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January 9th, 2009:

Board Backs Smaller Developments

Olga Wong, SCMP – 10 January 2009

A meeting of the Town Planning Board yesterday endorsed the Planning Department’s action to reduce the bulkiness of residential developments proposed on the former North Point Estate site. But the meeting, which discussed the planning brief prepared by the department, urged the Transport Department to reduce the size of the public transport terminal to reduce air and noise pollution at street level.

Birth Defects Caused By Environmental Pollution

Stephen Chen, SCMP – Updated on Jan 09, 2009

One-tenth of all birth defects in Jiangsu, one of the mainland’s richest provinces, are caused by environmental pollution, and half of the remaining cases are at least partly related to the environment, according to a five-year medical study in 13 cities.

From 2001 to 2006, the number of birth-defect cases on the mainland rose by 50 per cent to 1.2 million, but there has been no large-sample study to explain why it happened. The biggest data pool on the issue was amassed by the Jiangsu Birth Defects Intervention Programme, which tracked more than 26,000 pregnant women from 2001 to 2005.

The team, led by Hu Yali of Nanjing University, will receive the Chinese Medical Science and Technology Award in Beijing today for its findings, the Chinese Medical Association confirmed yesterday.

Researchers found the most prevalent defect was congenital heart disease. The disease, closely related to air pollution, is often fatal and difficult to detect. The situation is particularly severe in some hospitals lacking proper equipment and trained staff.

Cleft lip was the second-most-common condition and also related to air pollution. Unlike heart disease, the defect can be detected by ultrasound and is not fatal, but many parents chose to abort fetuses with the condition, fearing that it might lead to some other, more severe defects.

The third most frequently reported disease was congenital hydrocephalus, or excessive fluid in infants’ brains, which, according to some overseas studies, is sometimes a result of vehicle exhaust emissions.

Birth defects have become the single biggest killer of mainland infants,” Dr Hu was quoted by the Nanjing Morning Post as saying.

Jiangsu’s defect rate, about 1 per cent, is about one-sixth of the national average. In poorer provinces, or areas with heavy industry, the figure is much higher. But mainland studies about the relationship between the environment and birth defects have been limited.

A 2007 study carried out in Taiyuan , capital of coal-rich Shanxi , showed that the abundance of small particles in the air, a major contributing factor to the mainland’s air pollution, was a significant reason for miscarriage, birth defects and neonatal deaths.

A study by the Shenzhen Maternal and Child Health Institute last year found that the city’s birth-defect rate was higher than the national average, indicating that birth defects did not necessarily go down as income increased. Urban dwellers typically make more money than people outside cities.

Health education was an effective way of countering the problem, the Jiangsu study found. The children of workers, farmers, poorly educated people and low-income groups were the most at risk of birth defects, the study said.

A programme involving more than 3,000 families in the province showed that even simple education about precautionary measures could dramatically increase would-be parents’ awareness of the dangers, helping doctors make correct diagnoses and take preventive measures.

The mainland was in desperate need of key intervention technology and standardised practice, Dr Hu said. In one district of Wuxi , only 15 couples took premarital medical tests in 2005 after the government abandoned mandatory testing – a change that raised the risk of birth defects. Medical personnel also needed better education and training, the study said.

Environmental Targets Set For 2020

Olga Wong, SCMP – Updated on Jan 09, 2009

Governments in the delta should keep up their work to improve the region’s environment, the central government says. They should consider setting up a scheme to safeguard environmentally sensitive areas by compensating cities that slow their pace of development.

The report, from the National Development and Reform Commission, set environmental targets to be achieved by 2020. For example, it wants 80 per cent of water used by industry recycled and more than 90 per cent of urban sewage to be treated before discharge.

The commission also says cities must use energy more efficiently and reduce emissions of polluting gases, but does not set targets.

The commission urges Guangdong to improve water quality through better monitoring of discharges into its rivers. Wildlife corridors should be set up in environmentally sensitive areas near the Hong Kong border, it says.

Ng Cho-nam, associate professor of geography at the University of Hong Kong, said the idea of compensating cities for slowing development to protect the environment was not new on the mainland but had not previously been applied to Hong Kong.

Tour Buses Should Not Be Given Dispensation From Idling Ban

SCMP – Updated on Jan 09, 2009

So tour bus operators are seeking a three-year exemption from an idling-engine ban. The Environment Bureau and our legislators must flatly refuse to entertain this proposal.

Every day hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong people wait patiently at bus terminals and stops for public buses. At terminals the engine is turned on only when the bus is ready to depart. At bus stops the vehicles pause just long enough to load and unload. There is no reason why visitors to Hong Kong should not follow the same routine. Arrival information can include a notice advising that this is how we do things here.

Some people say banning idling engines will have no effect on air quality. I doubt that any of these individuals are out and about on our streets every day and are exposed to the foul air and noise pollution that idling engines generate.

Ordinary Hong Kong people cannot even go to beaches like Repulse Bay, take a day out at Stanley or walk along the waterfront at Tsim Sha Tsui without being blasted by exhaust fumes from idling tour buses. A walk to Bauhinia Square in Wan Chai, that should be a well ventilated stroll, leaves one gasping for breath from the 50-odd tour buses with their engines running and drivers with their feet up.

Exemptions on green and red minibuses must be kept to a minimum. A minibus can leave its doors and windows open. There is no reason why passengers in a minibus queue cannot wait to board just as passengers on public buses do. With all those engines turned off the temperature and air quality will make waiting on our streets a lot more pleasant.

Our government’s duty before all else is to protect the interests of the Hong Kong public. Many of our visitors come from countries that have already introduced clean air measures and will accept and welcome restrictions. The others will see that an idling-engine ban does make a difference and this will encourage them to spread the message in their home countries.

We have waited far too long for this legislation to be passed. It must not be diluted to appease the interests of the minority transport lobby that consistently opposes change.

Candy Tam, Wan Chai