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March, 2009:

Low-level Ozone Exposure Found To Be Lethal Over Time

Los Angeles Times by Thomas H. Maugh II – March 12, 2009

An 18-year study shows an increased annual risk of death from respiratory illnesses, depending on the pollution level. It goes beyond studies that linked brief ozone spikes to short-term effects.

Ozone pollution is a killer, increasing the yearly risk of death from respiratory diseases by 40% to 50% in heavily polluted cities like Los Angeles and Riverside and by about 25% throughout the rest of the country, researchers reported today.

Environmental scientists already knew that increases in ozone during periods of heavy pollution caused short-term effects, such as asthma attacks, increased hospitalizations and deaths from heart attacks.

But the 18-year study of nearly half a million people, reported today in the New England Journal of Medicine, is the first to show that long-term, low-level exposure to the pollutant can also be lethal.

Current standards for ozone pollution cover only eight-hour averages of the colorless gas, but even with that relatively relaxed rule, 345 counties with a total population of more than 100 million people are out of compliance.

The Environmental Protection Agency “has already said that it will revisit the current ozone standards in the country,” said Dan Greenbaum, president of the Boston-based Health Effects Institute, one of the study’s sponsors.

“Undoubtedly, when it happens these results are going to be a very important part of that review,” said Greenbaum, who was not involved in the study.

The EPA may need to implement an annual standard, said University of Ottawa environmental health scientist Daniel Krewski, one of the paper’s authors.

Coauthor Michael Jerrett of UC Berkeley said the findings could have profound implications because they show that ozone worsens conditions that already kill a large number of people.

Deaths from respiratory diseases, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, emphysema and pneumonia, account for about 8.5% of all U.S. deaths, an estimated 240,000 each year. Worldwide, such conditions account for 7.7 million deaths each year.

Ozone is what is known as a secondary pollutant. It is not formed directly by the burning of fossil fuels. Rather, nitrogen oxides produced by such combustion react in the presence of sunlight to form ozone. It is thus the biggest problem in areas that are sunny and hot, Jerrett said.

As an oxidizing agent, ozone reacts with virtually anything it comes into contact with. In particular, it reacts with cells in the lungs, causing inflammation and a variety of other effects that lead to premature aging.

Jerrett and his colleagues studied 448,850 people over age 18 in 96 metropolitan regions who enrolled in the American Cancer Society Cancer Prevention Study II in 1982 and 1983. The subjects were tracked for an average of 18 years. During that follow-up period, there were 48,884 deaths, 9,891 of them from respiratory diseases.

The researchers found that every increase of 10 parts per billion (ppb) in average ozone concentrations was associated with about a 4% increase in dying from respiratory causes.

Riverside had the highest ozone average (104 ppb), and the risk of dying from respiratory causes was 50% greater than it would have been if there were no ozone.

Los Angeles had the second-highest ozone level and a 43% increase in risk.

In contrast, San Francisco had the lowest average ozone level (33 ppb) of the 96 regions studied and only a 14% increased risk, probably because of the fog and prevailing winds, which reduce ozone formation. The Pacific Northwest also had low levels of ozone, again because of rain and cool weather.

Cities in the East like New York and Washington had an average increased risk of about 25% to 27%.

The researchers found no increase in deaths from cardiovascular disease associated with ozone levels — those deaths are caused primarily by the fine particulates present in air pollution.

They also found no increase in overall mortality, suggesting that ozone is causing deaths in people who were probably going to die in another year or two anyway, according to epidemiologist Joel Schwartz of the Harvard School of Public Health, who was not involved in the study.

“We do know that ozone is particularly dangerous for people living with existing asthma or lung disease,” Jerrett said. And it didn’t matter what someone’s weight, income or education was. “It seems to affect a lot of people relatively equally.”

Coastline cycling track under study

Anita Lam – Mar 12, 2009 – SCMP

The government is exploring the possibility of building a cycling track that will connect the coastline between Central and Siu Sai Wan, development minister Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has confirmed in writing to lawmakers.

She said the Development Bureau was conducting two studies that would explore proposals to introduce eco-friendly transport systems to the promenade, including a cycling track and electric trolley buses.

But sources from the Planning Department said sections of the track might fall outside the waterfront area as the coastline was broken at certain spots in North Point and Wan Chai.

Mrs Lam said in a document submitted to the Legislative Council yesterday that a study of the eastern harbourfront, from Siu Sai Wan to the east of the Convention and Exhibition Centre, would begin in the next few months and be completed late next year. An outline of the Central harbourfront development is expected to be ready by the end of this year.

The department will consult Eastern District Council by the end of this month about the possible alignment of a cycling track.

Councillors had earlier proposed linking the break-off points by building the track on a boardwalk under the Island Eastern Corridor.

Mrs Lam said the government would examine the compatibility of the track with nearby land uses, associated facilities and implications for road safety and traffic management. A government source said it was unlikely that the cycling track would be connected to district centres. “The track is meant to be a leisure facility inside the promenade, not a means of transportation for people to go to work. Besides, there are many developments around the harbourfront,” the source said.

The Hong Kong Cycling Alliance welcomed the plan.

Singapore Beats HK In Survey Of Asian Expats

Nick Gentle – Updated on Mar 12, 2009 – SCMP

Singapore appears to have finally achieved its dream of being better than Hong Kong at something.

The Lion City was yesterday named the most desirable destination for expatriates from Asia.

Hong Kong would have been in contention for first place were it not for its appalling air pollution, according to ECA International, which organised the survey.

Instead, the city wheezed its way to 11th on the list. That ranking puts Hong Kong not only behind Sydney, Vancouver, Copenhagen and Wellington, but also behind Canberra, Australia’s capital and, some say, the world’s most boring city.

And according to Lee Quane, regional director for ECA – which, incidentally, has its Asian office in Sheung Wan, not Singapore – being boring might be the secret to at least a couple of the top 10’s successes.

“I think to be honest, that’s what helped get Canberra over the line,” Mr Quane said.

Mr Quane said that while it shares 11th position with Antwerp, Bern, Brussels and Dublin, Hong Kong had actually moved up in the rankings since the last survey, in 2007.

“Basically, that rise is down to improved perception of health care services in the city. There were less concerns about health risks also,” he said, referring to fears about bird flu.

The survey, which ranked 254 cities according to a number of criteria including health care, air quality and crime, is designed to be used by firms to determine whether they need to pay so-called hardship allowances to expatriate workers. Hong Kong was not considered a place where salaries needed to be augmented in that way. “If you’re coming from anywhere in Asia, then Hong Kong is not a hardship posting,” Mr Quane said.

A government spokeswoman defended the city. “Hong Kong’s positioning as `Asia’s world city’ is founded on the basis that Hong Kong is where opportunity, creativity and entrepreneurship converge, and are further underpinned by the rule of law,” she said.

Public Forum To Look At Air-Quality Review

Cheung Chi-fai – Updated on Mar 12, 2009 – SCMP

The government is inviting the public to attend a forum next week on the review of its air-quality objectives after consultants unveil initial results that will map out a strategy.

The forum will be held on March 20, a day after lawmakers are to be briefed by the consultant. An expert group that has steered the review since 2007 will also meet tomorrow to discuss the results.

Clean-air advocates have said environment officials will probably stick largely to their previous proposal of adopting what critics have described as standards for beginners. Hong Kong has been applying the same air-quality objectives for 21 years without review, lagging far behind the latest World Health Organisation guidelines, issued in 2005.

“We do not expect the consultant to come up with recommended standards very different from what has been mentioned before,” a source close to the expert group said.

Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen said in his last policy address that the city would adopt a set of minimum interim targets as a first step towards the ultimate targets. He also said the proportion of electricity generated by natural gas would be increased to at least one-half.

The source expected officials to make minor adjustments to these interim targets, such as tightening the limits on respirable suspended particles in the air. The consultant will release findings on the cost and projected health benefits.

One of the review’s key stakeholders, CLP Power, reported yesterday that its emissions of key pollutants dropped between 16 and 30 per cent last year, as it expanded natural-gas intake from its Hainan reserve, raising its share in the fuel mix from 23 to 28 per cent. Its carbon emission also fell 8 per cent.

Meanwhile, in a “green boat” project in collaboration with the University of Hong Kong’s department of mechanical engineering, a leisure junk owned by insurer Aviva has become the city’s first vessel to run on diesel, mixed with 5 per cent of bio-diesel refined from waste cooking oil.

It was also retrofitted with solar panels and a micro-wind turbine to power electrical devices on board.

Researchers said bio-diesel could help cut smoke emissions by 10 per cent. They hoped to eventually test an engine that runs 100 per cent on bio-diesel and a new smoke-reduction device for the boat.

Simon Phipps, managing director of Aviva, said the retrofit cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars was minimal compared with the health costs of doing nothing to tackle air pollution.

Environmental Concerns Played Down

Watchdog fast-tracks projects

Environmental concerns played down amid drive to boost economy

Shi Jiangtao in Beijing – SCMP – Updated on Mar 12, 2009

The mainland’s environmental watchdog has accelerated its approval of large infrastructure projects to help government stimulus efforts, despite concerns about environmental degradation.

Since the release of the 4 trillion yuan (HK$4.5 trillion) stimulus package in November, the Ministry of Environmental Protection has approved 970 billion yuan in projects while putting on hold 14 others totalling 104 billion yuan, according to Vice-Minister Wu Xiaoqing.

He said the ministry had sped up mandatory environmental impact assessment for large projects that the State Council considered necessary to boost the economy.

“We have approved some projects as soon as we got their applications and effectively served the purpose of maintaining high growth in gross domestic product.”

But Mr Wu and Zhu Xingxiang, head of environmental assessment, declined to list the 14 suspended projects, covering petrochemical, steel, fire-powered plants and paper sectors, saying many of the projects needed further consideration of their potential environmental hazards.

“We have especially stressed in our meetings that we would rather be seen as the baddies today than as criminals by history, and we will most definitely keep the bar high,” Mr Wu said at a briefing on the sidelines of the National People’s Congress yesterday.

The mainland’s anti-pollution drive has suffered several heavy blows recently, with the much-touted “green GDP” project scrapped and a big cut in funding for pollution control.

While Beijing raised its budget for public housing, education and health care, it quietly cut spending earmarked for cutting pollution and energy waste in the revised stimulus package unveiled last week, from 350 billion yuan to 210 billion yuan.

The move has apparently taken many by surprise, including environment vice-minister Zhang Lijun.

“Is that true? No one has talked about the decrease, right?” he asked.

The country’s top leaders, including President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, have repeatedly promised that the stimulus effort would not further harm the battered environment. Analysts said the spending cut was largely the result of a political game among various party and interest groups, which showed environmentalism has been sidelined again.

While NPC chairman Wu Bangguo warned on Monday that cutting energy consumption by 20 per cent and reducing key water and air pollutants by 10 per cent by next year would be arduous, Mr Zhang said he was confident the job would get done in time.

He noted that last year’s pollution statistics, unveiled recently, were a lot better than expected, mostly because of the financial downturn, which closed many factories nationwide.

Beijing-based analyst Ma Jun said the stimulus package might strengthen local authorities’ obsession with GDP growth, despite the government’s rhetoric about changing the development model of “pollution first, cleanup later”.

“It may be commendable to cut red tape and make the approval process more efficient, but environmental standards must not be compromised,” he said.

“In the light of such risks, the government must increase transparency in the stimulus package and enlist public participation.”

Outdated Smog Index To Be Overhauled

Shi Jiangtao in Beijing – SCMP – Updated on Mar 12, 2009

Mainland air-pollution standards are flawed, and major changes will be made to cover more pollutants and better monitor smog, a senior environment official has said.

Zhang Lijun, vice-minister of environmental protection, said a new air-pollution index would include fine particles and ground-level ozone, a gas produced in sunlight by mixed emissions from industry, vehicle exhaust and fuel vapours.

His announcement, at a briefing yesterday on the sidelines of the annual meeting of the National People’s Congress, came just months after the Beijing Olympics, during which China’s air-pollution measurement system was widely questioned.

The mainland’s air-pollution standards measure only three main air pollutants: sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and PM 10 – particulate matter with a median diameter of less than 10 microns.

“The current standards were adopted 10 years ago,” Mr Zhang said. “The absence of smog-related pollutants of fine particles and [ground-level] ozone has resulted in discrepancies between government statistics and public feelings.

“We often receive phone calls from the public, questioning our air-pollution index and wondering why we publish good air-quality figures even on smoggy days.”

Experts have long argued that the outdated standards, which have failed to reflect the stark reality of persistent smog affecting most cities in the country, should be partly blamed for the failure to tackle pollution and cut public health risks.

They linked soaring mortality rates due to widespread air pollution in the nation’s cities to the government’s ignorance of fine particulate matter and ground-level ozone, both believed to be linked to cancer, respiratory disease and other fatal illnesses.

Mr Zhang said air pollution was “very severe” across the country, with the number of smoggy days in the Pearl River Delta, the Yangtze River Delta, Beijing and Tianjin increasing rapidly.

“Some cities in the Pearl River Delta have recorded more than half a year’s worth of smoggy days.”

Smog Raises Risk Of Dying From Lung Disease

Smog raises risk of dying from lung disease: study

CHICAGO (AFP) — In a study which could impact air quality regulation, researchers said Wednesday that chronic exposure to one of the major components of smog significantly raises the risk of dying from lung disease.

The study found that the risk of dying from respiratory disease increased as much as 50 percent as a result of long-term exposure to high concentrations of ground-level ozone.

Previous studies have already linked spikes in ground level ozone levels to heart attacks and severe asthma attacks and shown that long-term exposure to the tiny particles of soot and dust found in smog is a risk factor for heart and lung disease.

This is the first study to look at the long-term health impacts of ozone, which is formed through the chemical reaction between sunlight and the nitrogen oxides spewed from vehicle exhaust and industrial emissions.

“Many studies have shown that a high-ozone day leads to an increase in risk of acute health effects the next day, for example, asthma attacks and heart attacks,” said study co-author George Thurston of New York University’s medical school.

“What this study says is that to protect the public’s health, we can’t just reduce the peaks, we must also reduce long-term, cumulative exposure.”

The researchers estimate that the risk of dying from respiratory causes rises four percent for every 10 parts-per-billion increase in exposure to ozone.

“World Health Organization data indicate that about 240,000 people die each year from respiratory causes in the United States,” said lead author Michael Jerrett of the University of California at Berkeley.

“Even a four percent increase can translate into thousands of excess deaths each year. Globally, some 7.7 million people die from respiratory causes, so worldwide the impact of ozone pollution could be very large.”

The Environmental Protection Agency will be reviewing its ozone standards in the coming year, which currently do not protect against the long-term cumulative effects of ozone exposures but instead set the standard for short-term exposure at 75 parts per billion.

The study found that even in a city like New York where ozone levels are almost never that high, the risk of death from respiratory disease was increased by 25 percent due to long-term exposure.

The study published in the New England Journal of Medicine analyzed data on some 450,000 people who were followed from 1982 to 2000 as part of an American Cancer Society study and compared it to ozone data collected in 96 US cities between 1977 and 2000.

Green Drive Falls Short, Admits NPC Chairman

Kristine Kwok – SCMP – Updated on Mar 10, 2009

The mainland has fallen well short of its goals to cut emissions of major pollutants and the amount of energy consumed per unit of gross domestic product, a top leader has admitted.

“To a great extent, this showed that the pattern of China’s economic development has not been transformed fundamentally,” National People’s Congress chairman Wu Bangguo said yesterday.

“Serious problems such as mounting pressure on resources and the environment, increasing difficulty in expanding employment, and insufficient consumption still exist.”

The government’s prospects of nearing its targets are slim this year, given the challenges Beijing faces in ensuring economic growth amid the global financial crisis.

The government has said that the 4 trillion yuan (HK$4.5 trillion) stimulus package announced late last year would not undermine environmental protection efforts.

But the deputy minister of the Ministry of Environmental Protection, Pan Yue, said last week the push for a “green GDP”, which would factor in the economic effects of environmental damage, had stopped.

Mr Wu said China had also failed to achieve desired progress in the services and the research and development sectors last year.

“We proposed that the State Council and relevant departments attach great importance to these problems,” he said.

Bus Air Con Unhealthy, Say Greens

Joyce Ng – Updated on Mar 09, 2009 – SCMP

A green group has called for the return of buses without air conditioning to improve ventilation after finding the air inside some air-conditioned buses had carbon dioxide concentrations four to eight times higher than that in average outdoor air.

The higher concentrations inside buses could encourage the spread of illnesses such as influenza among passengers, Green Sense president Roy Tam Hoi-pong said.

His group in December conducted half-hour measurements on eight KMB buses and one New World First bus, which were all air-conditioned. The tests found carbon dioxide concentrations ranging from 824 to 3,144 parts per million (ppm), the average being 1,643ppm. The highest was recorded on a KMB route 15 bus running from Lam Tin to Hung Hom.

None of the readings exceeded the Environmental Protection Department’s air quality guideline for air-conditioned buses, which regards an hourly average below 2,500ppm to be good and anything below 3,500ppm not harmful to health.

However, Mr Tam and Medical Association vice-president Alvin Chan Yee-shing said the guideline was too loose. Outdoor air normally had a concentration of 400ppm to 500ppm, Mr Tam said. “The higher the concentration, the poorer the ventilation inside the bus. It makes passengers feel tired and dizzy.”

Air-conditioned buses also wasted 5 to 10 per cent of their fuel driving the air-conditioning system, he said.

Dr Chan said the result was “alarming”, especially in the flu season; viruses would linger in stagnant air and spread among passengers.

A survey of 517 passengers by the group found 65 per cent supported use of non-air-con buses in winter.

KMB principal engineer Kane Shum Suet-hung said more than half the company’s fleet had electronic air cleaners to filter out contaminants. He said the opening and closing of doors brought in, on average, 8,000 cubic metres of fresh air per hour.

Unstable Weather Sparks Earliest Storm Alert

Cheung Chi-fai – Updated on Mar 06, 2009 – SCMP

A collision between warm air and a mass of cold air from the north resulted in the earliest yet rainstorm warning yesterday.

The Observatory issued amber rainstorm signals twice after a thunderstorm brewed across the border, moved down to Hong Kong and abruptly transformed the weather from soggy and cloudy into rainy and windy.

The rainstorm signals lasted from 2pm to 3pm and from 4.10pm to 5.10pm and brought about 30mm of rain in northwest New Territories, where gusts reached 90km/h.

The wind blew a cargo container from a stack of cargo boxes at a storage site in Yuen Long. It crashed to the ground next to a truck but no one was injured. Firemen rescued six construction workers who were trapped in a crane that had broken down under the wind. One worker suffered a minor hand injury.

The Observatory forecast that the weather would remain unstable today, with occasional heavy rain and thunderstorms. The temperature is expected to fall to as low as 15 degrees Celsius.

Chan Chik-cheung, senior scientific officer at the Observatory, said the rainstorm warning was the earliest they had issued since the warning system was introduced in 1998. The previous record was set on March 23, 2002. Mr Chan said such collisions were common during the transition from winter to spring.

“We had warmer than usual weather in February, and when the cold air meets the warm air it creates a strong convection of air currents so that warm air is forced upwards quickly and rainstorms are formed.”

He said the weather developed so quickly that staff had no idea the second storm was forming when they cancelled the first warning.

Johnny Chan Chung-leung, director of the Guy Carpenter Asia-Pacific Climate Impact Centre at City University, suspected that winters in Asia had changed in recent years.

He said it seemed that over the past few years, a cold month in winter was often followed by a warm month and then a cold month again.

But more studies were required to find out if this happened to be a long-term trend.

“The frequency of changes has increased, though it is hard to tell now if it is related to global warming or it is just a pattern of regional climate shift,” Mr Chan said.