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City Weekend

‘It’s like they’re killing our children’: parents call for tougher action on air pollution at Hong Kong schools

Suggested measures include cancelling classes, installing air purifiers and testing air quality on school premises

PUBLISHED : Friday, 30 September, 2016, 2:55pm
UPDATED : Friday, 30 September, 2016, 9:29pm

Parents are urgently calling for tougher action on Hong Kong’s air pollution problem in schools as pollution levels caused alarm this week.

Hong Kong endured two days of “serious” air pollution this week as a result of Typhoon Megi.

The Environmental Protection Department (EPD) subsequently issued a warning for children and elderly people to remain indoors as much as possible.

But despite its warning, the department does not require schools to test the air quality on their premises.

Emily Seah, whose children, three-year-old Jordan and five-year-old Calista, attend the International Montessori School in Stanley, said she was frustrated by the authorities’ failure to act on the issue.

She believes all schools should be closed when pollution reaches serious levels.

The 37-year-old Canadian, who moved to Hong Kong 15 months ago with her banker husband Hodson, said she is increasingly worried about her children’s health. She suspected her son was suffering from the effects of pollution as his cough did not improve even after a doctor’s visit and medication.

Our air quality won’t improve until this one thing happens

“When I moved to Hong Kong, people told me the air pollution was bad, but no one told me it was this bad,” she said. “The government should make it mandatory to cancel school on days where pollution is high; they cancel schools in the event of typhoons, for example. It is like they are killing our children.”

Seah said she was particularly concerned over the EPD’s failure to promote the importance of air purifiers.

She said she had called 10 international schools last year to ask whether they had purifiers, only to find that just two had them in their classrooms.

“The EPD doesn’t do anything to promote awareness to schools to install air purifiers,” she said. “[When I contacted them], I was told there were no by-laws or policies stating schools were required to get the air quality tested; this is a scary thought. Who knows what will happen to our children several years down the road.”

Frenchman Nicolas Giraudon, whose child also studies at International Montessori School, previously launched a successful campaign to get more air filters installed at the school. He claims the filters can reduce pollution levels by about two-thirds.

The 41-year-old deputy sales and marketing director for an international media company set up a blog to document his campaign.

He said his six-year-old daughter, Margoux, had developed asthma since his family arrived in Hong Kong, adding that he was growing concerned for the health of his baby son Karl. He and his wife, Florence, have decided they will relocate next year.

“Hong Kong has a lot of potential, but it does not do anything about this problem,” he said.

A spokesman for the Education Bureau said it issued guidelines to schools on how to protect children when pollution levels reach 7 or above, but it did not advise the cancellation of classes.

Public sector schools may make use of the grants provided by the Education Bureau to purchase any equipment based on the needs of individual schools if deemed necessary.
An Education Bureau spokesman

He also said there were no plans to make the installation of air purifiers mandatory in public schools.

“Public sector schools may make use of the grants provided by the Education Bureau to purchase any equipment based on the needs of individual schools if deemed necessary,” he said.

The International Montessori School did not respond to the South China Morning Post’s requests for comment on the issue.

Meanwhile, the English Schools Foundation (ESF) advises teachers to cancel or postpone physical education lessons when the Air Quality Index reaches 10.

A reading of 7 or 8 signifies teachers should modify activities to account for the bad conditions. But it does not issue guidelines for schools to close in these instances.

A spokeswoman for ESF said it did not have an “immediate plan” to make air purifiers mandatory in its schools but said it was committed to protecting its students.

“The health and safety of our students and staff are of ESF’s topmost priority,” she said. “Internal policies are currently in place and are strictly followed by all ESF schools to ensure high safety standards.

“ESF will remain vigilant to the latest developments and will follow the guidance from the Education Bureau to safeguard the well-being of our students.”

Hong Kong air pollution still far exceeds WHO levels and worsening, concern group finds

Campaign group Hong Kong Clean Air Network said this week it would not recommend air purifiers as a solution to the problem as they may not be affordable for those on low-incomes, but said it would continue to lobby the government for tougher policies on air pollution.

“We need to change this at the policy level to ensure everyone can enjoy clean air, regardless of their social position,” it said.

This week, a report by the World Health Organisation found that one in nine deaths around the world can be linked to air pollution.

In Hong Kong last year, there were 2,196 premature deaths due to air pollution and a total economic loss of HK$27.4 billion. The city has consistently surpassed the WHO’s maximum recommended levels of nitrogen oxides over the last five years.

Additional reporting by Jessie Lau