Harm's way?

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 12 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 12 June, 2012, 12:00am


When a city gets packed into a small area, as with Hong Kong, there are bound to be oddities with planning and design. The living room that overlooks a neighbour's bathroom, the hotel with a bird's eye view of a cemetery, and buildings in mixed zones that offer spaces that are apartments one day, a restaurant the next and a sex shop after that are among the inevitabilities. It's a balancing act between providing what people need and ensuring that the services are not disruptive or dangerous. To my mind, the weighing has sometimes been done poorly with petrol stations.

That may be the case on King's Road in Quarry Bay, where a Sinopec filling station nestles snuggly between the MTR on one side and a government school on the other. Or in Kowloon Tong, where an Esso station faces a kindergarten and school across Cumberland Road. And in San Po Kong on Prince Edward Road East, where another Esso property shares a boundary with the Lee Kau Yan Memorial School. I have chosen these examples with our most precious asset, children, in mind - less attention has been paid to the public filling pumps beneath Caltex House in Wan Chai, where office space can be rented.

My concern is not about gas or petrol fumes catching alight and causing an explosion - I assume that government rules ensure that filling stations are bound by the strictest safety standards. What irks is that there is evidence showing that petrol vapours are harmful to the health of those who spend extended time 100 metres or less from their source. Children are especially vulnerable. The lack of concern is yet more proof that those who govern us are more worried about the welfare of companies than residents - chalk it up beside air pollution, the watering down of the draft of a competition law and a public smoking ban that penalises smokers, not the owners of the premises they break the law in.

A study last year by scientists at the University of Murcia in Spain found that the air in petrol stations was often polluted by dangerous particles from evaporated fuel that could contaminate nearby buildings. They said homes should be no closer than 50 metres, and especially vulnerable facilities like schools and hospitals at least 100 metres away. The fumes from petrol and vehicle exhausts can mix to create ozone pollution, which contains harmful chemicals including benzene. Above-normal ozone levels can lead to respiratory problems and asthma, while benzene has been linked to cancers.

The prevalence of LPG-powered cars has meant a close eye has been kept on where the fuel can be sold and stored. That presumably was the result of a question in the Legislative Council in 2000 to the then housing, planning and lands bureau, which indicated 15 schools were located within 50 metres of petrol stations and another 54 were in areas with 'potential dangerous installations'. It refused to reveal the locations to prevent 'unnecessary panic'.

I assume that, in the 12 years since, the unspecified dangers referred to have been eliminated. But scientific findings since point to new ones. How many schools need to be assessed for risks I cannot say - it may be more or less than the 15 on record in 2000. To get the government started, I suggest the three mentioned above.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post