19 October 2019
Despite government attempts to alleviate air pollution, the air quality in Hong Kong has continued to deteriorate. Photo: HKEJ
Despite government attempts to alleviate air pollution, the air quality in Hong Kong has continued to deteriorate. Photo: HKEJ

Let our citizens breathe clean air

In recent years the Hong Kong government has made numerous attempts to improve the city’s air quality, such as requiring ocean liners calling at our ports to run on low sulphur diesel, providing subsidies for car owners to switch to low emission models, tightening control on the emission level of power plants and banning idling engines on the road.

However, all these measures have proven ineffective as air quality in the city continues to deteriorate.

A study published by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2014 showed that an estimated seven million people worldwide died prematurely in 2012 of diseases caused by air pollution.

According to the Hedley Environmental Index established by the University of Hong Kong, air pollution in the city caused 2,616 premature deaths in 2014, and led to a total of 170,000 hospital bed-days and over four million doctor visits by patients suffering from air pollution-related diseases, resulting in an economic loss of over HK$30 billion (US$3.8 billion).

In fact, the heavily polluted air in Hong Kong not only puts off tourists but also prompts many local citizens to emigrate to other countries and expats to flee the city, resulting in a continued “brain drain” in our workforce.

Although in 2013 the Environmental Protection Department launched the Air Quality Health Index (AQHI) to replace the former Air Pollution Index (API) in order to keep the public constantly informed of the local air quality conditions and the potential health risks they pose, the benchmarks adopted by the AQHI against which the levels of seven key air pollutants are measured remain far behind the current WHO standards.

For example, the WHO upper limit for sulphur dioxide (SO2) in the air over a 24-hour period is 20 micrograms per cubic meters, while the Environmental Protection Department in Hong Kong only sets the limit at 125 micrograms.

The huge gap between the standards adopted locally and internationally suggests that the AQHI may not be able to reflect the true level of air pollution in our city and the real health risks it poses.

On the other hand, some also doubt the accuracy and reliability of the AQHI as most of the existing air quality monitoring stations across the city are located far away from densely populated areas.

The adverse impact of air pollution upon public health could be profound and far-reaching, and no one in the city can be spared from the everyday health risks it poses.

Therefore, it is a matter of urgency for the administration to take on the issue decisively and step up its efforts in cleaning up our air on a massive scale.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Sept. 18.

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Legislative councilor and head of nursing and health studies in the Open University of Hong Kong