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Wake Up and Smell the Pollution by HK staff | HK Magazine Online

April 2010 – respirable suspended fine particulates levels (PM2.5) in micrograms per cubic meter of air (the most lethal form of pollution)

Let’s see some cities in the world PM2.5 levels:

Vancouver 4.8, Sydney 7.0, Hobart 7.1, Perth 8, Stavanger 8.1, Adelaide 8.1, Washington DC 10.7, Madrid 13.1, London 13.5,Los Angeles-Long Beach port 14.8,

Hannover 15.4, Rotterdam 17.9,Singapore 19, Metro Manila 21, Paris 22.9, Dar es Salaam 23, Athens 27.4, Beirut 31, Lima 34.2, Krakow 35.5,

HONG KONG CENTRAL ROADSIDE 36 ! , Dakar 38, Accra 49.8

The (no political will to act) TSANG Pollution Legacy – good riddance !

Wake Up and Smell the Pollution

June Ng and Jakki Phillips head into the smog to investigate Hong Kong’s bad air crisis.

By HK staff | published Apr 01, 2010

Wake Up and Smell the Pollution

Hong Kong’s air pollution index hit an alarming record of 500

Wake Up and Smell the Pollution

One of the five pollutants in the air – Carbon Monoxide

Wake Up and Smell the Pollution

Satelite image of Hong Kong

Wake Up and Smell the Pollution

Common kind of mask cannot filter out particulates less than 10 micrometers

Hong Kong’s air pollution. You know it’s always been there, and you know on some level that you’re breathing bad air every day, but once you get used to it, you kind of forget about it. Until one day, our sky turns completely yellow and a sickly haze literally engulfs us all.

Without the sudden arrival of a severe sandstorm late last month, we might not have had the crucial wake-up call to our worsening air pollution that we desperately need. And though the cloud has lifted, the government still has its head buried in the sand. When faced with the city’s air pollution index (API) hitting an alarming record high of 500, their less than confidence-boosting response was to claim, “It’s really just sand you’re seeing, not pollution.” Considering that this figure was more than double the previous record high API of 202 in July 2008, you would think the government would take bold and decisive action when faced with a truly alarming reading. Perhaps a few announcements outlining a pollution-busting action plan rather than simply blaming sand from the mainland?

So with the sandstorm thankfully behind us, now is a great time to take a good, hard look at the mess we’re in and figure out just how we got here. How bad is our air pollution problem? Can we expect more choking sandstorms? What’s the government going to do about our air pollution woes? We also look into how you can prepare for the next sand storm, and finally, what you can do to help. Hold your breath, and here we go.

What Exactly is in the Air?

There are six pollutants contributing to our bad air: sulfur dioxide, particulate matters, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, ozone and lead. Last year the Air Quality Objectives Review (AQO) was carried out to re-examine and reset the standard acceptable levels for these pollutants. The original guidelines were drawn up in 1987 and based on WHO guidelines of the time. But, rather shockingly, the government chose only to meet WHO’s entry-level standards—which are for developing countries—rather than adopting levels for developed countries.

For example, the proposed annual objective for the pollutant PM10 (particulates of 10 micrometers or less) is 50 μg/m3 (micrograms per cubic meter), only slightly lower than existing outdated levels of 55μg/m3; while PM2.5, the most dangerous particulate because it is respirable, gets a target of 35μg/m3 (the target for developed countries is 10μg/m3). The objective proposed for sulfur dioxide will be 125 μg/m3, yet the WHO guideline is 20 μg/m3. Mike Kilburn from think tank Civic Exchange says the government only wants to follow the levels for developing countries because it means we’re “allowed” to have dirtier air. This means pollution statistics won’t look so bad and it will seem like we don’t have many bad air days because higher levels of toxic particulates are deemed “acceptable.”

For example, official government data from last year only shows us suffering 40 dirty days, that is, days considered to have excessive pollution levels. If we had to meet WHO guidelines for developed countries our pollution levels would regularly exceed the targets and we’d probably end up with 300 dirty days which would reflect badly in government pollution records. And there is more worrying news. The biggest power company, CLP, recently announced its emissions of nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide and respirable suspended particulates have increased by six percent, 20 percent and 30 percent respectively. The rise occurred after they lowered the proportion of natural gas in the fuel mix because they were worried gas in the South China Sea might run out in 2012. But in 2008 the mainland government promised power companies in Hong Kong a steady natural gas supply. But until our government builds the pipelines, the power companies will continue to conserve gas and as a consequence, further pollute our air.

Christian Masset of Clear The Air, an environmental NGO that has been advocating the improvement of air quality in Hong Kong since 1997, thinks the government isn’t doing enough to tackle major polluters in the private sector such as the power companies and bus companies. He says: “We have been talking to the government about introducing an ‘agglomerator’ when burning fuel, which is a technology that can cut down 90 percent of respirable suspended particulates. But after a year-and-a-half they still say they need more time to study.”

Public transport is also a big problem as there are still many Euro I and II buses on the road, together with heavy diesel vehicles. (The “Euro Emissions Standard” is a measurement of vehicle emissions used in EU countries; the higher the number, the lower the emissions). Lau also says a contributing reason for traffic pollution is the inadequate subsidy program for converting heavy trucks from diesel to cleaner models such as Euro IV or above. He says that while the owner of a diesel taxi can get a one-off $40,000 grant to convert to LPG, the subsidiary for trucks varies and can be as low as $10,000. The result of the taxi scheme is that 99 percent now operate in this cleaner mode while the truck scheme has been far less successful. As for bunker-fueled ferries and container ships (the cheapest, and by far most toxic type of fuel), while there are regulations in many countries that stipulate they must switch to low-sulfur fuel when entering the port of the city, there are no such rules in Hong Kong. “The government’s slow pace in dealing with things shows whether they think tackling air pollution is an urgent matter,” says Prentice Koo from Greenpeace.

Don’t Be Blinded by the Sandstorm

While the sandstorm’s heavy dust content did contribute to the record high pollution readings of up to 500, we mustn’t forget that for four days before the storm struck, the Air Pollution Index (API) was at the “very high” level in urban areas such as Causeway Bay, Mong Kok, Central/Western and Eastern District. Our air was bad to start with long before the sandstorm rolled into town.

But while the government rightly encouraged “contingency measures” such as urging people to use public transport as much as possible, drivers to turn off their engines while stationary, asking power companies to use cleaner fuel, and even smokers to smoke less, why aren’t they actively trying to bring down the pollution on a regular basis, or issuing people with guidelines on what to do during a bar air day? Secretary of the Environmental Bureau Edward Yau claims that air pollution, unlike typhoons, would not affect people’s daily routines.

Greenpeace climate change campaigner Prentice Koo is upset by the government’s response, which he thinks is irresponsible. He says: “Edward Yau said air pollution would not affect people’s daily lives as much as a typhoon does. But it does affect our health.” Professor Anthony Hedley, professor of Community Medicine at the University of Hong Kong, says, “the sandstorm is definitely a potential health hazard and will have caused many problems such as eye and skin irritation and upper respiratory symptoms. However, the sandstorm will probably not be as toxic as Hong Kong’s usual daily mix of combustion particles and gases, that throughout the year is caused by Hong Kong’s own pollution emissions from traffic, shipping, port activities and power generation.”

The severe index reading may, in fact, be a timely wake-up call reminding us how unacceptable our air pollution levels are. Professor Alexis Lau, a meteorologist with the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology says: “Although the API surge to 500 was due to the sandstorm, that doesn’t mean that our air is fine and that there aren’t things we can do to reduce pollution here.” According to Lau, the last time Hong Kong had a similar crisis was in 1996—but the concentration of pollutants in the air was half that of the recent scare. Also deeply concerned about Hong Kong’s pollution levels is Mike Kilburn, the environmental program manager of local think tank Civic Exchange. He says: “The sandstorm has helped make people aware that air pollution is an issue, and the government has to respond to the public.”

Does the Air Quality Index Work?

Yes, it does work—but the statistics will be a day old by the time you read them. The Environmental Protection Department (EPD) reports the real-time general and roadside APIs hourly and these indices are calculated by comparing the measured concentrations of the major air pollutants with their respective health-related Air Quality Objectives (AQOs) established under the Air Pollution Control Ordinance. Some data used to calculate the so-called hourly “real-time” indices are not actually real-time—the amount of total suspended particulate and respirable suspended particulates (RSP) are measured 24 hours ahead of the time published on the website, meaning that the API doesn’t truly reflect what is going on at any given moment.

Also, the API is only determined by the highest concentration of one of five pollutants in the air (sulfur dioxide, particulate matters, nitrogen dioxide, together with ozone and carbon monoxide). Therefore, the index fails to address the pollution levels of the other four. But not many Hongkongers are aware of this. Edwin Lau from Friends of the Earth says the government has a responsibility to educate the public about how the index is formed. “The government should break down all the scientific data to a laymen level so people can understand.” It is also technologically feasible to calculate a real-time index although the government doesn’t provide the service. Professor Anthony Hedley founded his own Hedley Index ( last year that gives true real-time pollution levels across the city. The website also calculates the value of tangible and intangible loss caused by pollution, for example, the cost of health care or lost productivity due to pollution. “The present API is totally useless as an instrument for risk communication,” says Hedley. “The so-called ‘health advisories’ issued by the EPD, without any authority whatsoever from the public health specialists in Hong Kong, are seriously misleading. There is very little possibility that any measures taken on the basis of these so-called health warnings will benefit anyone.”

He also stresses that the damage pollutants do to our health occurs at levels below the air quality objectives because they are so lax. The Council for Sustainable Development has suggested the government set up a three-tier warning system for air pollution, similar to the rain storm warnings, which allows people to work from home on days with a high pollution index. Environmental Secretary Edward Yau has not promised that the department will consider it.

Why Weren’t We Warned?

Less than 24 hours before Hong Kong’s pollution levels rocketed to record-breaking highs of 500—the API was predicting levels of only 180. So why was the forecast so inaccurate? The most obvious reason, as previously mentioned, is because the guidelines on acceptable particulate levels are out of date, but there is also the fact that the Hong Kong Observatory does not have equipment to detect or forecast sandstorms. Greenpeace campaigner Prentice Koo says, “Everyone knows Hong Kong does not suffer from earthquakes but we still have a warning system developed for them. Shouldn’t we do the same for sandstorms that could have a direct impact on us?” Although the Hong Kong Observatory does not have the technology to predict sandstorms, the Hong Kong Polytechnic University does. According to Janet Nichol, a professor at the department of land surveying and geo-informatics at Poly U, the government could make reasonable predictions with the same technology and data that they have. The EPD say they will collaborate more with the Observatory to analyze sandstorm patterns and will make better use of their network with the mainland to issue an early notice. But there is currently no news regarding the implementation of a sandstorm warning system.

The Impact of Desertification

When Hong Kong was choked by pollution last week, we were actually feeling the impact of severe environmental degradation in China. The harmful air quality was partly caused by a sandstorm originating in northern China that blew loose dust and dirt mixed with industrial pollution down south, adding to Hong Kong’s already serious smog problem. It was China’s worst sandstorm in more than a year, affecting 270 million people across 16 provinces. The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences estimates that there are 24 sandstorms a year, six times the number 50 years ago, according to China Daily. The increase is the result of desertification caused by deforestation, overgrazing, drought and urban sprawl. China’s government has invested huge sums of money in projects aimed at stopping the relentless spread of sand, such as tree planting and the protection of existing foliage. But rising temperatures, increased pressures on water resources and 30 years of huge economic growth has meant limited success. In fact, China Daily reports that about 30,000 square miles of China’s grassland turned into desert over only the last few decades. So, with the number of sandstorms in China increasing and more of the country’s land crumbling to dust, we should prepare ourselves for more sore throats, headaches and stinging eyes.

Our current API is divided into five bands: Low (0 to 25), Medium (26 to 50), High (51 to 100), Very High (101 to 200) and Severe (201 to 500). When it reaches “very high” to “severe” levels, people with existing heart or respiratory illnesses may notice a mild to significant aggravation of their conditions.

What About the Animals?

While there is no official research about the effect of air pollution on animals in Hong Kong, Andy Cornish, the conservation director of the World Wide Fund (WWF), says “if people are dying prematurely because of polluted air, it will affect animals too. And if migratory birds saw a sandstorm coming, out of instinct, they would fly away.”

So what about our four-legged friends? It turns out dogs get the same health issues as humans when the pollution index is high. Vet Justin Chu says: “Even healthy dogs might get a sore throat, or develop itchy eyes or skin. But it will be worse for old dogs and those with lung and heart disease.” You’ll know if your dog is suffering from pollution if it has a hoarse bark, watery nose or keeps licking its lips. If your pet displays any of these symptoms on a bad air day, Chu’s advice is to keep them indoors. Cats are less likely to be affected by pollution because they go outside less.

The Not-So Great Outdoors

What’s the point of having mountains to hike up, trails to run along and a sea to swim in if soaring pollution levels result in government warnings telling us to “stay indoors and avoid physical exertion”? Lister Woo has been dragon boating in Hong Kong for more than 15 years but was forced to cancel his training session for the first time ever last week. “It’s never happened before and we wouldn’t cancel our practice unless we thought it could be bad for our health. We saw the government warning and decided not to risk it.” Woo paddles for the Hong Kong International Paddle Club, which will compete in the world dragon boat championships in Macau at the end of July. “It’s worrying because if we have to cancel more training sessions it could affect our performance at the competition.”

Keith Chan has been running in Hong Kong for 30 years and is the founder of He says: “I was going to go for a run last week but when I saw how high the index was, I decided against it. I definitely think pollution is getting worse and it’s affecting runners all over Hong Kong. Many people now avoid running at night because the traffic fumes are so bad. Some people only run in the hills to avoid the city center pollution. It’s a shame that pollution gets in the way of people doing a sport they enjoy.” Pollution levels above 200 are considered “severe” and carry a government warning telling us to “reduce physical exertion and outdoor activities.”

Pollution in Central reached dangerous levels one out of every eight days last year. But as outdoor sports grow in popularity in Hong Kong, more people will be risking their health in order to pursue their passions. Richard Thornton is the president of the Hong Kong Dragons Triathlon Club and says the quality of air here is a growing concern for his members. He says: “The thought of pushing hard in a training session at near maximum heart rate and swallowing lungfuls of Hong Kong’s air is becoming more distressing because all triathletes want to train, but then feel restricted because of the pollution levels. The effects of training in these conditions can definitely be felt afterward. It would be a shame to see participation in such a great sport dwindle as people shy away due to air pollution concerns.”

It’s not just local sporting clubs and associations that are struggling against the fumes. Some international runners refuse to take part in the Hong Kong marathon because of poor air quality and concerns were raised as to whether it was safe for teams to train before the Rugby Sevens. With the tourism board promoting Hong Kong as a hiking destination, we should also consider the impact air pollution has on the tourism industry. Winnie Leung is a volunteer hiking guide who regularly takes out groups of tourists. She says: “I cancelled three hikes last week because of the pollution, which meant disappointing a lot of people. Unless Hong Kong can clean up its act, I worry hikers will go elsewhere and our tourism will suffer.”

Leung’s sentiments are shared by Michael Pieper who runs his own hiking website ( and Facebook hiking group. He says: “High pollution levels in Hong Kong can be directly related to the number of visitors to my hiking website. When there are blue skies, visitor numbers soar and likewise when pollution skyrockets, visitor numbers drop right off. There is only so much that I can do to promote Hong Kong’s vast array of hiking trails. The rest comes from the government’s commitment to caring for the health of its people by cleaning up our dirty skies.”

Also see: how to protect yourself during the next bad air day.

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