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HK Health news
The Health Effects of Air Pollution in Hong Kong
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The Health Effects of Air Pollution in Hong Kong

Air pollution reduces air quality, damages the economy and can cause serious harm to your health. Children, the elderly and people with heart or lung problems can be at risk. What each of us can do to help reduce pollution levels, tips and advice.

Air pollution is Hong Kong is considered to be a very serious problem. Not only does it affect the flora and fauna in the area, it also damages the health of the residents and has a serious financial impact on the finances of the city. Cases of asthma and bronchial infections have soared in recent years due to reduced air quality and it costs Hong Kong millions of dollars a day in health care costs and lost investment.

Air-quality monitoring data in Hong Kong for the first half of 2010 shows that roadside air pollution has continued to deteriorate, when compared to the same period in 2009. The latest Air-quality monitoring data shows the number of hours at street level with a very high level on the air pollution index (API) rose by a fifth from 2009. During March 21 to 23 when Hong Kong was affected by a sandstorm, readings at nine out of 14 stations in the quality monitoring network rose to 500 - the maximum level under the API system - for 106 hours over the three days.

A total of 1,277 hours of API over 100 were recorded in the first six months of 2010 at three roadside air quality monitoring stations. Including the 108 hours of very severe readings taken during the sandstorm, this shows a 20 per cent increase over 2009 - and an eightfold rise from 2005. Excluding all API readings between March 21 and 23, the hours of API over 100 in Causeway Bay and Central were 60 and 19 per cent more than in 2009. Mong Kok, however, saw a decrease of 24 per cent.

Roadside readings have risen, but readings reflecting regional pollution have actually dropped, this despite a record 295 hours of API readings over 200 being taken during this six month period.

The number of hours with pollution readings at or above 50 at all 11 monitoring stations in Hong Kong fell by 17 per cent. Excluding the three-day sandstorm readings, this is a 20 per cent improvement from the first half of 2009.

Excluding the March 21 to 23 data for both years, hours with API over 50 in Central and Western District, fell from 1,418 in 2009 to 1,196 this year. Before adjustment, the hours dropped by 184.

In response to queries about air quality, an EPD spokesperson said that it is more accurate to look at the changes in average pollutant concentrations on an annual basis. The comparison of air quality changes over a short period of time might not be representative because of possible shifts in weather and emission patterns.

What is air pollution?

Air pollution is made up of many kinds of gases, droplets and particles that reduce the quality of the air we breathe. In both developed and rapidly industrialising countries, the major historic air pollution problem has typically been high levels of smoke and sulphur dioixide arising from the combustion of sulphur-containing fossil fuels. The major threat to clean air is now posed by traffic emissions. Petrol and diesel-engined motor vehicles emit a wide variety of pollutants, which have an increasing impact on urban air quality. In addition, photochemical reactions resulting from the action of sunlight on nitrogen dioxide and volatile organic compounds from vehicles leads to the formation of ozone, a secondary long-range pollutant, which impacts in areas often far from the original emission site.

The health risks of air pollution

Air pollution can affect our health in many ways with both short-term and long-term effects. Different groups of individuals are affected by air pollution in different ways. Young children and elderly people often suffer more from the effects of air pollution. People with health problems such as asthma, heart and lung disease may also suffer more when the air is polluted. The extent to which an individual is harmed by air pollution usually depends on the total exposure to the damaging chemicals.

Examples of short-term effects include irritation to the eyes, nose and throat, and upper respiratory infections such as bronchitis and pneumonia. Other symptoms can include headaches, nausea, and allergic reactions. Short-term air pollution can aggravate the medical conditions of individuals with asthma and emphysema. When London was affected by smog in 1952, four thousand people died in a few days due to the high concentrations of pollution.

Long-term health effects can include chronic respiratory disease, lung cancer, heart disease, and even damage to the brain, nerves, liver, or kidneys. Continual exposure to air pollution affects the lungs of growing children and may aggravate or complicate medical conditions in the elderly.

Studies by the British Heart Foundation reveal that chemicals in diesel exhaust fumes may trigger clotting mechanisms in the blood stream. Clot formation is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular problems such as heart attacks or strokes.

Why children may be at a greater risk than adults?

Children may have greater exposure than adults to airborne pollutants. Infants and children generally breathe more rapidly than adults, which increases their exposure to any pollutants in the air. Infants and children often breathe through their mouths, bypassing the filtering effect of the nose and allowing more pollutants to be inhaled. Children generally spend significantly more time outdoors than adults, especially during summer months when smog levels are highest.

Children are often more susceptible to the health effects of air pollution because their immune systems and developing organs are still immature. For example, lead that is inhaled is more easily deposited in the fast-growing bones of children. Irritation or inflammation caused by air pollution is more likely to obstruct their narrower airways. It may also take less exposure to a pollutant to trigger an asthma attack or other breathing ailment due to the sensitivity of a child's developing respiratory system. Exposure to toxic air contaminants during infancy or childhood could affect the development of the respiratory, nervous, endocrine and immune systems, and could increase the risk of cancer later in life.

What can I do to protect myself and my family?

The best way of protecting yourself and your family is to help reduce air pollution. The Hong Kong Environmental Protection Department has issued guidelines advising citizens of steps they can take to educe air pollution.

What you can do when driving

Most vehicles run on fossil fuel. Fuel combustion emits nitrogen oxides and suspended particulates, which cause air pollution. These air pollutants are trapped by crowded tall buildings in the urban areas of Hong Kong under the light wind, which worsen the roadside air quality.
  • Buy a car of right capacity - a single person doesn't need a large sized car with a large engine.
  • Buy a fuel economical car.
  • If you do decide to buy a car, forming a car pool with your friends or colleagues will help to reduce the pollution that you cause as a group.
  • Regular and proper maintenance of your vehicle can reduce exhaust emission and improve the environment.
  • Keep your car properly tuned: an inefficient car will use more fuel and emit more pollutants.
  • Maintain correct tyre pressure by inspecting your tyres regularly and inflating them to the pressure recommended by the manufacturer.
  • How you drive can affect the fuel consumption of your car, so adopting a few habits will save the environment and your money.
  • Avoid unnecessary acceleration and deceleration, because it increases fuel consumption.
  • Switch off when idling.
  • Close windows when travelling at high speed - this will decrease aerodynamic drag and lower fuel consumption.
  • Avoid carrying unnecessarily things or installing unnecessary car fittings as extra weight will result in fuel wastage and extra pollution.
  • Only use air-conditioning when you have to - flow-through ventilation or open windows at lower speeds can be just as effective without the extra fuel consumption.
  • A final way to help protect the environment is to look for alternatives.
  • Planning your route ahead of time will help you find easier ways around traffic congestion - you will reduce fuel consumption.
  • Use public transportation as often as possible – the wide availability of trains, buses, minibuses and ferries in Hong Kong means that most areas can be reached without much expense.
What you can do at home

There is a lot that we can do at home both to protect the environment and to make our lives healthier.

An easy way to help clean the air is to reduce energy consumption at home. By switching off fans, air-conditioners and lights when you don't need them and keeping the air-conditioned temperature at 25.5 degree Celsius in summer, you will save energy and money, and reduce air pollution from power stations. You can also choose energy efficient appliances and look for the Energy Label when purchasing these products. 

If however the air pollution levels are high in your area you can protect yourself and your family by doing the following:

  • If you are exposed to urban pollution for any length of time you should think about protecting your lungs with a mask. Good masks keep out large particles.
  • Check the predicted API in your area. Be careful if the API is greater than 100. Also be careful if there are high-risk weather conditions, such as a hot, sunny day, and if you begin to develop symptoms like chest tightness, burning eyes or a cough.
  • Stay indoors as much as you can during days when pollution levels are high. Many pollutants have lower levels indoors than outdoors.
  • If you must go outside, limit outside activity to the early morning hours or wait until after sunset. This is important in high ozone conditions (such as in many large cities) because sunshine increases ozone levels.
  • Don't exercise or exert yourself outdoors when air-quality reports indicate unhealthy conditions. The faster you breathe, the more pollution you take into your lungs.

These steps will generally prevent symptoms in healthy adults and children. However, if you live or work close to a known pollution source, or if you have a chronic heart or lung problem, talk with your doctor about other ways to protect yourself from air pollution.

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