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It’s alarming when people can’t see the smog for the pollution

12 April 2012 – SCMP

One of the odd things about Hong Kong’s poor air quality is that a lot of people are relatively unconcerned about it, according to anecdotal evidence and some surveys. This is despite the Hedley Environment Index showing that there has been an annual average of 3,200 avoidable deaths due to the city’s bad air quality for the past five years. These figures are not disputed by the government.

There still seems to be a high level of ignorance in the community as to the dangers of poor air and the source of it. We are constantly astonished to hear lawyers and financial types, who you would assume are switched on to what is going on around them, expressing ignorance as to the source of our bad air.

A number of people fall for the Environmental Protection Department’s line that most of it comes from the mainland. This is technically true if we determine it by weight. But the harm that occurs is due to the high concentration of pollutants in built-up areas that creates a “canyon effect”. Most of the street level pollution comes from vehicles – 80-90 per cent of it from buses and trucks using old and or poorly maintained engines. So the worst pollution in terms of what people breathe is produced locally and is something that can be drastically reduced should the government care to take the necessary steps. That is, adequately subsidise the owners of these dirty engines to get their vehicles off the road, something which estimates have shown can be achieved for well under the HK$38 billion the government gave back to the public with its absurd HK$6,000 handout.

Roadside pollution kills far more people than bird flu and Sars (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) combined. Since 2003 there have been 338 reported deaths worldwide from bird flu and 916 deaths from Sars. Yet bird flu and Sars created far more alarm within the community. If roadside pollution could be linked to a single distinctive killer then possibly the public concern would reflect the threat it poses.

There are a number of reasons for the lack of effective proactive government measures to improve the situation. One is the reluctance to tighten air quality objectives since this will make it more difficult, if not impossible, for pet government infrastructure projects to secure approval. The government has been Machiavellian in stripping expertise out of the leading positions in the Environmental Protection Department, which is headed by a civil servant rather than a technical professional as in previous years. The department is also distinctive in having no public health professionals on board. Nevertheless, the lack of public awareness or concern is alarming and enables the government to continue to sit on its hands.

The Hong Kong Tourism Board regularly questions departing visitors. Its surveys over the past five years show people are increasingly “very satisfied” with the air quality. Last year 23.6 per cent were “very satisfied” compared with 11.1 per cent in 2006, 36.1 per cent were “quite satisfied” compared with 35.3 per previously, 31.1 per cent rated the air “average” compared with 35.9 per cent, and 7.1 per cent were “quite dissatisfied” compared with 13.7 per cent. Only 2.2 per cent were “very dissatisfied” compared with 4 per cent in 2006. This could possibly be explained by the increasing number of visitors from the mainland, where the air is even worse than here

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