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Air Pollution Fuels Hospital Visits in Hong Kong

Deteriorating air quality in Hong Kong is sending more people to hospital, says a new survey.

According to a pair of researchers at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, who examined day-to-day pollution levels and hospital visits over a six-year period, a rise in airborne pollutants in Hong Kong was associated with a rise in emergency hospital visits.

Published in Environmental Health Perspectives, the study, led by professor Yu Tak Sun Ignatius and Ph.D candidate Hong Qiu, comes as residents report increasing levels of frustration with the city’s pollution. In 2010, a survey found that one out of four Hong Kongers have considered leaving the city because of its air quality, up from one in five in 2008, according to local think-tank Civic Exchange. A few years ago, the director of the city’s Philharmonic Orchestra had his family do just that, packing them up and moving them to Wisconsin, citing frustration with the city’s lung-choking air.

A previous study by the University of Hong Kong this year suggested that air pollution was responsible for some 3,200 annual deaths in Hong Kong(pdf). Businesses consistently rank pollution as one of their top issues of concern in moving staff to Hong Kong, particularly those with young children.

Mr. Yu and Ms. Qiu found that every 10 micrograms per cubic meter daily increase in coarse airborne pollutant particles resulted in a 1% increase in emergency hospital admissions for respiratory disease, or an additional 830 hospital admissions.

The study controlled for other kinds of pollutants, including PM2.5, superfine air particles dozens of times thinner than a human hair, which Hong Kong and mainland China only began publicly monitoring earlier this year. While such superfine particles are the greatest source of concern for public health experts, because of how they can penetrate the body’s organs, the Hong Kong researchers also found that so-called “coarse” particles—including those between 2.5 and 10 micrometers in size—likewise “have a high impact on public health,” said Ms. Qiu.

“These coarse particles shouldn’t be ignored,” said Ms. Qiu, who says the city’s future air quality objectives should adopt standards that explicitly address such particles. “They can also cause cardiovascular and respiratory disease.” Even short-term exposure to heavy air pollution, experts say, can prompt heart failure, arrhythmias and stroke.
– Te-Ping Chen. Follow her on Twitter @tepingchen

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