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Hong Kong pollution: How the haze affects every breath you take

It’s one of the major topics of conversation around dinner tables:  Hong Kong pollution. With clear days becoming few and far between, we try to find out what environmental protection can be done to clear the air in the age of global warming.

 

Hong Kong pollution creates an ethereal effect on the skyline

Over Chinese New Year we were blessed with some of the best weather many can remember in Hong Kong: clear blue skies, fresh breezes, low humidity and what seemed like a low air pollution index, making it the perfect time to indulge in outdoor activities. Most thanked the extended CNY holidays of the 70,000 factories over the border for this unusual boon to environmental protection and welcome break in our normally overcast skies.

But should we be so quick to blame at our industrious neighbours? Or should we also look closer to home for the source of Hong Kong pollution: endless grey, smog-covered skies that are, on average, three times more polluted than those of London, Los Angeles and New York?

According to the Clean Air Network (a local NGO formed in 2009 with the purpose of urging the government to take appropriate steps to tackle the pollution problem), 53 percent of Hong Kong pollution comes from local sources – power stations, idling engines and marine emissions. Hong Kong has only five percent of the land of the Pearl River Delta, but we create 20 percent of its pollution.

Further Hong Kong pollution statistics reveal that China Light and Power and HK Electric Holdings emit more than 75,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide into Hong Kong’s air every day. On the roads, we have the highest density of any city in the world – a staggering 275 vehicles per kilometer, many of which have outdated, badly maintained diesel engines, producing a disproportionately large amount of dangerous nitrogen dioxide emissions and PM (particulate matter). Alarmingly, the International Agency for Cancer Research now ranks particle pollution as a cause of cancer, classifying it as a Group 1 human carcinogen. Time to source those N95 masks, stat.

 

Jam on!

But it’s not just on the road that fuel emissions cause potentially lethal problems. We have 733 miles of coastline and, if you enjoy your sea view, then I’m afraid it’s likely you will also enjoy higher levels of pollutants; 16 of the world’s largest ships are said to produce as much pollution as all the world’s cars.

Feels like we need a breath of fresh air, right?

The government’s Clean Air Plan, published 12 months ago, makes bold promises of reducing roadside pollution by offering HK$12 billion in subsidies to replace older engines. Sadly this is not going to happen overnight, nor is greening the ports by passing legislation demanding marine traffic to use cleaner fuels and forcing changes in urban planning to improve the air flow in our denser areas.

Critics of the plan, including Friends of the Earth and the Clean Air Network, claim that a lot is being said but little is being done. It seems that awareness of Hong Kong pollution has been put at the top of the agenda rather than change – the main goal of the resolutions on pollution published last year was “for Hong Kong to be among the best in the world in understanding air quality so that we can continue to fight air pollution aggressively.”

One thing they have done is invest in a new Air Quality Health Index (AQHI), the huge cost of which environmentalist say could have been better spent. “We don’t need to be told it’s there and it’s happening,” they point out, “we need to know what is being done about it.” Ironically, within just a few days of its launch in January, the AQHI reached levels of 10 or above in several urban districts, prompting the government to advise children and the elderly to remain indoors, away from the HK air.

Pollution is undoubtedly one of Hong Kong’s major negative points for expats. A recent survey by the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong found that nearly half of its members knew of friends who had relocated to escape the contaminated air lest they have to don N95 masks frequently; major recruiters admit Hong Kong pollution does play a major part in the decision-making process for top executives potentially relocating here with young families.

 

Mr. Blue Sky, please tell us why you had to hide away?

Many of us, however, can’t escape; this is home, and we have to deal with it. Marianne Armstrong is a native of Dorset, England, who has lived in Hong Kong on and off for eight years. She claims that Hong Kong pollution, the elevated air quality index and its effect on the health of her and her young family cause many a sleepless night. “My seven-year-old has suffered with asthma all his life and I can honestly say I believe it’s the pollution,” she says. “When we travel out of the city, even to somewhere like Phuket, his breathing is so much easier, he has colour in his cheeks and he barely has to take an inhaler. I also suffer from eczema here, something that hasn’t flared up since I was a child.”

Marianne isn’t alone. Steven Sung, Hong Kong distributor of Swedish-made air purifiers, Blueair, claims that 70 percent of their customers are expats and that business is increasing 15 percent every year from health-conscious individuals worried about what their choice of city is doing to their life expectancy. Blueair even has customers who are so concerned that they buy air-purifying systems for their children’s classrooms at school. “Our generation is more health conscious,” says Steven, “but it’s not just that that’s driving our sales; the pollution is getting worse and you can’t even escape it in your own home.”

Blueair’s sales team measures the particle levels of the air quality index across the city almost daily, and they claim that readings above 7,000 are very normal in Hong Kong; in Bel Air overlooking the ocean you would expect it to be cleaner but the readings are regularly about 8,000; Mid-Levels is nearer to 10,0000. “Customers believe that they can keep the pollution out by keeping the windows closed but that can actually make the air inside the home worse than that outside,” explains Steven. “You need to keep the air moving by opening windows or using a purifying system with a fan.”

Despite this, there are some who rest easy breathing in Hong Kong’s sea breezes. Nicole Luk is a wife and mother to three daughters under five. Her husband and oldest daughter suffer from asthma, her youngest daughters both have dwarfism that also restricts their respiratory function, and Nicole herself suffers from hayfever and other minor breathing issues.

With this catalogue of ailments, many would expect this to be the last place she would wish to bring up her growing family. Instead, Nicole believes that “in some cases the health impacts are exaggerated”. “Our bodies are designed to filter the air that we breathe from pollutants both manmade and natural,” she says. “When we travel back to Australia, my husband’s asthma gets significantly more severe, and I still suffer from seasonal allergies when I go back home. Both my youngest girls are very healthy here in Hong Kong, even given their reduced lung capacity, and my three-year-old rarely suffers from respiratory issues, even though doctors consider her to be more ‘at risk’.”

Sandrine Birch moved here from Dubai and, despite living there in a five-bedroom villa miles from the city and almost in the desert, she claims she and her family wouldn’t swap Hong Kong for that. “My son suffered constant ear infections and bronchitis. I also had almost daily sinusitis which my doctor claimed was due to the levels of dust in the air,” she explains. “When we moved here, the problems disappeared almost overnight. I’m no scientist, and it’s probably better I don’t know the full facts, but day to day we breathe easier here.”

For many of us, the Hong Kong pollution issue weighs heavy on our minds. Thankfully, the obvious daily health impacts are minimal; in fact, the life expectancy of Hong Kong residents is still among the highest in the world. However, no one knows the longer-term effects of living and raising children in an environment where an average 6,396 people live per square kilometre, where there are 275 cars per kilometre of road, and where 16,282 vessels are licensed to travel our waters. That said, most of us have made the conscious decision to live in the most exciting city with the fastest-growing economy on earth. Being part of that ride may yet have its consequences.

Only time will tell.

What can you do?

  • Do your bit by reducing your carbon footprint. When running, a typical air-con unit in a room can consume over 1,500 watts – that’s 100 times more energy than the Compact Fluorescent Lamp.
  • Leaving an aircon running for one hour with no one in the room is equivalent to leaving a light on continuously for four days.
  • Using ceiling fans can potentially result in electricity savings of 14 percent per annum.
  • If you see a vessel emitting black or nuisance smoke continuously for more than one minute, report the vessel to the Marine Department: call 2385 2791, 2385 2792 or, outside office hours, 2233 7801. If it’s an aircraft emitting the smoke, report it to the Civil Aviation Department by calling 1823 or emailing photos to aviation@cleartheair.org.hk.
  • Join one of the Clear The Air idling engine patrols at www.cleartheair.org.hk.
  • Keep your car properly tuned: an inefficient car will use more fuel and emit more pollutant, which will harm the environment and cost you more money.
  • Choose energy-efficient appliances.

Do air purifiers really work?

Surprisingly, the air inside our homes may be as bad if not worse than the air we breathe outside, and as most of us spend 70 percent of our time indoors, it’s worth getting it right. Ventilation is key, so don’t be scared to open the windows occasionally and let the air flow. Air purifiers such as those by Blueair clean out pollutants including pollen, bacteria, exhaust emissions, dust and pet dander by dragging dirty air in through the fan, charging the air molecules with electricity in an ion chamber and making them stick to the progressive layers of propylene filters. Air quality measured at 7,000 can be reduced to a healthy 1,500 in just 15 minutes.

There’s more we can do to boost environmental protection here at home in the age to combat the effects of global warming. Help to steer our Island away from Hong Kong pollution and get familiar with Clear the Air and Clean Air Network.

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