11/05/2004, 00.00
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Air pollution costs a billion dollar per year

Respiratory and cardiovascular diseases are on the rise.

Hong Kong (AsiaNews /SCMP) – Hong Kong is paying a heavy price for its development in both economic and health terms. Air pollution-related diseases are costing the former British colony more than a billion dollars as more and more people develop respiratory problems.

A study by the University of Hong Kong, commissioned by the Environmental Protection Department, estimated that in 2000 air pollution cost $ 1.3 billion.

Ten micrograms of nitrogen dioxide per cubic metre of air represent an estimated US$ 200 million in health care cost, including hospitals stays. In 2000, the mean concentration of nitrogen dioxide was 58 micrograms per cubic metre.

The research team used data collected between 1995 and 2000, including figures for hospital admissions, and visits to accident and emergency wards, general outpatients' clinics and private doctors for treatment of respiratory and cardiovascular diseases.

"These health-cost estimates remind us that we are paying a price for economic development," said the study's author, Wong Chit-ming, associate professor of community medicine at the university.

"The figures help the government or other organisations to assess the health impact before they go ahead with planning and infrastructure projects such as building new transport systems," he said.

Other studies conducted in the past decade by Wong Tze-wai—a professor in the Chinese University's Department of Community and Family Medicine—illustrate how disturbing the situation has become.

His studies show that the number of hospital admissions for respiratory and cardiovascular diseases rose by 1.5 to 3 per cent for every 10-microgram increase in pollutants per cubic metre of air.

A small sample of family doctors kept a daily record of respiratory disease cases they treated. The figures showed that in 2000 and 2001, the number of consultations they handled increased by 2.3 per cent for every 10-microgram increase in ozone per cubic metre of air.

Public hospitals admit an estimated 100,000 patients with respiratory disease and 150,000 with heart diseases each year.

Donald Li Kwok-tung, president of the College of Family Physicians, said many of his patients suffering from lung diseases emigrated for cleaner air.

Dr Li said that just a few years ago, he only saw one or two patients with allergic coughing each month. "But now, I see five or six every week. Allergic coughing is a real problem associated with poor air quality."

David Hui Shu-cheong, an assistant professor at the Chinese University's Division of Respiratory Medicine, noted that the number of patients suffering from breathing problems surged a few days after the air pollution index (API) rose.

Some of those suffering from asthma and chronic obstructive lung diseases such as bronchitis and emphysema end up in hospital. "Some even suffer eye-irritation problems," he said.

Since the 1970s, the enemy has changed from local industrial pollution to vehicle emissions. Factory emissions in Hong Kong were cleaned up after the government banned fuel with heavy sulphur content in the 1980s.

The massive relocation of factories to Guangdong shifted the remaining industrial polluters out of Hong Kong, but their pollutants could not be easily contained in the new location.

Roadside improvements were made in recent years, thanks to a series of measures such as the introduction of LPG taxis and cleaner fuel like ultra-low-sulphur diesel, which reduced emissions of particulates and nitrogen oxide.

But progress has been overshadowed by deterioration in other areas, including an 18 per cent increase in ozone concentration and a 4 per cent rise in respirable suspended particles over the past five years.

The deteriorating trend is reflected in the number of hours the API stays over 100. This figure has risen drastically since 2002: from 252 to 527 hours so far this year. And the amount of time that visibility has remained below 8 km rose from 2 per cent in 1968 to 16.7 per cent so far this year.

The API has also broken a year-on-year record. In 2000, the top reading was 153. Already this year, that figure has been topped 24 times, with the top 10 readings—six of which were taken at Tung Chung—ranging from 165 to 201.

Summer, when air quality used to be better because of different atmospheric conditions, is now increasingly plagued by poor air quality. Even at night, roadside air pollution readings remain high.

In Mongkok earlier this month, the roadside API remained over 100 for 180 hours.

Pollution is not the same everywhere. Things are better to the east and the south, worse in the west. This is shown from API figures recorded in the 60 months to June. Communities on the western side of the Territory were significantly more prone to poor air quality than those to the east.

Kwai Chung, where streams of diesel-powered container trucks arrive at the busy container port, had the worst air, with the air pollution index giving a reading of above 100 for 459 hours. It was followed by the congested old industrial district of Kwun Tong with 356 hours, while Tung Chung was third with 239 hours. Tsuen Wan, a new town developed since the 1970s and adjacent to Kwai Chung, had 239 hours of above-100 pollution. The best areas are Tap Mun, Tai Po and Sha Tin, with at most only 50 hours.

In response to Greenpeace and Clear the Air activists who said that Hong Kong's air-quality objectives were outdated compared with European standards, Environment Secretary Sarah Liao Sau-tung rejected any comparisons; instead, she argues, objectives should be set with reference to the specific conditions of each city.

"There is no such thing as an international standard," Ms Liao said. "The problem [. . .] is that you would send a message overseas that Hong Kong always has a very high API and that breathing that air is damaging." In her opinion, it was more realistic to review the standards after improvements had been made.

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