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Deception Claim Over Push For Cleaner Air

Timothy Chui, The Standard – Friday, February 13, 2009

Lawmakers and academics have accused the government of face-saving deception and disregarding the costs to public health through its air- quality reform. “With the prospect of HK$200 billion being spent on roads, a new highway going through Central, conversion to cleaner vehicles on a low-level voluntary basis and limited development of the subway system, the future for heart and lung health in Asia’s World City could be bleak,” Hong Kong University School of Public Health professor Anthony Hedley warned.

Accusing the administration of obscuring the true scope of health risks brought on by polluted air, he characterized relations between academics and the government as adversarial, and any progress would require an attitude change and action on their behalf.

Sitting on the Environmental Bureau’s air quality review group’s advisory panel, Chinese University professor Wong Tze-wai said the panel’s discussions were dominated by control strategies instead of addressing stricter air-quality guidelines.

He also said academics were kept in the dark over key policy plans, revealing both he and University of Science and Technology professor Alexis Lau Kai-hon – another panel member – were blind- sided by the chief executive’s October announcement that the World Health Organization’s lowest standard would be adapted for the city. With government claims that respirable suspended particulates exceed standards 5 percent of the time at roadside stations, compared to 80 percent to 90 percent if European Union standards were applied, Lau accused the city of seeking meager standards to deflect criticisms of inaction because of worsening air.

He said targets should be set to drive progress, and to properly communicate the risks of high air pollution.

“If we want the public to support difficult decisions in improving air quality, we have to explain to them how bad air affects them. We’ve heard from government repeatedly that clean air costs money, but the community is paying much, much more for filthy air,” Hedley said.

Warning that the rise of pollution since the 1980s may lead to a public health disaster, dwarfing outbreaks such as SARS, he called for the formation of an independent and intellectually honest authority akin to an environmental Independent Commission Against Corruption to handle the issue.

Lamenting the city’s health authorities’ failure to influence policy at yesterday’s Legislative Council subcommittee on improving air quality, he said reducing exposure to pollutants generated locally should be tackled without delay. According to studies, he said present strategies would not improve air quality in the foreseeable future.

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