Lack of political will responsible for the polluted air we breathe in HK

PUBLISHED : Friday, 02 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 02 December, 2011, 12:00am


I refer to the letter by Pang Sik-wing of the Environmental Protection Department ('Defending cleaner air measures', November 24) in response to a number of articles in Lai See.

It was a further masterpiece in the Environment Bureau's long series of deceptions on air quality management. The full array of short-term and annual pollutant concentrations show that the population is exposed to dangerously high levels of health-damaging particulates and gases, up to several hundred per cent above World Health Organisation (WHO) maximum limits.

Present-day medical evidence shows that harmful effects in children occur even below these limits, and it is likely they will be revised downwards long before Hong Kong is compliant with present international advisories.

Air pollution is a major cause of serious morbidity and mortality and will continue to be for decades, especially for children, the deprived and those with other health problems, even if pollution is reduced dramatically in the near future. This will not happen because the government procrastinates and adopts minimalist measures which do not match the size and severity of the problem. That is why, in public health protection terms, there has been little meaningful change in our exposures from ambient and roadside pollutants for more than a decade.

In 2009 the environment minister claimed that the government had adopted WHO guidelines for the new air quality objectives (AQO). Nothing could be further from reality.

The department and its consultants mostly selected much less stringent 'interim targets'. They also engaged in blind tinkering with short-term limits, allowing additional exceedances to accommodate the present high levels of pollution, instead of implementing the full guidelines and enforcing them to drive down pollution on the shortest possible timescales. This constitutes a major health hazard for everyone.

We need to at least start the process of rational air quality management but it is now clear that, whatever else may be introduced by way of pollutant mitigation, these totally inadequate AQOs will not deliver safer air and protect child health. Once these contrived proposals are enshrined in law, it will, as Mr Pang emphasises, be possible to approve highly polluting projects because they will not violate extremely lax standards.

Unless there is a radical change in political will, our bad air epidemic is set to continue for a very long time.

Anthony Hedley, school of public health, University of Hong Kong