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Blackest Day Yet For Air Pollution

Olympic equestrian competitors shrug off concerns over heat and record smog levels

Cheung Chi-fai and Melanie Ho – SCMP – Updated on Jul 29, 2008

Hong Kong was hit by its worst-ever air pollution amid exceptionally hot weather yesterday, raising fears that similar conditions could affect competitors and spectators at next month’s Olympic equestrian events.

But organisers and competitors said they were confident they and their horses would be able to cope with such conditions.

In the latest extreme in a year that has already seen one of the longest cold snaps on record and the wettest June, the air pollution index hit 202 on the outlying island of Tap Mun – a point higher than the previous record of 201 set at Tung Chung in 2004.

The Observatory recorded a maximum temperature at its Tsim Sha Tsui headquarters of 34.6 degrees Celsius, although higher levels were found elsewhere including 36.6 degrees at the equestrian host town of Sha Tin, where the air pollution index was an unprecedented 173. The roadside readings in urban areas were much lower, however, hovering around 100.

The Environmental Protection Department blamed the fringe effects of Typhoon Fung-wong for the hot conditions and still air that trapped pollutants, and an active photochemical process in the air that generated ozone, the main pollutant.

University of Science and Technology atmospheric scientist Alexis Lau Kai-hon said the weather would normally become hot and air quality turn bad whenever there was a typhoon near Taiwan. He said that while yesterday’s westerly wind had brought hot air and pollutants from the mainland, the city had also made its own contribution to the dirty air.

“The pollutants travelled to the city and mixed with locally generated ones under the strong sunshine, giving rise to high concentrations of ozone in the air. But the question of why the reading was so high remains unanswered,” he said.

Ground-level ozone is a secondary pollutant produced by a chemical reaction of nitrogen oxide and volatile organic compounds under sunshine. A high concentration can lead to eye irritations, coughing and even chromosome changes

Lobo Louie Hung-tak, an associate professor in Baptist University’s department of physical education, said he was surprised to learn that the pollution reading in Sha Tin was so high.

He said the equestrian event organisers should consider postponing competition in such conditions.

“Even if the well-trained riders and horses can cope with the pollution and heat, the spectators, who are not allowed to use any umbrellas, might still be exposed to the health risks of hot weather and poor air quality,” he said.

But three equestrian teams already in Hong Kong downplayed the impact of pollution and hot weather and said they believed conditions would be acceptable.

“We have no concerns at all. These are the horses that we flew over from Florida, where it’s been 37 and 38 degrees for the last few weeks,” said Canadian team leader Michael Gallagher. “We’ve noticed the haze, but it’s not black like it is in Beijing.”

Hans Melzer, of the German team, which had its first training session yesterday morning, said: “The horses were quite sweaty but nobody was too tired.” Australian Brett Mace said the hot weather was not unique to Hong Kong.

Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen said during a visit to the equestrian venues that he found the weather no problem at all: “The city of Athens might be hotter than us. All players have to prepare for a fair competition, be it in a cold or hot place.”

The Equestrian Events Company refused to say if it would postpone events under similar conditions and said it had received no complaints about air pollution from the teams.

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