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July 30th, 2009:

Cleaner air objectives are inadequate


We welcome the long-overdue review of air quality objectives and the newly proposed strategies for air pollution control by the Environmental Protection Department.

The underlying principles of protecting public health, the long-term goal of adopting the targets set by the World Health Organisation and the need for a regular review of Hong Kong’s air quality objectives, are all clearly stated in the review document. However, the recommended objectives are unnecessarily conservative.

Rather than aiming for the WHO’s stringent air quality guidelines, the department has chosen to adopt the interim targets, which are inadequate for health protection.

For example, the newly recommended objectives for annual PM10 (particulates) concentrations, set at the WHO Interim Target 2 of 50 micrograms per cubic metre, is a decrease of only 5mcg per square metre from the outdated objective of 55mcg. Both values far exceed the WHO guideline of 20mcg. All other air quality objectives are, where applicable, set at the even more lenient WHO Interim Targets 1. The absence of a timetable for the achievement of these new targets, and for the adoption of the next targets, gives the public no indication as to when Hong Kong is expected to reach the ultimate air quality guidelines.

The Environmental Protection Department recommends 19 strategies and lays out cost-benefit analyses of the options. The findings of a cost-benefit approach depend on the comprehensiveness of the list of benefits and how they are valued and are too technical for a public consultation. It would be easier for the public to understand if the actual health consequences, for example the number of lives that could be saved, or episodes of illness that could be avoided, are presented for each strategy.

The department’s strategies are limited by thinking inside the box. The control of old diesel vehicles is a useful and important strategy, but alternative modes of transport, such as trolley buses, light rail and modernised trams, are not even mentioned.

While marine air pollution from ocean-going vessels is also recognised as a problem, its solution – which requires a joint effort between all of the ports in the Pearl River Delta and major seaports further north – has not been addressed. Air pollution continues to pose a major public health problem in Hong Kong. The government must take bolder control measures to improve our air quality.

Wong Tze-wai, professor, Sian Griffiths, director, Andromeda Wong, research assistant, school of public health, faculty of medicine, Chinese University of Hong Kong

Clean bill of health

Christine Loh, SCMP

The government must be told, in no uncertain terms, that it has a duty to protect the public from pollution

Pollution is profitable. Major emitters harm our health and they have got away with it for far too long. But the government, as a whole, hasn’t quite understood this yet. Nevertheless, we need a champion and the Environment Bureau must be our pollution buster.

One of the most urgent issues that environmental officials must tackle is improving air quality to the point where pollution no longer poses a significant threat to health, as it does today. The good news is that the government is finally reviewing Hong Kong’s outdated air quality standards – called air quality objectives – which are currently so loose that they are, in fact, a licence to pollute. Lax regulation makes pollution profitable and people sick. The medical science is not in doubt.

If our officials had shown the same determination in tackling pollution as they did in dealing with avian flu, severe acute respiratory syndrome or swine flu, they would have acted a long time ago in a resolute manner.

In the face of infectious diseases, the Department of Health could hardly have asked the public whether they were willing to bear the cost of trying to prevent these illnesses. Health officials were expected to know what they needed to do.

We remember how hundreds of thousands of chickens and ducks were slaughtered to stop the spread of avian flu. Yes, some people complained about not being able to eat fresh poultry, how expensive imported meat became, and some even said that it didn’t matter to them. But what had to be done was carried out for the sake of the community as a whole. Some financial assistance was given to farmers and poultry sellers to help them through that difficult period.

For most people, the fear was the possibility of dying within weeks of being infected. With air pollution, our health is affected over a much longer period. The health threat, while not immediately obvious, is no less real – the impact just takes longer to show up. The Department of Health is not involved in air pollution control. That’s for the Environmental Protection Department, which does not really have a public health remit. Its officials are not health specialists – they focus on the presence of pollutants, not what they do to our health. This attitude comes through in the bureau’s “Air Quality Objectives Review” public consultation that poses a series of somewhat obvious questions. The first is whether Hong Kong’s outdated air quality objectives should be revised and the second is whether health protection should be the key consideration.

These two questions hardly need to be asked, but perhaps the bureau needs to be absolutely sure that we really want clean air. So, let’s tick the “yes” box on both. Our job is to make sure the administration knows that we see it as the government’s duty to improve air quality significantly for the sake of our health.

Now it gets more difficult. The bureau recommends a new set of objectives based on the World Health Organisation’s recommended air quality guidelines. But it asks whether a “staged approach”, with interim standards, should be adopted. It is hard for non-specialists to deal with this kind of question. There is a complicated chart, but it’s probably gobbledygook to most people. The bureau proposed 19 emission-reduction measures and asks “how soon” they should be implemented. The measures range from changing the fuel mix used for power generation, to retiring polluting vehicles, dealing with shipping emissions, promoting cycling, planting trees and creating low-emission zones as a means for transport management. Are you able to answer “how soon”?

For these questions, we might as well just demand significant improvements by 2012 (this should be soon enough), when the current administration steps down, and then further gains by 2015. Finally, the bureau wants you to say whether you are willing to “bear the costs” of these measures, which could amount to HK$600 million or more. Thankfully, we will get HK$1.2 billion in “benefits” – better health and energy savings. Surely, the answer is obvious. The public must give answers with no room for misunderstanding. Let’s bust pollution now!

Christine Loh Kung-wai is chairperson of the Clean Air Network ( and chief executive of the non-profit think tank Civic Exchange