Hong Kong air pollution

You can't run or hide: Hong Kong pollution threatens vulnerable street workers

Street workers such as newspaper vendors have no escape from the smog in Central, where rush-hour levels greatly exceed healthy limits

PUBLISHED : Monday, 12 May, 2014, 4:45am
UPDATED : Monday, 27 April, 2015, 3:29pm

From 8am to 6pm, seven days a week, newspaper vendor Lee Fuk faces declining paper sales, rising tobacco duties and the possibility of inclement weather.

He has been at it for two decades, overcoming seemingly endless challenges, but it is the choking fumes in the concrete canyons of Des Voeux Road Central that make him feel most powerless.

"Other problems can be dealt with, but pollution, you can't run or hide from it when working on the streets," said Lee, 62, who has been running the newspaper stand in Central with his sister since the '80s. "We still have to make a living."

Frequent coughs and flu are the norm for Lee. He said the pollution was worst in the late afternoon when buses, trams and cars clog up the central business district's main jugular.

"Sometimes we just have to sit here and hope for a gust of wind to come," said another Des Voeux Road vendor, Cary Lee Wai-ing.

Roadside levels of fine suspended particles, or PM2.5, on one of Central's most polluted roads can reach as high as 70 micrograms per cubic metre during morning rush hours, according to a portable aerosol monitor used by the Post.

World Health Organisation guidelines set 25 micrograms per cubic metre as the maximum average 24-hour concentration and 10 micrograms per cubic metre as the annual average concentration for PM2.5 - tiny air pollutants that are small enough to lodge deeply into the lungs and cause damage.

Last year the average PM2.5 concentration at the Central roadside monitoring station, at the junction of Chater Road and Des Voeux Road Central, was 34 micrograms per cubic metre.

This compared to 45 micrograms per cubic metre for Causeway Bay and 33 micrograms per cubic metre for Mong Kok.

Clean Air Network community relations manager Charles Tsang said inefficient vehicular flow and low average speeds compounded the problems.

A speed check at several sections of the roadway found that most vehicles could travel only an average 20 to 30 kilometres per hour.

The high number of buses, bus stops, traffic lights and tall buildings made the area more dangerous than other districts in terms of public health, said Tsang, adding that street-level newspaper vendors were perhaps the most affected.

"In Mong Kok or Causeway Bay, people are mainly tourists or shoppers and their overall exposure to pollution is less high," Tsang said.

"In Central, people and pollution coexist, side by side, as most people are locals who work in the district every day."

He said the government needed to rethink its transport policies.

"Sure, we now have stricter emissions standards for new cars, but what keeps people from driving old polluting cars?

"The government has a plan with bus companies to phase out pre-Euro V buses, but there's already a new Euro VI coming out. Are they going to have to throw in another billion dollars to phase out old buses in a few years' time?

He was optimistic about a recent plan floated by the Institute of Planners to turn a 1.5km section of Des Voeux Road Central into a bus- and car-free zone.

"If they can propose such a plan for a central business district and get a good response from the government, then it's good news," Tsang said.

"It challenges the reasoning that Central is too busy, so nothing can be done."

A Transport Department spokeswoman said it had received the proposal and would advise relevant departments from a "transport management perspective".