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We May Not Eat Poison, But We Still Breathe It

Edwin Lau – SCMP – Nov 22, 2008

Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, in his policy address, announced that the government is considering adopting the lowest standard of the latest World Health Organisation’s guidelines on air quality. This announcement was made ahead of the completion of the report reviewing air quality objectives.

Does this imply that the government already has its response to the air quality review exercise before the work – by an advisory panel and a paid consultant – is even completed?

The answer is quite apparent. Shouldn’t we then ask the administration why it has delayed for 18 months the adoption of the WHO’s guidelines on air quality and wasted taxpayers’ money?.

It is a shame that our government has not followed all the necessary steps but is instead considering adopting the lowest standard of the WHO guidelines.

These guidelines aim to help governments set appropriate standards in order to protect public health. Indeed, much tighter standards than those chosen as Hong Kong’s current objectives are used by other world-class cities such as London and New York.

When the WHO released the latest guidelines on air quality standards two years ago, our government told the public that it needed more time to consider what technology was required, as well as the financial implications, so it declined to immediately adopt any of those targets.

Meanwhile, experts repeatedly warned the administration that the deteriorating air quality in Hong Kong was costing more than 1,500 lives a year, with thousands more children and elderly suffering from illnesses related to air pollution.

The government recently released results from the Hong Kong-Guangdong regional air monitoring programme that show declining air quality in 13 of the 16 monitoring stations, including three in Hong Kong. This shows that control measures implemented by both governments, including Mr Tsang’s Action Blue Sky Campaign, launched more than two years ago, have been ineffective.

Hope is at hand. The mainland has agreed to provide Hong Kong with a steady supply of liquefied natural gas, a far cleaner fossil fuel than coal, for electricity generation for 20 years. If the government can tighten caps of key emissions for power companies, it should significantly reduce levels of key pollutants like sulfur dioxide, particulates, and oxides of nitrogen and carbon dioxide (a major greenhouse gas). That would leave only roadside pollutants from vehicles to be tackled. No doubt our government knows that the main culprits of this type of pollution are older diesel vehicles, mostly among the city’s franchised buses.

On this matter, the administration must take a strong stance and insist that these harmful vehicles, including high-emission old franchised buses, be retired by 2010. In the interim, low-emission zones should be introduced in crowded areas with heavy traffic, to ban polluting vehicles during peak hours.

I believe most Hongkongers are very disappointed that Mr Tsang did not put public health at the top of his policy agenda, especially considering the speed with which the government amended legislation to boost food inspections for melamine and other poisons.

Tainted food and air pollution are known – and largely avoidable – risks to public health, so surely it is the administration’s responsibility to remove these hazards, as far as possible, from our city.

As a matter of public health policy, the government is right to set strict melamine limits in our food. Following the same principle, it is inconceivable that it should still refuse to abide by internationally recognised air quality objectives to protect the health of its own people.

Edwin Lau Che-feng is director of Friends of the Earth (HK)

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