Change is in the air

HONG KONG’S AIR POL­LU­TION WOES HAVE REACHED TIP­PING POINT. Madeleine Ross SPEAKS TO THE CITY’S BEST AND BRIGHT­EST ABOUT WHAT’S BE­ING DONE TO CLEAN THINGS UP AND HOW MUCH FUR­THER WE HAVE TO GO BE­FORE WE CAN BREATHE EASY

Hong Kong Tatler - - Features - IL­LUS­TRA­TIONS AN­GELA HO

From top-of-the-line cars and cou­ture to Courchevel chalets and Ivy League ed­u­ca­tions, Hong Kong’s elite are rarely de­nied the lux­u­ries they covet. But for res­i­dents of the Fra­grant Har­bour, clean air has be­come the great­est lux­ury of them all­­—one that is out of reach for even the city’s wealth­i­est. The en­tire pop­u­la­tion has no choice but to breathe air that over the past two decades has be­come in­creas­ingly loaded with toxic con­tam­i­nants that cause chronic res­pi­ra­tory ill­nesses, heart dis­ease, can­cer and stroke, with dev­as­tat­ing con­se­quences for the econ­omy.

Clean Air Net­work co-founder Markus Shaw puts much of the blame for our rapidly de­te­ri­o­rat­ing air qual­ity on the city’s dense, ver­ti­cal de­sign, its con­gested roads and ports, its prox­im­ity to one of the world’s largest in­dus­trial hubs and the “sheer in­er­tia” of the gov­ern­ment in en­vi­ron­men­tal pol­icy and ur­ban plan­ning. The foul air caused almost 3,200 pre­ma­ture deaths and more than 150,000 hos­pi­tal ad­mis­sions in 2013 alone, cost­ing Hong Kong more than HK$40 bil­lion in med­i­cal bills and lost pro­duc­tiv­ity, ac­cord­ing to of­fi­cial fig­ures com­piled by The Univer­sity of Hong Kong.

Last year was the worst on record for the city’s busiest dis­tricts. Pol­lu­tion lev­els in Cen­tral, Mong Kok and Cause­way Bay were in the range clas­si­fied as “harm­ful”—above 100 on the city’s of­fi­cial air pol­lu­tion in­dex—for more than half the year. De­spite the gov­ern­ment re­cal­i­brat­ing the in­dex this year, Hong Kong’s rat­ing sys­tem al­lows far higher lev­els of pol­lu­tants than the World Health Or­gan­i­sa­tion (WHO) con­sid­ers safe. For ex­am­ple, lev­els of Pm2.5—car­cino­genic par­ti­cles so tiny that they lodge deep inside the lungs—are more than dou­ble the WHO limit.

Ex­treme con­di­tions, how­ever, are mo­ti­vat­ing un­prece­dented clean-up ef­forts, led by En­vi­ron­ment Sec­re­tary Wong Kam-sing and En­vi­ron­ment Un­der­sec­re­tary Chris­tine Loh, and backed by many of the city’s movers and shak­ers.

The past year has marked a num­ber of mile­stones—such as a scheme to take the dirt­i­est com­mer­cial ve­hi­cles off our streets, the in­tro­duc­tion of a more de­tailed air qual­ity in­dex and en­hanced col­lab­o­ra­tion with Pearl River Delta au­thor­i­ties—and mo­men­tum is build­ing.

Loh says im­prov­ing air qual­ity is a “very high pri­or­ity” for the gov­ern­ment, for both eco­nomic and pub­lic health rea­sons. “This ad­min­is­tra­tion ac­cepts the sit­u­a­tion, and we are do­ing as much as we can and try­ing to go as fast as we can,” says Loh, whose vig­or­ous en­thu­si­asm bodes well for her depart­ment push­ing through the nec­es­sary leg­is­la­tion. “I can com­pletely un­der­stand why peo­ple are im­pa­tient. It takes a few years for you to see some im­pact [from clean-up ini­tia­tives]. The trend for our re­gion, not just for Hong Kong but for the whole neigh­bour­hood, is point­ing in the right di­rec­tion, but we still have to do a lot of work.”

Moses Tsang, co-chair­man of The Na­ture Con­ser­vancy’s Asia-pa­cific Coun­cil, be­lieves Hong Kong has “no choice” but to act now on air pol­lu­tion. “It has to be done—and hope­fully we can work to­gether for it to hap­pen sooner rather than later,” he says. “Other ci­ties like Los An­ge­les, London and Mex­ico City faced worse air qual­ity is­sues in their his­tory and have all made dra­matic turn­arounds. Hong Kong is a smaller, very or­gan­ised and ef­fi­cient world city, and we too can def­i­nitely fig­ure this out.”

AIR POL­LU­TION IS THE LEAD­ING CAUSE OF CAN­CER, WITH PAR­TIC­U­LATE MAT­TER A PRIME CAR­CINO­GEN, SAYS THE WHO. THE SMALL­EST PAR­TI­CLES, KNOWN AS PM2.5, ARE THE DEAD­LI­EST BE­CAUSE THEY ARE DRAWN DEEP INTO THE LUNG TIS­SUE AND ARE ABLE TO CROSS INTO THE BLOOD

SHORT- TERM EF­FECTS: HEADACHES; EYE, NOSE AND THROAT IR­RI­TA­TION; ASTHMA; BRON­CHI­TIS. LONGTERM EF­FECTS: LUNG CAN­CER; HEART DIS­EASE; DAM­AGE TO THE BRAIN, NERVES, LIVER AND KID­NEYS

EX­PO­SURE HIN­DERS THE DE­VEL­OP­MENT OF CHIL­DREN’S RES­PI­RA­TORY, NER­VOUS, EN­DOCRINE AND IM­MUNE SYS­TEMS. CHIL­DREN BREATHE MORE FRE­QUENTLY THAN ADULTS, BOOST­ING EX­PO­SURE, AND OF­TEN THROUGH THEIR MOUTHS, BY­PASS­ING NASAL FIL­TER­ING

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