Hong Kong air pollution
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The WHO International Agency for Research on Cancer classified outdoor air pollution as a leading cause of cancer. Photo: David Wong

More lawsuits expected after WHO links air pollution and cancer

Lawyers expect employees with work-related cancer to use WHO declaration of health hazard to build case on effects of being outdoors

More workers are likely to sue their employers for work-related cancer, lawyers say, after the World Health Organisation officially classified outdoor air pollution to be cancer-causing.

Lawyers Albert Luk Wai-hung and Vitus Leung Wing-hang both said the number of claims would surge as outdoor workers suffering from cancer related to air quality had a better chance of winning lawsuits and bigger payouts.

The WHO International Agency for Research on Cancer on Thursday classified outdoor air pollution as a leading cause of cancer. It is more dangerous even than second-hand tobacco smoke, according to the WHO.

Air pollution had previously been found to boost the chances of heart and respiratory diseases.

"The official declaration of the WHO will definitely raise the public awareness on air pollution and cancer," Luk said. "I am quite sure more people will consider taking such action now there is a strong foundation to prove that working in polluted air has very serious consequences."

Leung said it was difficult now for employees to hold their employer responsible for lung cancer related to poor air quality due to a lack of medical proof.


But the WHO declaration would be sound evidence to back the claim, Leung said.

In the long run, Leung believed the health risks of poor air quality would be made an official occupational disease, with sufferers eligible for work-injury compensation, under labour laws. Then an employee would be entitled to make claims without needing to submit the WHO findings as evidence.

The amount of compensation would be subject to assessment and would vary with age, working ability, and the severity of the health damage, Leung said.

Doctors and advocates expressed concern at the poor air quality in the city and urged the government to take more steps to safeguard public health.


Respiratory doctor Leung Chi-chiu said the lungs were frequently in contact with the air as an average person inhaled six litres of air every minute. Pollutants, especially small particles, could accumulate in the lungs.

While outdoor air pollution was a factor, he said, the major cause of lung cancer in Hong Kong remained tobacco or second-hand smoke.


Greenpeace climate campaigner Prentice Koo Wai-muk said air pollution took a heavy toll in Hong Kong and urged more action from the government.

A spokeswoman for the Environmental Protection Department said the government recognised the adverse health impact of air pollution and had a series of policies to tackle it, including phasing out highly polluting diesel commercial vehicles, reducing marine vessel emissions and tightening regional emission control with the Guangdong government.

Video:How to deal with Hong Kong's smog

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: More suits likely on air pollution