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
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