Te-ping Chen, February 23, 2012
With its iconic skyline, world-class infrastructure and China’s giant economy at its doorstep, Hong Kong has long been an attractive choice to those looking for a perch in Asia. But there’s a not-so-hidden catch: Its toxic air pollution is killing people at a rate worse than in mainland China.
Air pollution can be blamed for 43 out of every 100,000 deaths in Hong Kong, the 8th highest mortality rate in the world, according to a new report by local lobby group Clean Air Network (CAN). That would make Hong Kong’s air more than 20% deadlier than the air in mainland China on average, though the comparison doesn’t pit Hong Kong against China’s densest urban areas.
An earlier study last month by the University of Hong Kong found air pollution was responsible for 3,200 local deaths a year (pdf). Even short-term exposure to heavy air pollution can trigger heart failure, arrhythmias and stroke.
Hong Kong residents are already the world’s most pollution-addled population, according to a Gallup survey last year, with 70% reporting high levels of dissatisfaction with the quality of the air they breathe. (Next up was Chad, at 59%.) One out of four residents has considered leaving Hong Kong because of its smoggy skies according to a 2010 survey by CAN, while three-quarters of business managers surveyed by the office services firm Regus in 2011 said air pollution hurts HK’s ability to attract and retain talent.
“This is embarrassing,” says Mike Kilburn, who heads environmental strategy at the think tank Civic Exchange. “Hong Kong is the richest city in China.”
A noxious cocktail of toxic air floating over from factories just over the border in China’s Pearl River Delta has long been blamed, but CAN chief executive Joanne Ooi says that from a public health perspective, Hong Kong’s notoriously jammed streets are the real problem. “Traffic pollution is the biggest issue for public health,” she says, citing the thousands of diesel-burning lorries whose emissions keep residents coughing.
Hong Kong ranked second-to-last among China’s 32 largest cities in nitrogen dioxide levels, an important indicator of roadside pollution, CAN said last month, citing official Chinese statistics.
The government says its it’s working hard to fix the issue. Carlson Chan, the Environmental Protection Department’s deputy director, cites efforts like offering subsidies to buses and taxis to upgrade to cleaner technologies, with at least HK$700 million (US$90 million) spent on similar endeavors since 2007.
To put that sum in perspective, air pollution cost the city HK$462 million (US$60 million) in health care costs and lost productivity in the first two months of 2012 alone, according to Hong Kong University’s Hedley Environmental Index.
“There’s been good progress,” Ms. Ooi says. Still, “we consider it too little, too late.”
Environmentalists say the government’s air quality measures haven’t been updated since 1987, though the government unveiled new proposed standards last month. The earliest those improved standards can go into effect is 2014 because it has work its way through the legislative process, the government says, but activists argue that Hong Kong’s air pollution regulations allow environment authorities to establish objectives w/o going through the Legislative Council.
Short of moving to someplace cleaner, Dr. Chit-Ming Wong of Hong Kong University’s School of Public Health says the best way to avoid exposure minimize time spent outdoors. “Don’t walk too long outside, particularly during traffic,” he says. “Of course you can’t sit at home all the time. Though it would be much better.”
Some masks can block the pollution particles less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter – sometimes referred to as PM2.5 — that health experts say do the most damage, but Ms. Ooi argues that, worn properly, such masks restrict breathing so much that they are an impractical solution.