At present, about 140,000 patients in Hong Kong are suffering from intermediate to serious chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases, or COPDs. Of these patients, 6,000 require long-term oxygen therapy treatment.
For patients whose conditions have already reached a more serious stage, they have to rely on their breathing machines at home for treatment. And whenever they go outdoors, even for a walk, they have to bring their portable compressed oxygen machines or cylinders with them.
The problem is that portable compressed oxygen tanks or cylinders are often banned from public transport out of safety concerns.
On the MTR, “passengers who need an oxygen cylinder for breathing purposes can carry an oxygen cylinder which does not exceed 1.7 liters in volume and as long as it is stored in a proper container”.
However, under Article 14A of the Public Bus Services Regulations (Cap. 230A), all dangerous items listed in the Dangerous Goods Ordinance (Cap. 295) are banned from public buses. Those items include compressed oxygen tanks for COPD patients, which fall within Category 2 Dangerous Goods under the ordinance.
Because portable compressed oxygen cylinders are banned from most of our public transport, a lot of COPD patients could be left at home most of the time.
According to a recent survey, over one-third of COPD patients in Hong Kong go out less than twice a week. And 60 percent of these patients believe that being stuck at home all day has taken its toll on their mental and physical health.
The truth is, portable compressed oxygen cylinders available in Hong Kong have been subjected to rigorous safety regulation and supervision under the law and by the Fire Service Department. This means that most of them are safe under normal circumstances as long as they are used and handled properly.
In 2009, during a Legislative Council question and answer session, I grilled government officials over an incident in which a COPD patient carrying a portable oxygen cylinder was barred from boarding a public bus, and demanded follow-up action accordingly.
My demand was finally answered in 2012 when the Transport and Housing Bureau agreed to amend Article 14A of the Public Bus Services Regulations.
We have also consulted the Fire Service Department, the Electrical and Mechanical Services Department, franchised bus companies and professional bodies about the issue, and they all told me that currently there are already sufficient safety devices fitted to our franchised buses that can guarantee portable oxygen tanks will not affect bus safety and normal services.
In western countries like Australia and the United States, patients suffering from obstructive lung diseases are free to carry their oxygen cylinders onto public transport, including buses and trains, as long as they notify public transport operators of their need in advance.
As far as public bus service is concerned, the Legco panel on transport has put forward a series of feasible suggestions regarding allowing compressed oxygen tanks on board buses.
For example, the committee has proposed that patients carrying oxygen cylinders must notify bus captains both before boarding the bus and before disembarking, try to sit in priority seats near the bus door, and that no more than two oxygen tanks be allowed on any single bus under all circumstances.
Unfortunately, the panel has failed to follow through and submit its suggestions to the Council for further discussion.
I believe the authorities should strike a reasonable balance between the safety of other passengers and the medical needs of COPD patients by reviewing the current service guidelines on different forms of public transport including buses, ferries and trams, in order to address the needs of these patients.
Moreover, I also urge the administration to raise the issue of amending the existing law and come up with a legislative timetable as soon as possible, so that COPD patients can avail themselves of our public transport service.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Nov 10
Translation by Alan Lee
[Chinese version 中文版]
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