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April 29th, 2011:

It’s no good blaming the weather for pollution

South China Morning Post –  29th April 2011

It’s that air pollution blame game again. Less rain and stronger sunshine are the reasons given by the Environmental Protection Department for Hong Kong’s increased pollution levels during the first three months of the year. In recent years, we have also been told that dust clouds, climatic systems or factories in Guangdong are responsible. But let us be clear – it is us and no one else behind the bad air.

A department spokesman said earlier this week as yet another batch of poor figures were released that dry weather meant pollutants would stay in the air longer. Less cloud cover caused solar radiation, which formed photochemical smog. These reasons may go a way to explaining why the air pollution index was at a “very high” level for about a third of the period. They do not answer the question of how the pollution got there in the first place, though.

Meteorology is not required to answer it. It is caused by emissions from our vehicles, vessels and fossil fuel-burning power stations. Weather patterns can blow bad air our way, as last year, when dust from northern deserts choked our skies. In past decades, when Guangdong truly deserved the tag “factory of the world”, the polluted air from furnace smokestacks certainly did waft our way with the right conditions. At street level and for most of the time above our heads, though, the unhealthy air we breathe is our own making.

There has been progress. Government rules, guidelines and incentives have meant a marked decrease in some pollutants. But others are rising. The quarterly figures show that levels of roadside nitrogen dioxide from vehicle emissions, which can cause respiratory problems like asthma and bronchitis, went up 21 per cent. No wonder air quality in areas where traffic is heaviest and most congested, Central, Causeway Bay and Mong Kok, was worst.

We have got the ways and means to improve our air and make it safer. Laws and better standards will make all the difference. The existing voluntary schemes clearly do not work. Ignoring the causes and putting the blame on the weather is not a solution.

Pollution sensors to detect filthy vehicles

South China Morning Post  29 April 2011

Environment officials intend to track polluting taxis and cars using remote-sensing street-level technology.

The plan – which aims to cut ozone and nitrogen filth – is being drafted by the Environmental Protection Department. The technology has been around for years but officials are now taking a serious look at it as the nature of air pollution changes.

Since 2006, improvements have been achieved in the concentrations of respirable suspended particles and sulphur dioxide, thanks to the installation of sulphur scrubbers at major coal-fired power plants in the delta region, according to results from the 2010 regional air quality monitoring network, released yesterday.

But no notable improvements were recorded for nitrogen dioxide, mostly attributed to vehicle emissions, or for ozone, a secondary pollutant formed by a chemical reaction among air pollutants.

Since the monitoring network, with 13 stations in Guangdong and three in Hong Kong, came into operation five years ago, ozone in the air had risen 10 per cent. While sulphur dioxide and particulate levels had fallen 47 and 14 per cent, nitrogen dioxide went down by only 7 per cent.

“The ozone might be a problem even beyond the region. There is an increase of ozone outside the Pearl River Delta, too,” an official from the department said.

He said the key to suppressing ozone formation was to lower the emission of its contributing pollutants – nitrogen dioxide and volatile organic compounds. Towards this end, the mainland seeks to cut 10 per cent of nitrogen pollution in its 12th five-year plan for 2011 to 2015.

Locally, the official said, old franchised buses would be equipped with a pollution reduction device. A trial will begin later this year. For vehicles that run on petrol and liquified petroleum gas, the department was working out a plan to spot excessive emissions using the street-level sensor.

The official said there was a need for different standards for vehicles of different ages, and to gather enough data to set up benchmarks. “We will do it as quickly as possible so that the trades and drivers could be consulted,” he said.

World of people just dying to indulge

Lifestyle-related diseases stemming from tobacco, alcohol and obesity, have taken over infectious diseases such as HIV and malaria to become the greatest killer of people worldwide.

Director-General of the World Health Organisation Margaret Chan yesterday released a report that showed non-communicable illnesses including cancer, diabetes and heart disease had contributed to 36.1 million deaths in 2008 – nearly two thirds of the 57 million deaths around the globe that year.

Speaking at a meeting in Moscow, Dr Chan said the rise of these diseases was an enormous challenge for affluent countries, but more so for low and middle-income countries that experienced 80 per cent of the 36.1 million deaths in 2008.

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”For some countries, it is no exaggeration to describe the situation as an impending disaster; a disaster for health, for society, and most of all for national economies,” she said.

”Chronic non-communicable diseases deliver a two-punch blow to development. They cause billions of dollars in losses of national income, and they push millions of people below the poverty line, each and every year.”

However, Dr Chan stressed that the diseases were largely preventable and could be treated and controlled with the right medical interventions. She said millions of lives could be spared if governments adopted stronger anti-tobacco controls while promoting healthier diets, physical activity and less harmful consumption of alcohol.

Without action, Dr Chan said the epidemic was projected to kill 52 million people annually by 2030.

In Australia, the report said about 63,400 men and 63,200 women died in 2008 because of non-communicable diseases. About 40 per cent of the population did not exercise enough with 64 per cent deemed overweight or obese.

It also noted that 17 per cent of Australians smoked daily, 36 per cent had high blood pressure and 9 per cent had high blood glucose levels. And in 2008, every Australian consumed about 10 litres of alcohol.

Professor Rob Moodie from the Nossal Institute for Global Health at Melbourne University said Australia had a high burden of non-communicable diseases and needed to ramp up its efforts to reduce the incidence.

He said although the Australian government had done well on anti-tobacco policies, it needed to limit the widespread availability of alcohol and increase pressure on the food industry to reduce the salt content of foods and advertising of unhealthy products to children.

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