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February 27th, 2006:

Hong Kong Marathon – 2006

Hong Kong Marathon – 2006

Monday, February 27, 2006

Pollution index bogus

The Hong Kong marathon has again brought the environmental crisis into sharp focus and this will probably recur for years to come. We can only hope that the marathon’s high profile will promote government action rather than denial and further false rationalisation. In the meantime, the marathon has highlighted several major inconsistencies, reflected in pronouncements by different sectors of the community, which should be addressed urgently. First, the Athletic Association sought to defend the event by pointing to an air pollution index (API) of 100 as “safe”.

It is not to be blamed for this, because, despite incontrovertible evidence to the contrary, the government continues to cling to this meaningless and misleading measure. I realise that to do otherwise (that is, tell the truth) would precipitate a political furore, but there are no grounds for arguing that such a level of pollution will not cause an injury to respiratory and cardiovascular systems of even healthy people.

I suggest that everyone who took part in the marathon was at risk of harm to their health from pollution. Mostly silent and unobservable, these medical events contribute to our lifetime risks of disease in the heart, blood vessels and lungs.

Second, I disagree with the downgrading of the risks by some medical colleagues, and the suggestion that these will amount to minor and insigificant symptoms. At the very least, they are signals of more fundamental damage. I suggest that the Academy of Medicine convene a consensus conference so that we can all speak with one voice on the matter.

Until and unless we have the courage to admit that we have lost control of air-quality management throughout the region and that the API is a completely bogus health-protection measure, we will move even further away from urgently needed definitive action.

ANTHONY J. HEDLEY, department of community medicine, University of Hong Kong