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January, 2014:

HK academics form panic-pressure group to push for incineration, hide dangers in backseat

A group of academics and professionals has now melded their minds with the stubborn ones of Hong Kong officials, pushing for the building of an incinerator for the treatment of the city’s waste.

Representative statements include “We need to act now, or this will end with rubbish piling up on the streets,” from Professor Poon Chi-sun of Polytechnic University’s civil and environmental engineering department, and “Decision makers need to find the most sensible choice – can we take the risk of having so much uncertainty when we have thousands of tonnes of rubbish to handle?” from Professor Irene Lo Man-chi, of the University of Science and Technology’s department of civil and environmental engineering.

The most sensible thing to do, of course, is to first retain composure, lest such voices of panic pressures Hong Kong into making a disastrous decision just for the sake of having to ‘act now’.

A look at their statements reveal aspects meant to mislead and hoodwink audiences. Poon, for example, says, “We have strong reservations about the proposal to double the size of the Tuen Mun landfill, especially when incineration could effectively reduce the volume of waste by up to 90 per cent.” Retailers also attract customers by offering discounts “up to 90 per cent”, when most of the discounts never come close. In the case of incineration, 30% of incinerated waste ends up as toxic fly ash – requiring more landfills and leaving even deadlier pollution than conventional landfilling of waste.

In discussing plasma technology, Lo is reported to have said that problems with plasma technology had led to the closure of a 10-year-old plant in Japan, which had been down for two-thirds of that time. These problems are, in fact, not technical, but a matter of business dealings – in a country with thousands of incinerators, the plasma plant had to close “due to lack of feedstock (loss of long term feed contracts).” Incinerators are both waste treatment and business, and they require feedstock and fuels to remain operational; it is not surprising that the plasma plant couldn’t compete with an established industry over feedstock supplies. Lo’s statement, however, makes it easy to mislead readers over the exact nature of the cited case.

Lo also said the technology had been proved to be a reliable option that was safe in terms of emissions, syncing her opinion with the ‘proven technology’ refrain of Hong Kong officials. ‘Reliable’ is a very attractive word for the public, but it is unclear what exactly is meant when incineration is ‘reliable’. Having the ability to reduce the mass and increase the toxicity of the materials going to landfills does not seem to fit the idea of ‘reliable’. Incinerator accidents in Guangzhou and Shanghai shows that incinerators are not necessarily accident-free ‘reliable’; U.S. regulatory agencies have also found that incinerators are prone to various types of malfunctions, system failures and breakdowns, which routinely lead to serious air pollution control problems and increased emissions that are dangerous to public health. What is ‘reliable’ about incineration is its ‘reliable’ business opportunity for the operator and its beneficiaries, and its ‘reliable’ demand for feedstocks and fuel, which actively discourages recycling efforts and increases consumption of fossil fuel.

Likewise, ‘safe’ also makes for attractive reading, but ‘safe emissions’ has no real meaning other than to indicate a high level of control over the emissions of pollutants. Emissions that are captured are actually re-released into the environment as ash or sludge after treatment, in even higher concentration of toxicity. Meanwhile, ultra-fine toxic particles such as dioxins can still escape emissions control and seriously endanger human health.

The stubborn attitude displayed by Hong Kong officials over incineration has always been frustrating, but it is especially worrying that academics and professionals – people walking around with an air of credibility – is choosing to join in and support a move that will endanger the future of Hong Kong’s waste management, environment, and the health of its citizens. It is imperative, therefore, that Hong Kong citizens recognize the panic pressure that they are trying to generate, and the shrewd sales language that they use in trying to cajole the public into accepting incineration.

The issue was reported by Cheung Chi-fai of the SCMP.

Al Jazeera: Caramba ! Mayor of Bogota removed over waste contracts row

from the Al Jazeera News:

The mayor of the Colombian capital Bogota is refusing to step down after being ordered to leave office over his handling of the city’s waste management last year.

Colombia’s inspector-general ordered mayor Gustavo Petro removed from office on Monday and banished him from politics for 15 years, deeming unconstitutional his behaviour in a showdown with private garbage collectors.

Petro refused to accept the decision by Alejandro Ordonez, a conservative ally of former President Alvaro Uribe, and called supporters into the streets.

Petro refused to accept his dismissal and called his supporters into the streets of Bogota. (AFP)

“I remain the mayor of Bogota,” Petro, a former M-19 rebel, proclaimed on the municipal TV channel, though legal experts said he must heed Ordonez’s decision if the inspector-general denies the appeal the mayor said he was lodging.

Under the constitution, Ordonez is the last resort.

“We have governed with zero corruption,” Petro told viewers.


BMJ Editorial: Air pollution as a carcinogen

written by Krishnan Bhaskaran, Ben Armstrong, Paul Wilkinson, and Andy Haines, published in the British Medical Journal:

The possibility that air pollution might increase the risk of cancer is not a new idea. Richard Doll and Austin Bradford Hill initially believed that general atmospheric pollution from car exhaust fumes, surface dust of tarred roads, gas works, industrial plants, and coal fires might be responsible for the increased incidence of lung cancer in the first half of the 20th century. However, their landmark 1950 paper implicated tobacco smoking and set the direction for decades of research that firmly established smoking as a leading cause of lung cancer. By contrast, research into other possible causes was relatively neglected, and further evidence on the effects of air pollution was slow to accumulate.

However, more than 60 years later, the International Agency for Research on Cancer has released a monograph concluding that there is sufficient evidence to establish outdoor air pollution as carcinogenic to humans. This conclusion is based on consistent associations between pollution levels and the risk of lung cancer in animals and humans, as well as strong mechanistic evidence.


SCMP: A welcome move to clear the air

from the SCMP Editorial:

Smoggy days are far less common in Hong Kong than on the mainland. As we gaze above this time of year, we are more likely to see a magnificent skyline across clear blue sky than silhouettes shrouded in smog. Unfortunately, pollution knows no boundaries. Our proximity to the manufacturing powerhouse in the Pearl River Delta means we are not shielded from emissions. Experience has shown that hazardous smog does choke the city from time to time during winter. It would be wrong to assume filthy air was only confined to the mainland. The health threat of polluting air cannot be ignored.

It is good that our much-criticised air pollution index will be replaced by a new scale later this month. Introduced nearly 20 years ago, the old index shows the concentrations of pollutants in the air but tells little about the harmful effect to health. The new index is based on health risks, relating pollutant levels to short-term health risks on a scale of 1 to 10+. It also issues alerts via smartphones and provides health advice for people with various degrees of susceptibility.

Air pollution is a life-and-death issue. But the government has made little effort to put the health and economic impacts into perspective. The use of air quality standards that are less stringent than those recommended by the World Health Organisation has also led to criticism that pollution is far worse than reported. The revamp is a belated but welcome step to link pollution with public health. It provides a more meaningful reference to the community.

Officials admit that the tighter standards used in the new index might result in more days classified as bad for health. But they stress it does not necessarily mean the city’s air quality is deteriorating. Given the growing concerns about polluted air, it is not surprising that officials play down the severity of the problem. But if health alerts become more regular under the new system, the public are entitled to ask for more safeguards. Hopefully, it can instil a greater sense of urgency on the authorities to clean up the air.

23 Dec 2013

SCMP: Average hours of unhealthy air in Hong Kong up on last year

from Ernest Kao of the SCMP:

Hong Kongers endured an average of 2,727 hours of unhealthy air this year, surpassing last year’s figure with a week to spare.

The Post examined hourly air pollution index (API) data from the Environmental Protection Department’s 11 general air quality monitoring stations and three roadside stations.

From January 1 to December 21, the average number of hours of high, very high or severe air pollution recorded by each general monitoring station rose 7.6 per cent from last year’s 2,534.

The API measures concentrations of major air pollutants such as carbon monoxide and respirable suspended particulates in a range of 0 to 500. Readings above 51 are "high" - acceptable in the short term but beyond long-term health standards. "Very high" is above 100, indicating air that is unhealthy in both the short term and the long term. "Severe" readings are above 200. (SCMP)