An index believed to be the first anywhere to offer continuous, real-time measurement of the economic and health impacts of air pollution was launched yesterday in Hong Kong on a website that claims to reveal the 'cold hard facts' about the city's air quality. The Hedley Environmental Index was developed by the University of Hong Kong's department of community medicine and school of public health in conjunction with independent think-tank Civic Exchange, to improve public awareness of the consequences of air pollution. They also hope to influence government officials, lawmakers, district councillors, businesses and schools. The website carries an air-quality tracker, which compares the real-time air quality data supplied by the Environmental Protection Department with the World Health Organisation's recommended limits on pollutants. The comparison shows that most of the time air quality is well below the WHO recommendations. The index and tracker have been launched just weeks before the government is expected to announce the results of its review of the city's air-quality objectives and issue proposals for public consultation. The most innovative part of the index is its constantly updated tally of the cumulative costs of air pollution. Users can search for figures for a day or part of it, a particular month or year, for example. With a few clicks, they can find out the costs - in money, premature deaths, hospital bed-days and visits to the doctor - of air pollution. At 6pm yesterday, the index showed that this year, more than 1,100 people in Hong Kong had died prematurely and economic losses of more than HK$2.2 billion had been incurred because of air pollution. In an earlier report, Civic Exchange estimated that 1,600 premature deaths a year would be avoided in Hong Kong if air quality improved to levels close to those recommended by the WHO. No country has yet adopted those guidelines. The tracker also shows how air quality has changed over the years. The website does not carry the official Air Pollution Index (API). 'The API is a museum piece. It is outdated and is a fossil. From the pollution point of view, it should be ignored,' said Anthony Hedley, of the university's department of community medicine, after whom the new index was named. Professor Hedley criticised the government's recent proposal to adopt the lowest WHO air-quality guidelines - intended for developing countries - as a 'complete waste of time' and said he could not understand the reasoning behind it. Christine Loh Kung-wai, chief executive of Civic Exchange, said the Hedley index would be useful to various groups, particularly those more vulnerable to air pollution such as children and the elderly. 'The index lays down a marker, minute by minute, that tells us all exactly how much we have to do,' Ms Loh said. Sarah McGee, of the university's school of public health, said the air-pollution costs had been derived using methodology widely adopted internationally and were 'conservative estimates'.