Related illnesses may cost two per cent of GDP
The worsening pollution in the Pearl River Delta over the past 20 years has sent Hong Kong's rates of cancer and respiratory illnesses soaring, according a report from Friends of the Earth.
The report - aimed at emphasising the need for sustainable development in Hong Kong - said the cost of pollution-related health problems could be at least two per cent of Hong Kong's gross domestic product each year.
Although the group acknowledged that there were many factors which contributed to cancer, it linked pollution and the increase in separate breathable particles to the rise in cancer and respiratory illnesses.
Taking World Health Organisation figures on cancers among men, the group said there were about 275 deaths per 100,000 people in 1997, compared with 180 in 1985 and 110 in 1970.
The report says about 20 per cent of all deaths in Hong Kong may be related to pollution-related illness.
Overall, as Hong Kong's healthcare system has improved, fewer people are dying of bronchitis, but the number of in-patient hospital visits for respiratory illnesses has soared from less than 2,000 per 100,000 people in 1985 to nearly 8,500 per 100,000 in 1997, according to Department of Health figures.
'You are seeing fewer people dying but more people going to the hospital, which suggests the effects of air pollution and a series of different factors, including stress levels,' said Eric Walker, one of the group's researchers.
The report said Hong Kong was interconnected with the mainland's air pollution plight.
The World Bank has estimated nearly eight per cent of the mainland's gross domestic product is eaten up in pollution-related costs, and predicts that will reach 13 per cent by 2020.
Many of Hong Kong's manufacturing industries have relocated across the border, creating a dramatic rise in acid-rain-causing pollutants around the Pearl River Delta.
On the mainland, consultants are projecting that by 2015 the delta region will be emitting 2.5 million tonnes of sulphur dioxide, compared with 500,000 in 1993.
Acid rain is caused by pollutants - mainly sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide generated by power plants and vehicles - mixing with rain. It can cause serious environmental damage to aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems.
The SAR has recently expanded its monitoring of acid rain amid increasing regional concern over its long-term environmental impact.
Under the enhanced scheme, a new monitoring station was recently set up in Yuen Long to add to the existing Kwun Tong and Central stations. All measuring equipment has also been redesigned and upgraded to fall in line with international protocol.
Since October, the department has been sending rain samples to the government chemist for pH - or acid level - analysis.
'It can provide daily, accurate data that can be put into a regional context to determine the trend of acid rain,' said principal environmental protection officer Raymond Leung Pak-ming, adding that the data would assist a network established since 1998 and featuring 10 participating countries to monitor the trend.
Acid rain is normally classified as having a pH value below 5.6. According to the network, however, a large amount of rain with a slightly higher (more alkaline) pH value can cause more significant impact than a small amount of relatively strong acidic rain. Hong Kong recorded an average 4.8 pH for its rain last year, compared with 4.5 in 1998. Rainfall in 1998 and 1999 was 2,564 and 2,129 millimetres respectively.
Professor Ho Kin-chung, from the Open University, said the average figure was not alarming, but the problem of acid rain could not be underestimated as it also indicated the extent of air pollution. 'The dirtier the air, the more acidic the rain might be,' he said.