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Delta leads nation on dirty-air data

Regional partners, including Hong Kong, team up to unveil real-time readings on toxic fine particles
Shi Jiangtao in Beijing and Cheung Chi-fai
Mar 09, 2012

The Pearl River Delta is a step ahead in releasing up-to-the-hour information on microscopic pollutants across the region, including Hong Kong, as it seeks to clear the air on a pressing environmental threat.

Hong Kong and Guangdong province yesterday published on government websites key particle readings from the country’s largest network for air-quality detection, consisting of 31 stations.

Xiamen in Fujian province also released yesterday’s air-quality readings from its three monitoring stations.

The fine particles, known as PM 2.5, are widely seen as more hazardous to health compared to larger particles because of their ability to penetrate blood vessels directly. PM2.5 refers to particulate matter less than 2.5 micrometres in diameter.

An environmental expert says the release of data was a symbolic and significant move clearly meant to answer concerns about pollution and reverse widespread distrust of official air readings. It also sets an example for the rest of the country, says Professor Chen Zunrong, from Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou.

“It is a major step forward in promoting transparency of government information that will help the public understand the truth about air pollution,” Chen said.

Hourly and 24-hour average readings of the fine particles at 17 stations in the delta region and 14 stations in Hong Kong can now be viewed on the websites of the Guangdong Environment Protection Bureau and Hong Kong’s Environmental Protection Department. Hong Kong already publishes online the levels of other pollutants, such as ozone and nitrogen dioxide.

Neither website covers readings from across the border.

Chen said other regions, especially major cities, were expected to feel the heat and learn from the delta on how it was seeking to control air pollution.

Shanghai plans to publish data on fine particles from June, while Tianjin has yet to unveil a timetable.

Chen believed the public would have greater expectations for clear air, which could translate to heightened pressure on local authorities in tackling rampant pollution.

“Information transparency will certainly help the government curb pollution, like what we have seen in Hong Kong,” he said.

The launch came just days after the central government released revised national standards on air quality, covering the smog-inducing fine particles.

Fine particles had long been omitted from the country’s pollution parameters. But it was at the centre of a national outcry last year when the government’s secrecy over smog problems in major cities caused concern.

In January, Beijing became the first city on the mainland to publish the fine particles readings. However, the data, based on a single monitoring station, was widely seen as incomplete and ineffective in gauging the capital’s serious smog problems.

Mainland environmentalists hailed the latest move of publishing data as a landmark step in the delta’s synergy on pollution control and transparency. Green activists in Hong Kong welcomed it with caution, particularly over what they said were lax standards on pollution data.

Zhou Rong, a Greenpeace China campaigner, said residents of the delta region should be grateful that Hong Kong played a critical role in facilitating the data’s release.

Zhou said “the decision to release the pollution data could be largely attributed to the push from Hong Kong and environmental awareness in the region”.

Zhou noted that Guangdong had done a better job in researching and taking action against pollution than other regions over the years.

The province has been at the forefront of tackling air pollution through co-operation with Hong Kong. In 2002, both sides signed a pact to reduce emissions by up to 55 per cent below 1997 levels by 2010.

Helen Choy Shuk-yee, of the Clean Air Network, welcomed the disclosure but was concerned about lax standards on fine particles being introduced no earlier than 2014 in revised air quality objectives.

Choy said none of the readings at the 14 Hong Kong monitoring stations exceeded the proposed standard, at 75 micrograms on a 24-hour average. If standards were tightened to meet World Health Organisation guidelines at 25 micrograms, up to six stations, including all three roadside stations in Causeway Bay, Mong Kok and Central, would fail.

A spokeswoman for the Environmental Protection Department said the fine particle concentration yesterday was within the normal range. She said there was a 17 per cent drop in the fine particles level between 2005 and 2011.

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