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Don’t leave index hanging in the air

South China Morning Post – 30 Nov 2011

Hong Kong does not include fine particles in its air pollution index, let alone aim to meeting the World Health Organisation’s recommended standard for them. This is a serious public health issue. Studies have shown that exposure to high concentrations of these specks of pollutants from vehicle exhausts, power stations and factories can lead to heart problems, asthma attacks and bronchitis, especially in the elderly and children and those with pre-existing conditions. Data obtained by Friends of the Earth from readings by the Department of Environmental Protection at the junction of Chater and Des Voeux roads in Central puts it into perspective. This shows levels exceeded by only seven of 565 cities surveyed by the WHO. Hong Kong also rated worse than 869 other cities for concentrations of larger particles.

A single-location reading may not be a fair basis for comparison with other places, but there seems no question there are grounds for serious health concerns. Medical specialists say these fine particles can penetrate deep into the respiratory system and pose serious health risks. This makes nonsense of officials’ references to Hong Kong having one of the world’s highest rates of life expectancy. These rates were set by people who did not have to breathe today’s air for a lifetime. Anecdotal evidence from paediatricians of the number of today’s children with respiratory complaints is a worry. People do not expect much of an administration with only a few months to run. The current one is an exception. Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen has promised to introduce new air-quality objectives to replace the city’s outdated, 24-year-old standards. A spokeswoman for the department has reiterated that it will be done before this government’s mandate runs out in June. Even then, it proposes an annual mean standard of 35 micrograms of fine particles per cubic metre compared with the WHO’s 25, Singapore’s 15 and Australia’s eight. But it is important that the government gets it done and sets the bar higher for its successor

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