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Clear opportunity to improve the air

South China Morning Post — Oct. 9, 2011

Sniff the air and scan the skies and you’ll easily get an idea of how severe the air pollution is at any given time. But the best gauge of the effectiveness over time of a government’s policies is data collected scientifically. The more specific the information, the better understanding there will be of the efforts under way and what more needs doing to make improvements. Mainland authorities, realising the shortcomings of current environmental standards, are considering including fine particulate matter in air quality readings. They should promptly embrace the idea, as should Hong Kong, so the skies can more often be clear and the health of citizens more assured.

China is among the countries that does not yet include fine particles with a diameter of 2.5 microns or less (known as PM2.5) in air quality objectives. There is every reason why they should be included; health studies have shown a close association between exposure to the pollutant particles from vehicle exhausts, power stations and factories, and premature death from heart and lung disease. In high concentrations, they can lead to heart problems, asthma attacks and bronchitis, especially in the elderly and children and those with pre-existing conditions.

A recent World Health organisation study of air quality in 1,100 cities shows why this issue is so pressing. Beijing was the tenth-dirtiest capital city in the world and ranked 26th among the 30 mainland cities surveyed. The least polluted, Haikou on Hainan island , ranked 814th in the world. Hong Kong was not included, but the data used by the WHO came from the China Statistical Yearbook 2010. Using the same criteria, Hong Kong would be 870th in the world alongside Manila and Turin in Italy.

Being ranked so low is not only cause for shame, but should also be a wake-up call. Beijing residents certainly got that jolt during the Olympic Games in 2008, when authorities imposed strict controls on industry and kept drivers off roads to clear the air. For a month, the city’s skies were transformed, giving residents a chance to see what was possible. The games have long ended, but the aspirations born of the chance to once again breathe unpolluted air are pushing the government to adopt higher environmental standards.

Few countries meet the WHO’s recommended standards. They are challenging to attain, particularly the standard for PM2.5, but adopting them as part of an effort to make the air cleaner is the worthiest of policies. The Hong Kong and mainland authorities should promptly take that step as part of a strategy of greater environmental responsibility, openness and transparency. Striving for what is accepted internationally is good for our health, the city and the world. Continuing to lag behind is damaging at every level.

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