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Higher Transport Costs For Cleaner Air

Survey finds Hong Kong people willing to pay higher transport costs for cleaner air

The Associated PressPublished: December 17, 2007

HONG KONG: Hong Kongers would be willing to pay higher transport costs if it means breathing cleaner air, according to a survey published Monday, as the city’s dazzling skyline was once again shrouded by a thick, dirty haze.

The survey was released to coincide with a summit called by the government to discuss the deteriorating air quality in the bustling financial hub and how to tackle it.

Hong Kong’s skies are often heavily polluted by its two coal-burning power plants, marine and road traffic and factories over the border in mainland China, fueling concerns that tourists and investors may shift their attention to cleaner cities like Singapore.

Pollution monitoring stations in Hong Kong registered a “high” pollution reading Monday, meaning that regular exposure over months or years could cause long-term health effects.

A week earlier, downtown Hong Kong and some other areas recorded “very high” levels, prompting the government to advise people with heart and respiratory illnesses to stay at home.

Anthony Hedley, professor of community medicine at the University of Hong Kong, said cleaning up the city’s air was a “medical emergency.”

More than 75 percent of 82,000 people surveyed said they would happily pay higher transport costs if it meant the thousands of buses, taxis and minibuses clogging Hong Kong’s roads used cleaner fuel.

It also revealed that 42 percent supported a road tax system under which drivers are charged more for heavily polluting vehicles.

The money could be used to subsidize greener vehicles and public transport, the survey, commissioned by the government’s Council for Sustainable Development and carried out by the University of Hong Kong, found.

Speaking at the summit, Hong Kong leader Donald Tsang vowed to consider the council’s findings when formulating a long-term plan for cleaning up the air.

“We firmly believe if Hong Kong’s economy is to maintain a sustainable growth, it is necessary to improve our air quality, provide a quality living environment to attract investors and talent to stay in Hong Kong,” Tsang said.

Hedley, however, said the government needed to act fast as residents were already paying a heavy price for poor quality air, citing an earlier study that found that pollution contributes to 1,600 deaths in the city each year.

“The longer they delay, the more difficult it’s going to be to turn around. It’s already far too late,” he said.

The latest survey was conducted over the last five months, with responses collected via a dedicated Web site, through written submissions and face-to-face questioning at seminars and other events.

No margin of error was given as the survey was not based on a random sampling.

Diesel Air Pollution Linked To Heart Attack And Stroke

Diesel Air Pollution Linked To Heart Attack And Stroke In Healthy Men

UK and Swedish researchers found that diesel fumes from road vehicles increased blood clots and platelets in healthy volunteers. These are symptoms closely linked to increased risk of heart attack and stroke.

The researchers reported the results of a small study to a meeting of the American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions 2007 held in Orlando, Florida, earlier this week.

Previous observational and epidemiological studies have also shown a close link between exposure to traffic pollution and heart attack, said study lead author Dr Andrew Lucking, who is a cardiology fellow at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, UK.

“This study shows that when a person is exposed to relatively high levels of diesel exhaust for a short time, the blood is more likely to clot. This could lead to a blocked vessel resulting in heart attack or stroke,” said Lucking.

Lucking and colleague carried out a double blind, randomized cross-over study on 20 healthy male participatns aged from 21 to 44. Using a specially designed exposure chamber, the men were separately exposed to filtered air (this was the control) and then to 300 mg per cubic metre (mcg/m3) of diesel exhaust fumes, which is roughly the concentration you breathe in while standing by a busy street.

The researchers measured clot formation, blood coagulation, platelet activity and markers of inflammation by attaching each participant to a perfusion chamber and allowing a small amount of blood to pass through it. This was done 2 hours after exposure and then again 6 hours after exposure.

Clot formation was assessed by passing the blood through a special shear chamber that simulates the types of pressure the blood would be under in blood vessels. The researchers tested the blood at high shear and low shear.

Platelet activation was assessed by measuring the number of platelets associated with white blood cells. When platelets are activated they stick to white blood cells like neutrophils and monocytes and form clumps, thereby playing a key role in the formation of blood clots.

The results showed that:

  • Breathing diesel fumes increased clot formation in the low shear chamber by 24.2 per cent compared to breathing filtered air.
  • In the high shear chamber the increase in clot formation from diesel fumes was 19.1 per cent.
  • These effects were observed at both 2 and 6 hours after exposure to diesel fumes.
  • Breathing diesel fumes increased platelet-neutrophil aggregates from 6.5 to 9.2 per cent 2 hours after exposure.
  • It also increased platelet-monocyte aggregates from 21 per cent to 25 per cent 2 hours after exposure.
  • But at 6 hours after exposure the platelet activation increases due to diesel fumes were not statistically significant.

Lucking said: “High levels of traffic pollution are known to increase the risk of heart attack in the immediate hours or days after exposure.”

He said this study showed a “potential mechanism that could link exposure to traffic-derived air pollution with acute heart attack.”

Although these results apply to diesel engine fumes, it’s not clear whether gasoline powered engines would have the same effect, said the researchers. Diesel fumes contain a much higher concentration of very fine particles, they said.

Diesel engines are on the rise because they offer superior fuel economy, but, as Lucking explained:

While diesel engines burn more efficiently, they also put more fine particulate matter into the air.

The researchers said while exercise was good for people with cardiovascular disease, they would not recommend they exercise near traffic congestion.

The UK and Swedish team will be working together on the next step, which is to test the effectiveness of the particle traps fitted to diesel engines to reduce exhaust particles.

“Exposure to air pollution clearly is detrimental and we must look at ways to reduce pollution in the environment,” said Lucking.

An earlier study published in the 13th September issue of the NEJM , also by UK and Swedish researchers, showed that men with coronary heart disease who inhaled diesel fumes experienced a three fold increase in stress on the heart.

Click here for the American Heart Association.

Click here for our report of the September NEJM article on the effect of diesel fumes on men with coronary heart disease.

Written by: Catharine Paddock
Source: Medical News Today

Local Perspective on Hong Kong Air

Local Perspective on Hong Kong’s Air

We all know that our air is polluted, but are we getting the full information of its severity? Are we greatly underestimating the scale of our problem? Douglas Woodring, a concerned resident of Hong Kong and local think-tank, Civic Exchange have come together to answer these questions for Britain in Hong Kong.

UNFORTUNATELY, it took Hong Kong’s largest sporting event, the recent marathon, and one of our all too common “bad air” days, to really get people to understand that we are truly under threat from our air quality. Without the knowledge on where we truly stand, however, the calls to action from the community, and the incentive to make necessary improvements, have yet to occur in a way that would be expected in Asia’s world city.

Who is to blame?

Sadly, the main blame for our air quality is the industrial growth on the other side of the boundary, which we cannot easily rectify, although 70,000 factories in the Pearl River Delta are under Hong Kong ownership and should be held more accountable. This is true, but we also need to be able to demonstrate that we have done everything we can in Hong Kong to tackle our own local air pollution before we can fairly criticise emissions north of the boundary.

With little manufacturing remaining in Hong Kong, the numbers are clear. There are two main components of our local emissions: the excessively high dependence on poor quality diesel vehicles, and air pollution from power generation, particularly from coalfired plants, as natural gas and nuclear generation alternatives are significantly cleaner local fuel sources. It is good news, in that the targets are easy to define, but it is unfortunate for all of us that not enough has been done to make the real changes that are needed. Instead, we are all paying the price of a slow pace of change with our and our families’ health and quality of life.

API Index: HK vs. EU

The first issue to understand is the true level of pollutants in our air. Unfortunately, we are still being given Air Pollution Index (API) readings that are skewed by taking an average reading of various pollutants from the previous 24 hours. Moreover, the Air Quality Objectives that have been introduced for Hong Kong in 1987 are only objectives, but not actual standards. No one is accountable if they are not achieved. If you look at the API index based on European Union standards ( you will find an enormous difference in readings.

The EU claims that it is “very unhealthy” when there are 50 micrograms of pollutants per cubic metre of air, where Hong Kong’s “very unhealthy” level is only reached at 180 micrograms. The day before the Hong Kong marathon, the levels in Central reached almost 300 (based on the EU index). Based on the EU index, the readings are above 200 in Central more often than not, yet our local API index reports the same days as just under 80. With nearly 20-year-old Air Quality Objectives in place, Asia’s world city is out of step with standards set in other parts of the world, and until our API index readings and interpretations of their content are inline with those of the developed world, our decision makers will continue to underplay the urgent need for change.

Road blocks

Hong Kong has the highest percentage of “diesel” road miles driven per capita out of any major developed city in the world. This is a major challenge for Asia’s world city. Tokyo recently embarked on a stringent campaign to limit diesel vehicle use in the city during the day time, while California has declared diesel a carcinogen. The European Commission is also preparing to introduce more stringent limits on diesel particulate emissions, reducing it to a level five times lower than the current Euro 4 standard, as the soot produced primarily by diesel cars has been blamed for a variety of respiratory problems. Daimler Chrysler has recently said that it will equip all of its diesel models with particulate filters starting this year in the Netherlands, Switzerland, Germany and Austria. This is because the community there demands it. Why can’t these filters be used here in Hong Kong?

In contrast, one of Hong Kong’s bus operators is applying for a new 10-year licence, yet the government has yet to set new minimum standards in its type of engines or pollution control equipment, and only 10 out of 752 buses in operation are of Euro III standards. In fact, out of Hong Kong’s licenced bus fleet, 83 per cent out of 4,025 buses are below Euro III standards. One recent response from a government official to the expedition of the replacement of buses to Euro III standards was “that there is a need to adopt a gradual and cautious approach in considering bus replacement.”

Hazardous to health

Locally, Nitrogen oxides (NOx) are primarily produced from power generation and transportation. They affect living materials, building materials and contribute to acid rain. NOx are also a key ingredient of ground-level Ozone, of which diesel fuels are a significant contributor. A 2005 study commissioned by CLSA and prepared by Civic Exchange shows that Ozone concentrations are rising rapidly in Hong Kong, the results of which can be eye and lung irritation, with long-term recurring exposure potentially
causing chronic health problems.

Dialogue has started to introduce Euro V fuels, where the Sulphur content is five times lower than that of current diesel. This will have very little impact, however, if the quality of the majority of Hong Kong’s diesel engines used is not brought up to date. Serious efforts should be made to phase out older diesel vehicles of all types, retrofit others with the most sophisticated particulate traps, and make sure that the fuel used is of the highest quality. This also means making sure that fuels from across the border, where sulphur content is from 50 to 500 times that of Hong Kong, do not make their way onto our roads.

Polluter pays

In terms of energy production in Hong Kong, with the Scheme of Control under review, it would be timely for the introduction of coal-fired emission control equipment to be introduced under a new regulatory regime, which includes environmental performance targets. Hong Kong needs to embrace the “polluter pays principle”. In this regard, a combination of ‘carrot and stick’ comprising bold leadership, world standards, meaningful penalties, attractive incentives and civic education all need to be utilised to deliver necessary improvements.

One solution recommended by economist Philip Bowring’s recent South China Morning Post article suggested an ‘energy tax’, which would simply mean that those who use the most of our resources pay accordingly. Since there is no longer a significant industrial base in this city, this option appears to have merit, also prompting conservation and energy efficiency along the way, which few seem to have the true incentive to pursue today. Until older polluting vehicles are phased out, part of the proceeds from such an ‘energy tax’ could be used to help convert, modify and greatly improve the tens of thousands of outdated diesel vehicles that travel (and idle) on our roads every hour by retrofitting state of-the-art pollution traps and filters.

The options for improvement, that we have in Hong Kong can control, are fairly straightforward, but we all have to want improvement. Unfortunately, not all of us ask for it with such urgency because we are not aware of what is really happening when we are given air pollution readings, which are out of step with international standards. The choice is ours, but we need to put the goal posts in the right places so that we can judge the results and bring accountability to the system.

Hong Kong Marathon Air Pollution Alert

News Release – 13 February, 2006

Hong Kong Marathon should have sounded an air pollution alert

The air pollution levels were so high Sunday morning for the Hong Kong Standard Chartered Marathon 2006 there should have been air pollution alert to warn runners that their health was at significant risk.

According to the US Environmental Protection agency, an Air Pollution Index (API) of 88 – 100 means that everyone should reduce prolonged or heavy exertion. For an API over 100 everyone should avoid prolonged or heavy exertion. Says Annelise Connell, Chairman of Clear The Air “It was inexcusable for the Hong Kong Government to claim that no action should have been taken and that running a marathon in this pollution was not a risk to healthy people.”

Running in this marathon was guaranteed to make everyone sick to some degree because of the pollution. There is often a three day lag time between pollution episodes and symptoms, so everyone who ran on Sunday should check their health over the next few days and report any heart or respiratory symptoms to their doctor, the Health Department and the Environmental Protection Department.

The Air Pollution Index is worthless to athletes during a race because it is an average of the previous 24 hours. The air pollution peaked at 9 am and the runners were sucking in very unhealthy amounts of pollution.

Said Ms. Connell “All sporting events organizers should check the Greenpeace / Clear The Air website to see if athletes need to be warned of the air pollution levels.”

European Union “very unhealthy” level is 50 micrograms per cubic metres of air.
Hong Kong “very unhealthy” level is 180 micrograms per cubic metres of air.

Dont run in smog

Dont run in smog

Monday, December 19, 2005

Letter to the South China Morning Post

We believe that many of your readers are interested in whether physical exercise in an environment of polluted air is harmful to health. We would like to follow up on the letter “Running in smog risky” (December 12), by Wong Chit-ming, Lam Tai-hing and Anthony J. Hedley, who suggested that there were no studies addressing this important issue.

Some years ago, we conducted an epidemiological study of the association between air pollution and cardiopulmonary fitness of primary-school children in Hong Kong. We showed that physical exercise was positively associated with cardiopulmonary fitness in those children who lived in and attended schools in the less-polluted district in our study, but not in children living and attending schools in the more-polluted district.

In other words, the beneficial effect of physical exercise that we all know seems to have disappeared among children exposed to an environment with high air pollution, in contrast to those living in a district of relatively clean air.

In our study, cardiopulmonary fitness was represented by “maximal oxygen uptake” – the maximum amount that a child can consume during maximum physical effort. The higher the oxygen uptake, the fitter the child. We estimated this parameter by an indirect method, using a standard test widely adopted in sports science. The study is called “Impact of air pollution on cardiopulmonary fitness in schoolchildren.”

Owing to limitations in the study design, our results could not demonstrate a definite cause-effect relationship, but the conventional wisdom that physical exercise is always beneficial to health must be questioned. Specifically, we consider it prudent to refrain from strenuous physical activity in highly polluted environments, for example, jogging on roads with moderate to heavy traffic. Moreover, the potential harm to the health of children playing in school grounds that are exposed to heavy traffic fumes should be urgently assessed.

WONG TZE-WAI and IGNATUS YU TAK-SUN, department of community and family medicine, Chinese University of Hong Kong

Running in smog risky

Running in smog risky

Monday December 12 2005

The answer to Rob James’ important question about the hazard of exercising in highly polluted air is potentially complex (‘Damage to exercisers?’, December 7). Research on this and related health issues is seriously hampered by lack of funding.

So far, on a whole-population basis, our analyses have shown that pollution causes large-scale harmful effects to health at all ages. Equally, they show that exercise is hugely protective to our health and prevents premature death. We have evidence that this protective effect operates for some even in the presence of air pollution.

But it is important to note that the large benefits of exercise are gained at relatively very low levels of activity. While athletes need to ‘regularly train and race outdoors’, doing this in highly polluted air will predictably cause an injury to heart, lungs and blood vessels. In susceptible individuals this could lead to acute adverse health effects. Children may be particularly vulnerable.

But those who take regular vigorous exercise are a highly self-selected group who are probably less likely to experience health problems in the short term. It is equally likely that many non-athletes limit their activity because they experience pollution-induced symptoms.

The benefits of exercise and good nutrition may mitigate these pollution-induced health effects, but we suggest there are no strong arguments for raising your ventilatory rate to very high levels in the air of the Pearl River Delta. Unfortunately, Hong Kong’s Air Pollution Index is of no help because most of the measured harm from pollution occurs well below the average level, where health effects are officially stated to be ‘not expected for the general population’.

CHIT-MING WONG, TAI-HING LAM and ANTHONY J. HEDLEY, department of community medicine, University of Hong Kong

MYTH: Air pollution causes asthma, however …

By Bryan Walsh – Time Asia – December 13, 2004

FACT: There are no concrete studies that directly link asthma to air pollution. The asthma rate in heavily polluted Beijing is actually lower than the rate in Hong Kong, which is itself lower than in many cleaner cities. But asthmatics who move to polluted cities do find themselves at greater risk. “There’s no question that once you have asthma, you’re more vulnerable to air pollution,” says Dr. Anthony Hedley of the University of Hong Kong.

Economic Cost of Air Pollution

5 November, 2004 – South China Morning Post

David Hui Shu-cheong, an assistant professor at the Chinese University’s Division of Respiratory Medicine, noted that the number of patients suffering from breathing problems surged a few days after the air pollution index (API) rose.

Some of those suffering from asthma and chronic obstructive lung diseases such as bronchitis and emphysema end up in hospital.

The high toll of price distortion

The high toll of price distortion


27 Jul, 2004

Published in the SCMP:

Excessively low tolls at the Cross-Harbour Tunnel are distorting traffic patterns, adding to congestion, increasing pollution and health costs, and providing invalid justification for plans to build more roads along the harbourfront.

Of the three harbour tunnels, the Cross-Harbour Tunnel provides the highest number of convenient connections, the Eastern Harbour Crossing the second-highest number of convenient connections, and the Western Harbour Crossing the fewest.

In a market economy, the price of a product or service reflects supply and demand. Under free market conditions, Cross-Harbour Tunnel tolls would be the highest, with the Western Harbour Crossing charging the least. The reverse is actually the case, and the Cross-Harbour Tunnel is causing the distortion.

Since its opening in 1972, its tolls have not kept up with inflation. In 1972, private cars paid $5. They now pay $20, but the inflation-adjusted toll should be $36. Taxis paid $5 in 1972 and now pay only $10, but their toll, too, should be $36. Heavy-goods vehicles originally paid $20. They now pay $30, but should be paying $144. Amazingly, buses pay virtually the same as in 1972, and the average bus passenger contributes less than 25 cents.

The Cross-Harbour Tunnel is government-owned. It is a public asset and operating profit helps keep our taxes down. Only users benefit from artificially low tolls and there is no justification for them to be subsidised by the rest of the community, or for us to suffer the increased congestion, noise, air pollution and health costs resulting from the consequent elevated traffic volume. The community is entitled to hold the government accountable for failing to charge enough for the use of this publicly owned asset. Cross-Harbour Tunnel tolls should be raised to inflation-adjusted levels at least, so that the element of subsidy is removed.

Allowing the tunnels to openly compete and set their tolls according to supply and demand is another possibility to be considered.

Apart from inflating traffic volume on each side of the central harbour, unfair competition from the Cross-Harbour Tunnel adversely affects the entire public transport system, depressing fares and causing other problems.

Total vehicular traffic volume is increased. More cross-harbour journeys take place. More people choose to live and work on opposite sides of the harbour, and ultra-low-cost public transport encourages people to live at a greater distance from where they work, further increasing traffic volume. If Cross-Harbour Tunnel tolls were raised to inflation-adjusted levels and tolls at other tunnels were lowered, traffic volume would drop at the Cross-Harbour Tunnel and increase at the others. The total number of individual cross-harbour road journeys would decrease and traffic volume, noise and air pollution would reduce in areas near the Cross-Harbour Tunnel.

Another obvious strategy is to charge higher tolls at peak times. A heavy-goods vehicle pays the same whether it passes through the tunnel at the height of the rush hour, or at 3am. This does not conform to the principles of a market economy, where the price charged reflects supply and demand.

From time to time, the government has floated the idea of road pricing as a way of reducing traffic in central areas. Charging an appropriate price for the use of the Cross-Harbour Tunnel is the obvious place to begin. More importantly for the long term, where failure to implement appropriate tolls for tunnel use results in planning decisions to build more roads, error compounds error to the permanent detriment of the environment and the community. The government should ignore the lobbying of vested interest groups and do what is right for the community as a whole.

Robert Wilson is a financial consultant based in Hong Kong.

Earth Day 2004

Earth Day 2004

South China Morning Post Editorial
Friday April 23 2004

Facts on pollution must get public airing

Earth Day brought distressing news about the quality of the air we breathe. First was the warning from a Chinese University researcher that a confidential government-commissioned study shows Hong Kong is paying a high public health cost for its relatively weak air quality standards, especially in regard to particulate matter – emissions small enough to damage lungs and other organs.

Then there was the revelation by our largest power producer, CLP Power, that emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxide particles have increased dramatically over the past year – thanks in large part to soaring demand from Guangdong and increasingly heavy reliance on coal.

These findings confirm what many of us already knew from just looking out our windows in recent months: despite reductions in certain readings over the past few years, more must be done.

To begin with, the Environmental Protection Department should release the study on the link between air quality and public health without delay. If fine particulates and other pollutants are found in higher concentrations than deemed acceptable in cities overseas – and if they pose a hazard to our health – the public has a right to know. Such information cannot justifiably remain confidential.

Once the facts are known, there can be consideration of whether existing standards need to be revised and how any higher requirements could be met.

The CLP report raises different issues, some of which are best addressed on a region-wide basis. Demand from factories on the mainland soared last year. Coupled with restricted supplies of gas, this meant a heavy reliance on coal and increased pollution. CLP hints at continued reliance on coal in the immediate future and plans to install equipment for filtering the rising level of pollution.

But the efforts should not stop there. Sales to mainland customers have translated into higher profits for the company. More of that income should now be reinvested in expanding pilot projects on renewable energy. Small experiments in wind and hydropower and renewable cell energy have up to now been only tokenistic; now there is a need – and an opportunity – to make them a bigger priority, at little risk to CLP’s bottom line.

Of course, any discussion of the air pollution problem has to acknowledge that Hong Kong-invested companies play a large part in running the factories behind the surge in regional power demand. Likewise, the health effects from coal-fired power plants and diesel-fuelled cars are felt on both sides of the border. It is hoped that policymakers will see the need to put the finger-pointing of recent years behind them and find ways to co-operate on reducing pollution throughout the region.

Our environment officials are beginning to make some progress on convincing Guangdong to improve or close the oldest and most-polluting of its coal-burning electricity plants. But as a region we are very far from finding a way to balance rapid economic development with the equally important project of clearing our skies.

Until a truly effective mechanism for co-operating on regional air quality is set up, the least Hong Kong can do is lead by example and ensure that we do not make matters worse for the delta’s inhabitants. This should include being at the forefront of developing alternatives to coal as an energy source. It also could include more co-operation on improving filtering technology at mainland power plants and raising standards on diesel used in cars, buses and trucks. Last, it should involve frank discussion on the connection between air pollution and health. For that to happen, the findings of the Chinese University study must be released.