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WHO cancer report a wake-up call for Hong Kong on air pollution

SCMP – 18 June 2012

One of the leading questions of our times is just what it will take to convince the government to treat air pollution with a greater sense of urgency. It is a life and death issue. The Hedley Environment Index, maintained by University of Hong Kong researchers, shows 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, a fact which remains undisputed by officials. Perhaps the answer to the question is a decision by World Health Organisation experts to raise the cancer risk of breathing in diesel fumes to the same level as that for passive smoking. But we should not hold our breath in anticipation. We have a farcical idling engine ban that is now founded on exemptions, and we have an unconvincing attempt to ban smoking in public indoors, which shields the owners and managers of bars, restaurants and the like and doesn’t much frighten anyone else. The incoming administration of chief executive-elect Leung Chun-ying has a chance to show from the start that it really means to make a difference by putting the public interest before sectional and vested interests.

The WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer, comprising independent experts, has just reclassified the links between diesel exhausts and lung and bladder cancer from probable to definite. Its findings are based on analysis of decades of published studies, evidence from animals and limited research on humans. Hong Kong recently adopted new air-quality targets that still fall short in key areas of those recommended by the WHO seven years ago. More recently, however, the Environmental Department reported the worst-ever levels of respirable suspended particles and nitrogen dioxide. Officials blame low rainfall, sunny days and industrial activity beyond our borders in the face of evidence that polluted air is largely of our own making. The authorities know the real cause and what must be done to stop it – two coal-burning electric power stations, harbour traffic and vehicles, especially those with diesel engines. But as the watering down of the idling engine law shows, business interests still prevail over the public interest, even at the astronomical economic cost to the city of unnecessary deaths and ill health.

That said, officials have shown what can be done if they try, with marked reductions in the levels of some pollutants, encouragement to take old, polluting vehicles out of service and power firms gradually switching to cleaner fuel. It is not a question of money. Leung should give priority to air quality in his plan to make better use of the city’s huge reserves. For the sake of public health and the city’s attraction as a place to live and work, we trust the link between diesel fumes and cancer serves as a wake-up call.

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