and most hazardous to health – which the United States and Europe have had for a long time.

It is disappointing, however, that the pace of implementation of new emission control measures has been left to the public consultation. The lack of a timetable for stronger air-quality objectives does not reflect the urgency of the WHO report on the growing death toll from pollution and its impact on the quality of life.

That said, the consultation does propose a wide range of measures to cap and control emissions, backed up by initiatives such as car-free and low-emission traffic zones, bus route rationalisation and mandatory building energy codes. If and when they are all implemented, the anticipated social and economic benefits include a drop of more than 4,000 a year in hospital admissions attributable to air pollution, enhanced life expectancy and economic benefits in public health, and energy savings of more than HK$1.2 billion – double the economic cost of introducing them.

The consultation paper asks respondents: are you willing to bear the cost of emission control measures, such as higher power bills and bus fares? For the sake of our health, the community has no choice but to say yes.