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March 30th, 2015:

Hong Kong’s background radiation levels ‘astounding’, says former top official

Former official takes readings almost a third higher than world average

“Astounding” levels of background radiation measured in some of the city’s poorly ventilated urban areas were almost a third higher than the world average, a former environmental protection official has revealed.

Dr Mamie Lau May-ming, who retired as principal officer last year, measured background radiation with a Geiger counter at around a dozen points across the city last year, including Sham Shui Po, Sai Kung and Central.

At one covered pedestrian bridge in Nam Cheong, radiation levels hit 0.32 microsieverts per hour and above – 36 per cent higher than the global average of about 0.25.

Roughly the same readings were taken from the stairwells of an old Tai Kok Tsui primary school and a poorly ventilated office building corridor in Central.

By contrast, recordings at the abandoned Japanese city of Tomioka-machi, near the tsunami disaster-hit Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, were 0.65 as of September, she said.

Lau, a former member of the city’s Radiation Board, said the results were “astounding”.

“Background radiation is a problem and few people are aware of it,” Lau told the Post. She said building clusters in close proximity could elevate the radiation levels considerably.

The source was likely to be granite building materials including some concretes which contain traces of gamma radiation-emitting minerals such as radon, uranium and thorium.

Although Lau said levels were not life-threatening – 0.23 microsieverts per hour is equivalent to 2 millisieverts (mSv) a year, or roughly one cranial CT scan – constant exposure in small doses could have cumulative effects.

In Lau’s new book, Healing Tree, she points to the Petkau effect, which proves cell membranes are damaged much more readily by long-term exposure to low-level radiation than brief exposure at the same dose.


The health risks to urban dwellers were also compounded by stress, imbalanced diets and unhealthy lifestyles, she said.

About 38 per cent of the city’s background radiation comes from the air in the form of radon, a gas which enters the lungs as particles and cannot come out.

Citing a 1988 study by City University physics professor Peter Yu Kwan-ngok, she said 13 per cent of deaths from lung cancer – the city’s biggest killer – could be attributed to long-term radon exposure. “We should raise public awareness that good ventilation with intake of fresh air in homes and offices is important,” said Lau. “With so many illness-causing factors, it is wise to minimise the risks as best we can.”

She urged the government to strengthen management of indoor radon including using less radioactive materials for construction and giving more consideration to radon issues at the planning stage when redeveloping old areas.

The Observatory, which monitors the city’s ambient radiation, says the level of background radiation in the city does not pose a high risk to human health.

“We’re talking about microsieverts, which is a very small amount,” said Observatory scientific officer Leung Wai-hung. “The average person absorbs 2 to 3 millisieverts in a year just from the natural environment.”

A Department of Health spokesman said in addition to man-made sources, ionising radiation came from natural sources in the soil, water and air.

He added that even the International Atomic Energy Agency had no definite conclusion as to whether exposure to background radiation carried a health risk, “though it has been demonstrated at a level a few times higher”.

The Buildings Department said it did not measure radioactive materials used in construction, nor did it have any regulations on their use.

“It is believed the source of low-level radiation in buildings, if any, comes from the aggregate of the concrete,” a spokesman said.

Source URL (modified on Mar 30th 2015, 9:40am):

As Hong Kong’s plastic bag ban expands, critics say inspection team isn’t big enough

Government will add only 58 staff to enforce expanded regulations on plastic bags that now cover 100,000 retailers, up from 3,300

More than 100,000 retailers will fall under the scope of an expanded plastic bag levy scheme from tomorrow, but the government is only adding 58 officers to check whether shops are complying with the rule.

Since 2009, shoppers have been required to pay at least 50 cents for each plastic bag at some 3,300 retailers citywide, mostly chain stores and supermarkets. A team of 10 officers from the Environmental Protection Department specialises in enforcing the law.

The department had previously revealed that eight more officers would be added to that team. Yesterday, department director Anissa Wong Sean-yee said at a Legislative Council meeting that the department would recruit another 50 people to help inspect different shops. They would refer cases to the specialised law enforcement team, she said.

Wong was responding to a question from Federation of Trade Unions lawmaker Wong Kwok-hing, who asked about the manpower to enforce the new bag rules.

“Law enforcement officers in district offices will also pay attention to cases that need follow-up,” Wong said, referring to the department’s seven branch and regional offices.

But Civic Party lawmaker Dr Kenneth Chan Ka-lok, said the enforcement would be insufficient. “The 18 officers will have to inspect more than 100,000 shops,” he said. “I think this will be a toiling task for them, and when the timing is appropriate, we should add more people so the entire educational and law enforcement work can be done better.”

Edwin Lau Che-feng, head of community engagement and partnership at Friends of the Earth, agreed that a team of 58 supervisors would not be sufficient to monitor implementation of the bag-levy scheme, which includes myriad exemptions such as for items that require a bag for hygiene purposes.

He predicted retailers selling both exempt and non-exempt items – such as supermarkets and food stores in which frozen food and other goods are sold – could see chaos at first.

Adding to the confusion would be different charges imposed by different retailers.

Ocean Park said it would charge between HK$1 and HK$5 for each plastic bag, depending on its size.

Maxim’s Group said its Chinese restaurants would charge HK$1 per bag and HK$1 per plastic lunchbox. But its fast-food outlets and cake shops would charge 50 cents for each bag.

Supermarket chains Wellcome and ParknShop will continue to charge customers 50 cents for each plastic bag. Both will still offer “flat-top” plastic bags free for exempted items, such as foods without packaging or in non-airtight packaging, and frozen or chilled foods.

Aeon said it would provide plastic bags in six sizes in its department store and supermarkets. All would cost 50 cents.

ParknShop said staff members at its stores had been trained and given clear guidelines on the new measure. Stores would also have in-store broadcasts and posters to remind customers and advise them to bring their own bags.

Some retailers, such as fashion chain H&M, will switch entirely to paper bags in April. An H&M spokeswoman said the paper would be certified by the Forest Stewardship Council.

Retailers who break the rules could be fined HK$2,000 or even prosecuted. The fine does not target customers.

· Ocean Park: HK$1 to HK$5 for each bag, depending on its size.

· Maxim Group: HK$1 per bag at Chinese restaurants and 50 cents per bag in fastfood outlets.

· Wellcome: 50 cents per bag, free bag for exempted items

· Parknshop: 50 cents per bag, free bag for exempted items

· Aeon: 50 cents per bag, free bag for exempted items

· H&M: to switch to paper bags

Source URL (modified on Mar 31st 2015, 1:51am):

Don’t blame visitors for lack of vision in Hong Kong’s public transport policy

Franklin Koo says the Hong Kong government’s policy to draw ever more visitors here with little thought about how it might overburden our transport system is what’s really to blame for the overcrowding and congestion

I once wrote that Hong Kong must have the ability to identify and solve its practical problems. Since the end of Occupy Central, many now believe the 47 million mainland visitors are to blame for the city’s troubles.

It is a fact that mainland visitors, along with their luggage, are causing overcrowding, especially on public transport. But do these visitors deserve all the blame, or is it partly due to ineffective policy?

Despite the fact that the local public transport infrastructure is at peak capacity, there are grandiose plans in place, such as the high-speed rail link and the third runway, plus the newly built cruise terminal. It seems that injecting more visitors into Hong Kong is an economic policy that is taking priority over the quality of the lives of normal citizens, while also ignoring the sustainability of our public transport infrastructure.

It is likely that more visitors will generate even more problems, since that will aggravate an already overloaded transport system. Imagine putting more people into a lift and ignoring the overload warning; it is a recipe for disaster.

There are no overload warnings on buses or trains; everything seems fine on the surface. Hong Kong is proud to have a clean, safe and convenient transport system, the reason it received the award for “best city in the world for commuters” in 2014.

The MTR Corporation has just announced a net increase in profits of 19.8 per cent, partly due to a record-breaking 4.5 per cent increase in ridership.

On paper, large profits are made and there is no urgency to fix what is “not broken”, such as dramatically increasing train frequency or imposing strict restrictions against carrying large luggage during peak hours.

It may come as a surprise to outsiders, then, that Hong Kong was ranked a lowly 70th in the world this month for quality of living. Commuting accounts for part of that living, a daily activity that is weaved into the working fabric of Hong Kong.

With the public transport system responsible for moving millions across town each day, it is considered the lifeline of Hong Kong. That said, overcrowding on this very lifeline is like a clogged artery that is in dire need of attention.

Overcrowding creates serious issues. The sheer number of people on each train can stop doors from closing, often taking two or three attempts to securely shut the door at each major station, resulting in delays and stress.

Prolonged exposure to stress may contribute to sudden outbursts, anxiety and negative social effects. The recent protests and uploaded internet videos of arguments between passengers on trains and buses support the findings in American behavioural researcher John B. Calhoun’s rat study that overcrowding leads to increased aggression.

During daily commutes, this stress is intensified. A study by US professor Drury Sherrod argued that a sense of control lessened the negative impact of a crowded environment. So, while Hong Kong is crowded in general, it is less likely to have a negative effect if one can always choose to escape the congestion and go hiking instead.

By contrast, there is no control or choice over a regular commute to and from work. The lack of parking spaces and frequent traffic jams makes driving an unsuitable alternative and carpooling a challenge. In addition, tightly packed environments pose a serious health risk. Crowds can increase the likelihood of rapidly spreading a contagious disease due to reduced ventilation, and this is especially worrisome given the recent deadly flu outbreak.

The adverse health effects caused by stress strains the public health system as well. According to a map of suicides from 2005 to 2010, higher rates of suicides were found in the northern areas of Hong Kong compared to Hong Kong Island. This finding is troubling. Difficulty in relocation due to the city’s exorbitant housing costs and the lengthy and more expensive commutes could be reasons for this geographical discrepancy.

So one can hardly blame mainland visitors when the government has not taken drastic action. Large projects continue to dictate that more visitors must continue to come to Hong Kong, or the schemes risk becoming white elephants.

This may be a path to more record-breaking profits for some, but the result of congested public transport is a serious health and social concern that affects everyone.

There is no point in blaming or threatening mainland visitors when it is our border control and economic policy that require careful review.

Franklin Koo is an accredited mediator and author of Power to the People: Extending the Jury to the Hong Kong District Court. [1]

Source URL (modified on Mar 30th 2015, 5:57pm):

Expect ‘flexible’ enforcement of Hong Kong plastic bag levy for first month, official says

Government will add only 58 staff to enforce expanded regulations on plastic bags that now cover 100,000 retailers, up from 3,300

Enforcement of phase two of Hong Kong’s environmental levy on plastic bags – which kicks off today – will be flexible for the first month, an official said yesterday.

Inspectors from the Environment Bureau would focus on explaining the scheme and asking for compliance over the next four weeks, political assistant for the Environment Bureau Michelle Au Wing-tsz told DBC radio.

More than 100,000 retailers fall under the scope of the scheme from today – following an initial phase that covered around 3,500 retailers, mostly chain stores and supermarkets.

A new team of 58 inspectors has been created, which will refer cases to the 10 officers in the Environmental Protection Department team who specialise in enforcing the scheme.

Au admitted policing the second phase would pose a “challenge”, but she believed the city would get the hang of the new levy soon.

“I think Hongkongers are smart; taking the first phase of the scheme, in 2009, as an example they caught on quite quickly,” she said.

Au said plainclothes officers would be sent out to inspect retailers’ implementation of the scheme, alongside inspections by uniformed officers.

A hotline by the department will answer public inquiries about the scheme and handle shoppers’ reports on any non-complying retailers.

The first phase imposed a simple 50-cent charge on shoppers for each plastic carrier bag required. Now different retailers will charge different levies, and unlike shops in the initial phase, retailers included from today will not have to pass the cash on to the government.

Aeon, which operates 13 supermarkets in the city, said that from today its small, free bags for fruit, vegetables and frozen items would be moved next to the cashiers to be distributed by staff.

ParknShop said staff members at its stores had been given training and clear guidelines on the new measures. It would use its PA system and put up posters to advise customers about the new rules and remind them to bring their own bags.

The Wing Wah bakery chain said it was putting up notices outside its stores listing the new levies on bags, which would range from 50 cents to HK$3.

While the government has claimed the first phase a success, with the number of plastic bags going to landfills reduced by up to 90 per cent, figures show the number of plastic bags distributed has risen.

In a reply to queries by the Legislative Council, the Environmental Protection Department said the number of plastic bags distributed by the city’s retailers in the initial phase rose from 13.46 million per quarter to 17.96 million between 2009 and the end of last year – an increase of 33.4 per cent.

The number of retailers taking part in the initial phase rose 17.3 per cent to 3,534 over that period.

Bag manufacturer Wing Kai Plastic Products, in Cheung Sha Wan, said orders for plastic bags had remained at the same level since the scheme began in 2009. A spokeswoman predicted the impact of the new levy on orders would be slight.

The company said orders for paper bags, which are exempt from charges, had risen by 1 per cent lately.

Retailers who break the rules could be fined HK$2,000. Shoppers are not targeted.

· Ocean Park: HK$1 to HK$5 for each bag, depending on its size.

· Maxim Group: HK$1 per bag at Chinese restaurants and 50 cents per bag in fastfood outlets.

· Wellcome: 50 cents per bag, free bag for exempted items

· Parknshop: 50 cents per bag, free bag for exempted items

· Aeon: 50 cents per bag, free bag for exempted items

· H&M: to switch to paper bags

Source URL (modified on Apr 1st 2015, 2:23am):