Global Observer

In Hong Kong, confronting pollution's risks

Posting in Cities

HONG KONG -- Just how bad is "bad" air? Health indexes help decipher the dangers.

HONG KONG -- The day's air pollution, not the weather, is arguably the favorite topic of discussion among Hong Kong locals.

For casual observers, the level of pollution on a given day is often determined simply by looking at Victoria Harbor. If the skyscrapers on the other side of the water are not visible and instead shrouded in a gray haze, that is probably a bad day to be breathing.

Of course, there is the government’s Air Pollution Index, a more technical and accurate gauge that residents can check online. It provides a score for the air of various districts, a rating of low to very high levels of pollution and the highest contributing pollutant in a given area, which is often “respirable suspended particulates” or “ozone.”

But some experts say not only does the government’s API, which is based on a system developed by the Environmental Protection Agency in the U.S., use an outdated standard to report pollution severity, but to the public, the figures posted are just that: numbers that are too abstract.

People here "don’t have very strong feelings about the current API because they do not know what it means when the API reaches very high," said Melonie Chau, the senior environmental affairs officer at the local chapter of Friends of the Earth.

A group of academics have tried to solve this problem, as well as to provide a system that is more accurate and relevant, by developing a new index, based on Canada’s Air Quality Health Index. This new AQHI, which was commissioned by the Hong Kong government, was proposed in 2009 by the scientists but has yet to be implemented.

The index takes pollutant measurements and translates them into more concrete health implications. The idea was to show, almost in real time, the likely rate of hospital admissions attributable to the amount of four pollutants present in the air, which are sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, ozone and particulate matter.

But most practical for the public, the new index will give advice on lifestyle changes based on pollution conditions outside.

“We will advise them to refrain from outdoor physical activity, ask them to stay away from areas with heavy traffic, and, for those with heart or lung problems, we would advise them to check with the doctors on whether to change to adjust medication,” said Wong Tze-wai, a professor of public health who helped devise the new index.

The danger levels and advice will also be separated into two categories: people at normal risk and vulnerable groups, including children and the elderly.

This new index is designed to be more responsive — showing current levels rather than taking a 24-hour average as the existing API does.

While the government has said it is looking into adopting the AQHI, the researchers have decided to implement it online themselves and hope to launch a site for this new index next month.

Awareness is more vital than ever in the city, as pollution levels seem to be on a relentless rise.

On Aug. 2, the air pollution level measured by the government broke its record level since data collection began in 1999, save for the time a natural dust storm swept through southern China in 2010. At-risk groups were advised not to spend too much time outside — a rare advisory that Chau, of Friends of the Earth, says was prompted by media inquiries. “The government doesn’t do that proactively,” she said.

There is evidence that the pollution levels in Hong Kong could have an adverse effect on business. In a study conducted two years ago, a quarter of respondents chosen at random said they were seriously considering moving away from Hong Kong because of the pollution levels.

According to the report, those polled generally do not think the government will do anything to fix the pollution problem.

But Chau is hopeful, because of the recent appointment to the post of environment secretary, Christine Loh, a former lawmaker who has been involved with environmental campaigns. “It very much depends on the mindset or mentality of the administration,” Chau said. “In the past 10 years, they have tended to ignore the air pollution problem in Hong Kong. But now I think there will be some changes.”

Photo: Flickr/Adrian F

Vanessa Ko

Correspondent (Hong Kong)

Vanessa Ko has written for TIME, South China Morning Post and Phnom Penh Post. She holds degrees from Northwestern University and the University of Hong Kong. She is based in Hong Kong, China. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure