The danger caused by asbestos released from old buildings during demolition has been well recognised around the world. The cancer-causing fibres can remain airborne for a long period, while diseases may not appear for 40 years. The problem warrants special attention in Hong Kong, where the potential health risk to citizens is arguably higher due to the city's densely packed old buildings and rapid urban renewal. Our government has long been aware of the health risks and rightly imposed stringent precautionary measures on demolition work since 1996. But a series of reports in this newspaper found the community remains vulnerable due to a lack of transparency and public monitoring over asbestos removal work. The carcinogenic substance may have been released into the air near schools and homes on Borrett Road after a consultant wrongly claimed asbestos was not present in former government staff quarters before demolition work began early this year.
Although the government and Cheung Kong, which bought the site for HK$11.6 billion for development through a subsidiary, said there was no negative impact on air quality, some residents are consulting lawyers for possible claims.
Last year, a government funding scheme aimed to give decaying blocks a facelift already found 1,100 buildings with asbestos material. But officials refused to disclose the list, saying the feelings of the owners and tenants of the buildings concerned had to be taken into account. The stringent works requirement at these buildings shows renovation is potentially dangerous to the residents in them and living nearby. It is baffling to hear officials arguing disclosure would give the public the wrong impression that the buildings are all dangerous.
A caring and responsible government should do its best to keep people informed of public health risks. Keeping residents in the dark about the potential danger in the neighbourhood contradicts the principle of openness and transparency.