Environment: HK's new air quality targets face continued criticism

Updated On: Jan 19, 2012

Hong Kong, attempting to address mounting criticism over air pollution, is planning to have new objectives for its air quality by 2014 and is seeking to use the World Health Organization’s (WHO) targets as a benchmark, according to a statement from the government.

The Hong Kong government will submit amendments to the air pollution ordinance to the Legislative Council in 2012-13, and wants to review its objectives every five years.

Hong Kong is seeking to address criticism from lawmakers and academics over its delay in updating its 25-year air quality standard, as other cities such as Beijing and Taipei pledge to improve their monitoring and disclosure of pollutants.

Edward Yau, Hong Kong’s secretary for the environment, said that Hong Kong is facing “challenges it is unable to overcome” from its “surrounding area”.

The new objectives impose stricter limits on the concentration of seven pollutants including sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide and lead. Hong Kong will also measure airborne particles smaller than 2.5 micrometres in diameter, known as PM2.5, which are more dangerous than the larger particles currently measured since they can penetrate the respiratory tracts and other organs more deeply. The announcement comes a week after Beijing vowed to make similar data publicly available.

Heavy polluting vehicles will also be phased out, with hybrid or electric vehicles more vigorously promoted. Natural gas will also be more widely used.

Nonetheless, environments expressed disappointment at the new air quality standards a day after they were released.

University of Hong Kong releases updated self-reported Index

University of Hong Kong’s (HKU) School of Public Health released an update of its Hedley Environmental Index, which uses a peer-reviewed methodology to show the health impact of air pollution.

The updated Index showed that Hong Kong’s air pollution is more harmful than previously believed. Previous figures showed that the number of premature deaths from pollution-related ailments at 1,000 per year, but the new estimates have bumped the figure up to 3,200 deaths per year. The Index also pushed hospital bed days up from 71,100 to 160,000; doctor visits up from 6.7 million to 7.4 million; and economic loss from HK$16 billion to HK$40 billion.

Professor Anthony Hedley, the public health expert in charge of working on the Index, added, “Even though these new figures are higher, they're still conservative figures that account for only the short-term health impacts of air pollution.”

The revised index was introduced on Tuesday, the same day Hong Kong the government released its air quality objectives. But Prof Hedley and his team said the current air pollution interpretation was still insufficient and misled the public about the true dangers of air pollution. Professor Lam Tai-hing, director of HKU's School of Public Health, illustrated the deficiencies of the current system, saying, “The government is looking at an acceptable high of 125 [micrograms per cubic metre] for sulphur dioxide. The WHO considers anything above 20 to be bad for human health.”

The figures were revamped for the updated Index to account for the increased impact of roadside pollution, the weighting of which was increased from 50 to 60 per cent as most Hong Kongers spend a significant amount of time near roads. Nitrogen dioxide, a major toxin in air pollution, was also given a higher rating, according to Prof Hedley.

The WHO in 2005 set guidelines for limits on pollutant concentrations levels. Health scientists link air pollution to ailments such as lung cancer, chronic bronchitis and pneumonia. Studies in the previous year suggest air pollution may clog major arteries, affect childhood leukaemia and harm lung growth and development in children.

HKU in a statement called the current air quality standards used to communicate health hazards to the public “primitive and seriously misleading”. “The risk categories... bear no relationship to the currently measured bad health outcomes in the population,” the statement said.

Other organisations also criticise new air quality objectives

Mike Kilburn, head of environmental strategy at independent think-tank Civic Exchange, asked why two years were allowed to lapse since the government pledged to update its air quality benchmarks before action was taken.

He commented, “These are the same air quality objectives that the government put out in 2009 and they came out unchanged. Frankly we see this as the government's reaction to [Beijing’s pledge to provide hourly updates of PM2.5 measurements] rather than the demand of Hong Kong people for clean air.”

Mr Kilburn added that the 2014 timeframe for Hong Kong's new standards would enable infrastructure projects like a planned third airport runway to proceed in spite of pollution concerns.

Friends of the Earth Hong Kong senior environmental affairs manager Hahn Chu said, “We welcome these measures as a small step in the right direction, but I have to say they are disappointing.”

Thomas Choi Ka-man, also from the Friends of the Earth, also said the proposed benchmark for PM2.5 is too low since most areas in Hong Kong are already in line with the objective. He was hoping for a timeline to fully adopt the ultimate goals suggested by the WHO.

Helen Choy Shuk-yi, general manager for Clean Air Network, countered Mr Yau’s point that air pollution in Hong Kong comes from the mainland. She said that the background pollution level has remained stable but the level of locally-detected pollutants has skyrocketed. "We cannot always blame others for feeding us pollutants. Pollution is just as bad when the summer winds blow our pollutants to the mainland," she said. Ms Choy also suggested the addition of stricter vehicle emission standards to help reach the new goals more effectively. Prof Hedley agreed with her view, saying that contrary to popular belief, a large part of pollution in Hong Kong is locally generated.

Report: Hong Kong Says New Air Quality Objectives May Start in 2014 (Bloomberg, 17 Jan 2012)

Report: Gasp, it's worse than we thought (South China Morning Post, 18 Jan 2012)

Report: Tougher pollution law promised in two years (China Daily, 18 Jan 2012)

Report: Hong Kong clean air targets fail to impress (AFP, 18 Jan 2012)


Related Article