Students barred from new HKU hostel over air quality fears

HKU bosses face huge bill for putting up 800 new arrivals in nearby hotels after levels of cancer-causing formaldehyde exceed limits

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 06 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 September, 2012, 3:40am

The University of Hong Kong may have underestimated the scale of the indoor air quality problem in its much-delayed new hostel and could face soaring bills to accommodate students unable to move in.

The university originally estimated that the cancer-causing material formaldehyde, believed to have been released by new furniture, could be dispersed in a week and budgeted HK$1 million for alternative accommodation.

But an expert on indoor air quality said yesterday it could take up to six months and students' health could suffer if they moved into the Kennedy Town hostel too soon.

"If students are to move in within a week, the levels will increase again in an air-conditioned environment," Professor Yau Yiu-hung of the Open University said. "In general cases, it will take three to six months for the level to resume to normal."

About 800 non-local students were due to move into the two new blocks in Lung Wah Street yesterday and were asking why they were not told of the problem earlier.

It was the second case of formaldehyde emissions in the university's new campus this year, after staff who moved into office buildings in May suffered health problems.

Yau said special attention should be given to the level of other pollutants such as solvent and benzene. "When the level of formaldehyde is high, the levels of other pollutants are usually high too."

Test results received by the university on Tuesday showed that of 16 air samples tested, six had formaldehyde content ranging from 103 to 130 micrograms a cubic metre, exceeding the standard of 100 set by the Environmental Protection Department.

But a university spokeswoman said another set of findings received yesterday showed an improvement, with only one sample failing.

Measures to clear the air include opening all windows and adding filters to air-conditioners.

Three-star hotels nearby were asked to provide interim accommodation for the displaced students, who were informed in a university e-mail sent to them on Tuesday. About 100 students moved into the nearby Dorsett Regency Hotel yesterday.

While the university said it had set aside about HK$1 million to pay for the accommodation, which cost about HK$700 for two students per night, the budget seems too small even with no further delay.

Based on the hotel room rate, a week's accommodation for all 800 students would require HK$1.7 to HK$2 million, not counting the bills incurred by any further delay.

Pro-vice-chancellor John Malpas, who is responsible for the development of the new campus, blamed the tight planning schedules of Hong Kong's new academic system that required a double student intake this year.

The difficult nature of the hostel site had added to the delays, he said.

The four new hostel blocks were originally due for completion in July. After delays, two were to have opened yesterday and the others next month.

"This site came to us relatively late, and [the residential colleges are] in a hilly and crowded neighbourhood, so we had to do a lot of public relations and also [deal with] a lot of ground conditions, technical conditions," Malpas said.

He did not comment on why the university did not learn from the earlier problems in the office buildings, where staff suffered from symptoms such as skin rash, sore eyes and diarrhoea.

Student union president Dan Chan Kwoon-hong criticised poor communication. "The union was told that the air test results were satisfactory until we were contacted by the university about midnight on. The results were not disclosed to us."

Some of the students who arrived at the hostel site with their luggage also complained about short notice and worried about their health.

"The e-mail came in all of a sudden, which has stirred up discontent among some students," said a Year One engineering student from Shandong .