Hong Kong’s roadside air pollution is expected in 2010 to kill more than twice the number of people affected by the 2003 HK SARS outbreak, according to a leading environmental institution.
The figures, released daily by the University of Hong Kong’s School of Public Health, show that since January, 594 people have died prematurely due to the effects of staggering pollution levels in the metropolis of 7 million.
The figure has already surpassed the official death toll of the SARS epidemic, which is believed to have killed 299 people in Hong Kong seven years ago.
Roadside pollution hit a record high in the March quarter, prompting severe health warnings and calls for Hong Kong Chief Executive Donald Tsang to address the worsening environmental damage.
According to the Hedley Environmental Index (HEI), published in real time by the University of Hong Kong, air pollution has already cost the region HK$1.3 billion (US$167.54 million) this year alone. As of Oct. 13, the smog has also led to 4.36 million doctor visits and almost 45,000 hospital stays.
With no sign of significant improvements in government intervention to reduce the smog, pressure is rising on the Tsang administration to toughen environmental policies.
“This has to be the priority for the government,” said Joanne Ooi, CEO of the advocacy group Clean Air Network; the group drove a truck covered in black balloons through the city last week to highlight the issue, reports Bloomberg. “The impact of roadside pollution on health is getting worse, and it’s extremely dangerous. There is no bigger problem in Hong Kong.”
Since earlier this year, environmental officials have urged the government to reconsider a 2008 proposal that called for a license fee increase on trucks and vans that are 15 years or older.
The proposal was rejected then on the grounds that it would too negatively affect economic output.
Instead, a grant system was introduced, aimed at encouraging the drivers to swap their older vehicles for cleaner cars. However, owners of just 13,000 targeted vehicles took advantage of the grants, while another 38,500 remain on the road, according to a South China Post report.
Vehicles that are 15 years or older emit as much as 20 times more pollutants than newer ones. These emissions can cause a myriad of health problems, particularly for the young and elderly.
Since July, the roadside pollution index, which measures the level of harmful gases, such as sulfur dioxide and ozone, recorded high levels of the noxious pollutants 68 percent of the time and extremely high levels 9.8 percent of the time, according to data from Hong Kong’s Environmental Agency.
At such levels, health warnings are normally issued to people who suffer respiratory conditions, and the population is advised to limit the time spent around traffic congestions.
Mainland a Contributor
The HEI estimates that 60 to 70 percent of Hong Kong’s pollution originates across the harbor at the mainland’s Pearl Delta region—a booming manufacturing center.
In recent years, the mainland’s inability to cope with the growing demand on the grid has pushed many factories to run on cheaper generators, which lack quality filtering systems and emit harmful pollutants, which are then blown across to Hong Kong.
However, the HEI also suggests that 53 percent of the time Hong Kong is mostly affected by local pollution from coal-burning plants, automobiles, and other pollution-generating machinery. The mainland pollution does not strongly affect Hong Kong all year because only during the winter months do the winds blow from the north.
Businesses Suffer Losses
The pollution problems have also affected businesses, prompting many to stay away.
According to a 2008 poll by the American Chamber of Commerce, 40 percent of member companies faced serious difficulties recruiting people to work in Hong Kong due to pollution concerns.
On bad days, “When you go on the street, you can practically chew the air,” says Mike Kilburn, environmental program manager for Civic Exchange, a think tank, reported USA Today.
Hong Kong has long been a hub for the international business community. For example, about 1,400 U.S. companies have offices there, and more than 60,000 Americans live in Hong Kong, according to the U.S. State Department.
The Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce has also urged the government to act swiftly or lose vital support from the international community.
Regarding the priority task of improving the environment, Chamber CEO Alex Fong pointed out that quality of life issues, most notably air pollution, have affected Hong Kong’s attractiveness as a place in which to do business and live.
“People in the business community, particularly the expatriate community, are saying the air in Hong Kong is not improving, and that’s affecting their ability to recruit,” said Fong, according to a Bloomberg report.
The Chamber has called for decisive action to improve air quality, which includes stepping up the search for new ways to provide incentives for replacing of old buses and old trucks; promoting green transportation, such as electric vehicles; and adopting higher fuel standards for vessels.