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Getting Our Priorities Right – Cleaner Air in Hong Kong

18 April 2012

Recently in the South China Morning Post there has been a discussions about the issue of air quality in Hong Kong. It pointed out that the strange thing about Hong Kong’s poor air quality is that a lot of people are relatively unconcerned about it or express a lack of understanding about the source of our poor air quality. This is odd because since the Hong Kong SARS episode a decade ago, there has been a heightened awareness about health and hygiene among the population and yet even with the evidence of the negative impact of bad air quality on health widely, there is still a lack of understanding or concern.

The research available on the impact of poor air quality on public health is quite daunting. The Hedley Environmental Index estimated that the average annual number of avoidable deaths attributable to air pollution over the past five year is 3,200 which equates to a total of 16,000 avoidable deaths in Hong Kong over the past five years alone. Compare this with the figure provided by the World Health Organization (WHO) which pointed that there have been 341 deaths worldwide from bird flu since 2003 and a total of 913 deaths from SARS, the impact of bad air quality on public health in Hong Kong are profound. We seem to have got our priorities wrong. As a Bloomberg article pointed out last month, currently harbouring an unlicensed duck in Hong Kong carried 50 times the penalty from driving a vehicle belching smoky fumes.

In addition to the number of avoidable deaths attributed to air pollution, there is also an economic cost. The Hedley Environmental Index estimated that the tangible cost of health-care and lost productivity in 2011 was HK$3.89 billion while the total economic loss was estimated to be HK$42.45 billion. Bad air quality also hinders companies in Hong Kong to attract and retain talent. A report conducted by office supplier, Regus, revealed last year that three quarters of companies in Hong Kong saw pollution as a problem in recruiting and retaining international talent. Similarly, a survey conducted by the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong found that nearly half of its members knew of professional people who had left because of bad air quality. Also, Hong Kong is known as having one of the most beautiful skylines in the world and yet, there has only been 21 clear days this year to enjoy this, which further adds salt to the wound.

Whilst bad air quality is often blamed on the pollutants from the Pearl River Delta, local street pollution is an even more worrying culprit given its higher concentration in built-up areas. This creates a “street canyon effect” where it traps air pollutants and mixes it with local emissions from vehicles on the streets. Although the Government has introduced the early retirement of Euro II commercial diesel vehicles last year as way to reduce emission from vehicles, the pace at which this scheme is adopted is slow. There are still more than half of our buses that are the Euro II standard or earlier and they emit 1.5 times as much particulate matter as Euro III standard buses and 12.5 times as much as Euro V. Surely, there should be more of an urgency to push more off the road given the impact that they have on public health. Similarly, the outdated 25 years old Air Quality Objectives are badly out of sync with the air quality guidelines published by the WHO should be revised more swiftly in order to accurately inform public of the air quality in Hong Kong and translate this into health risk.

Whether you are worried about the impact that bad air quality has on your health or you are a company wanting to attract or retain talent or you would just like to have more days to enjoy our skyline, we all have a vested interest to improve air quality in Hong Kong. Improving air quality should surely receive the attention as it would if this was a disease like SARS and bird flu that was killing 3,200 annually. Let’s get our priorities right.

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