Proposed Hong Kong Air Quality Objectives Not Focused on Public Health

Yesterday, I went to the forum on proposals for Hong Kong's new Air Quality Objectives; there was presentation by Ove Arup (consultant paid by govt, to come up with new Air Quality Objectives). Began with presentation re proposals - which had been criticised in Legislative Council yesterday; and after a break, there was chance for people to ask consultants questions, and to make various points.

What of the proposals and discussion?

Ooh dear; I barely know where to start. But overall, the proposals are not science based, and do not make health the overriding factor in determining new Air Quality Objectives.

Various points:

Proposed Hong Kong Air Quality Objectives Not Focused on Public Health

We were told improving public health was main aim of new objectives. Yet, this appeared to be a load of baloney. The info we were given in handouts barely mentioned health - just said there would be acute and chronic health benefits; nothing re numbers of deaths today, reductions anticipated. Health benefits seemed to be just included in some economic benefits figures - as if people are nothing but financial items, to be included in profit and loss accounts.

One of researchesrs from HK Univ School of Community Medicine stood up, and said he and colleagues had made estimates of numbers of people falling sick and dying with air of standard of objectives: figures for deaths/illness I noticed were higher than for 2007!!

Blaming China; Ignorant re Localised Problems

Several times, we heard from consultants that much Hong Kong air pollution is from nearby China: dirty air at Tap Mun cited as evidence for this. Yet, seemed there was little or nothing re more localised pollution in Hong Kong; nothing re fact that in many parts of the city, HK pollution and regional pollution add together, to create really severe pollution issues.

But of course, acknowledging severity of our own locally made pollution might mean that should take real action to change things.

Proposed objectives more suited to Third World

The new AQOs were drawn up with some reference to World Health Organization's air quality guidelines. Yet rather than aiming for the guidelines themselves, opted to target Interim Targets. These Interim Targets weren't  supposed to be for advanced, first world societies, inc places fancying themselves as "Asia's World CIty"; instead, intended for developing countries to aim for, and progress through. For sulphur dioxide, PM2.5 (small particulates) and ozone, proposals for Hong Kong are for Interim Target 3 levels - meeting lowest targets from WHO; hence Third World like.

"Pragmatic" = Timid

We heard several times that consultant was using "pragmatism". With wishy-washy proposals, this looked to be just a euphemism for timidity; an excuse for simply not doing the right thing.

Limp and woeful

There were 19 proposals for ways to improve air quality; but these were typically mundane - Item 7, say: "Electrification of aviation ground support equipment" (! ). Nor were ideas really thought out: cycling to be encouraged, inc for commuters it seemed, but never mind transpoirt department seems to have little interest in cycling as proper transport in Hong Kong. More natural gas to be used for power generation; but not much clue re where it would come from - and when questioned re "clean coal technology" , an Ove Arup guy replied HK already uses clean coal - displaying shocking ignorance of meaning of clean coal technology: maybe even ignorance of new techologies that can scrub everything but CO2 from coal emissions, albeit this is hard to do.

Lack of interesting options: nothing re more solar and wind pwer, inc micro turbines. Nothing re concrete that can help reduce pollution.

Fearmongering re Costs

Much was made of the costs Hong Kong people would have to pay for better air: higher bus fares, more expensive electicity.

But there was relatively little re benefits: seemed health benefits not really accounted for (not even in dollar terms; let alone numbers of people who might lead longer lives, say).

No mention of US studies, which found that although there were many complaints of potential problems inc costs before various measures taken to alleviate air pollution, these meaasures always proved beneficial: and economic downsides not found (I learned this during air pollution workshop held by Civic Exchange).

Audience Unimpressed

In around 1.5 hours of question time, not one questioner was positive re the consultants' review. We were told that we can make suggestions, before Air Quality Objectives finalised. But doesn't seem consultants/government have lisetned to people so far; seems review biased towards lacklustre government, and desires of fat cats in charge of polluting businesses.

Audience Not "Regular" (Joe) Public

It was good that the meeting was full, with a few hundred people; yet relatively high proportion of westerners: yes, I was among them, but ratio not reflecting nos of HK Chinese as proportion of HK population - hard to say why, whether less tradition of environmental activism here, or - as a Civic Exchange survey indicated - people do care, but most don't believe anything can be done to make major improvements to our dangerous air (Hong Kong's Silent Epidemic [pdf]). Plus, it was Friday afternoon - so many people had to be at work: cynics, like me, might suggest this indicates government not interested in maximising public discussion re air pollution.

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Martin Williams's picture

Had couple of responses to article.

From Christine Loh, of Civic Exhange:

Yr issue about the high number of 'Westerners', this is true if you use the ratio of Chinese vs. non-Chinese in the population i.e. you would then only expect about 3% of the audience being non-Chinese. But this is hardly the point - because you would probably also be able to say there was a high proportion of people from the universities; or there was a high proportion of people representing various green groups, or you can even go further and say among the people from universities, there was a high proportion of those from the public health schools. The proportion in terms of total numbers in the population is really not the right focus on highlight (if I may say so). Those who showed up were people who knew about the event, who could be there (i.e. they could take time off work, or that going is a part of their work), and were very concerned about the issue. Your juxtaposition of Chinese vs. non-Chinese just perpetuate the false impression that the Chinese do not care (as evidence by our survey published in Jan).

- I did note in reply to Christine that I mentioned people may care but feel helpless; plus Fri aft not a good time to attend meeting. Hardly a "public" forum. Also just sent her:

My point remains valid: notably as so few regular folk in the audience.

Here we are, with massive health issue, and it's one for eggheads and greenies, to try n counter government inertia. This is really, really woeful in my view; I also noted dearth of media - compare starlets who've been in porno pix rumpus.

- following further email from Christine, I've moved point re audience composition to end of article; plus link to report on survey finding Hongkongers are concerned about air pollution but don't publicly raise concerns.

Also, re consultant Ove Arup, been sent:

They delivered a report with statements approved by Government.

They are also the consultants on many other Government projects.

No independence.

Plus, sent item saying Ove Arup awarded contracts for design of Hong Kong - Macau - Zhuhai Bridge.

This would seem to me a massive conflict of interest: The Bloody BIg Bridge will increase pollution, esp as dirty vehicular traffic; then developments Lantau, and - more importantly - Zhuhai.

You are correct to note that our preliminary estimates of health impacts of the new AQOs are worse than figures for 2007. This is because of the risk that SO2 may now be legally increased frm its present annual mean of about 22 ug/m3 up to 125!. Our prelim estimates are based on a ceiling of only 50ug/m3,not 125ug/m3. The reason is possibly that the Arup-EPD nexus does not understand ,or rejects the WHO reasoning behind the SO2 guideline. An unconfirmed report includes the observation that a senior EPD official said informally that "the WHO guideline is wrong". It would be helpful to see minutes of meetings to see if any discussions were on this topic.
The preliminary estimates of health gains and losses from the new QO include a huge "benefit" from achieving the NO2 GL;this is unlikely to be achieved without radical and immediate changes to infrastructure,new projects ,transport vehicle standards and the use of dirty cross boundary fuels.
We shall be doing more detailed analyses on the health impact assessment.

A J Hedley;
School of Public Health
HKU ( egghead" division of Martin's audience?)

So we have got some information from the Government via their consultants before they have completed their final report.

What are the most productive things we could be doing to:
- get the issues discussed more widely
- assist the Government to see that maybe things need to be added to the consultants report
- get WHO Guidelines adopted completely as the AQO's with a published timetable for working to achieve them

Looking for some inspiration and suggestions rather than more brick walls to bank my head against.

Dr Merrin

Martin Williams's picture

To me, a major thing is trying to get public opinion on side of making real changes for the better; and indeed aiming for the full WHO guidelines. Not just having people silent and despondent re the issue.

This will require public relations; I've exchanged emails with a few people - inc Christine Loh and Prof Anthony Hedley, and included my view that language is important here: science is important, but need to reach people. More emotive terms likely needed: dangerous air, third world standards in world city and so forth.
Need the media to take interest in this; I lately met AFP reporter who said something re air pollution articles being readily accepted: this might be so w international media, and indeed see quite a few international articles on Hong Kong's filthy air. But local media not too interested; witness near dearth of media at the forum, and at workshop/conference on air pollution organised by CIvic Exchange.

Air pollution indeed challenging as regards media attention: can too readily seem boring. Yet what else do we have that causes anything like 1500-2000 or far more preventable early deaths per year in Hong Kong? SARS was a minnow in fatalities stakes by comparison.

It's partly up to us, environmentalists n co, to find ways to get messages over.
I have looked online a little, re slogans etc - found some t-shirts w slogans re air pollution, but most were also boring [Bad Air Day perhaps my favourite; but not good for HK I think]

hong kong filthy airWhilst review still in progress, I sent round email, inc this photo of my son - which shows his air filtr after something like a year's use, on Cheung Chau, well away from main city pollution. Email aimed at attracting signatures for Greenpeace petition saying Hong Kong should adopt WHO guidelines. I hoped people might pass the email on widely; eveidently didn't happen, and seems the email - and petition - were of little use.

As to "assisting" the Government; I find this sadly laudable yet laughable. Ove Arup is, after all, a government paid consultant - and works on polluting projects inc the Bloody Big Bridge to Zhuhai. Env Protection Dept may need support; but at high levels we have government that seems blind to almost everything except large-scale concreting and so forth developments; and a leader, Donald Tsang, who has gone on record saying air pollution is an issue about visibility: wilful ignorance regarding health.

So the key, surely, is public opinion; public willingness to - let's say - march.

Really, should be straightforward: clean air that doesn't harm lungs and threaten to kill you should be everyone's birthright, especially in a "World City". People should be deeply pissed at the crap we have to breathe day in, day out, and at government that's so feeble re the issue, so willing to accept standards for developing countries.

With public opinion, and perhaps stronger attention from international media, might manage some change for better.

Without it, the steaming pilie of poop from Ove Arup will likelly pass through the system with barely a change: the "public" was consulted, but who cares what they had to say?


What are your views on what are the real causes of pollution in Hong Kong

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Martin Williams's picture

South China Morning Post leader, 20 an 2012:

At long last, Hong Kong has new targets to aim for to improve air quality. They replace guidelines formulated 25 years ago and are closer to those recommended by the World Health Organisation in 2005. That they still fall short in several key areas and are the same as suggestions made after a public consultation in 2009 is disappointing, though. The government claims to be doing its best to reduce worsening pollution levels, but the slow pace of change suggests it is still putting development and the interests of big business before our health.
Officials have had many warnings about the importance of clean air. The dire health effects of prolonged exposure to pollutants like nitrogen dioxide and small particulates from vehicles are well known. Researchers at the University of Hong Kong have attempted to make the government's slew of measurements meaningful with the Hedley Environment Index, which aims to track the short-term impact of air pollution on society. A revised version, coinciding with the release of the new standards, estimated that an average of 3,200 premature deaths have occurred each year over the past five years, leading to an economic cost to Hong Kong of HK$40 billion.
Those figures are a substantial increase on the last estimates. There will be little chance of them falling if government measures continue to cut at the edges rather than the heart of the problem. The Environmental Protection Department's recent annual update of roadside pollution levels in our busiest districts showed record increases, with the Air Pollution Index being above the "very high" mark of 100 for 20 per cent of the time. It was disappointing proof of the gap between authorities' rhetoric and pollution-fighting measures they had implemented.
There is more evidence that cleaning the air is not being given priority with the new air quality objectives. While the inclusion of fine respirable suspended particles of 2.5 microns is welcome and higher standards of between 10 per cent and 64 per cent have been set for seven pollutants, authorities are not legally bound to meet any of the targets. Four of the seven - sulphur dioxide, PM10, PM2.5 and ozone - fall short of the WHO's highest guidelines and it will not be until 2014 at the earliest that they take effect. Tellingly, Beijing unveiled new standards before Hong Kong and the requirement for the key pollutant nitrogen dioxide was set at a tougher level.
Hong Kong has the finances and resources to make our air healthy. Guidelines should be set at the highest level to ensure we strive as best we can to attain them. Only if people are put before the companies that produce the pollution can there be a possibility that the targets are met. Our government is failing us.

Martin Williams's picture

Commentary by Christine Loh in S China Morning Post:

The government was caught napping with regard to Hong Kong's air quality and then caught fudging the issue. That's not a pretty picture; our air quality remains a serious daily threat to public health. It's not that officials don't want to improve air quality - of course they do - but they still can't figure out how they can build highways, bridges, runways and incinerators without causing more air pollution. Their priority is to build infrastructure; they believe this is what matters more - you can always clean up later. They don't see that they can do both.
Earlier this month, Beijing released tighter air quality objectives for the mainland. Hong Kong officials didn't seem to know this was going to happen. It put pressure on them to come to a decision on Hong Kong's own objectives after two years of dithering.
Our officials' objective has shifted from health protection to infrastructure protection.
It is this attitude that got them into trouble in the first place. They have left the cleaning up so late that catching up will require many urgent measures, such as banning old polluting vehicles, pedestrianising urban areas, regulating ships' emissions, switching energy sources, and more. If the next administration retains the same mindset, it too will keep on fudging rather than pushing for aggressive pollution reduction.

Martin Williams's picture

S China Morning Post laisee column:

   In the executive summary of his paper Air Pollution and Public Health, written in 2009, University of Hong Kong Professor Anthony Hedley writes: "There is incontrovertible evidence that pollution levels currently experienced throughout the year in Hong Kong are causing an epidemic of health problems arising from damage to lungs, heart and blood vessels. Hong Kong's pollution is a significant cause of premature death from cardiopulmonary disorders.
"Present levels of pollution cause injury to the immature developing lungs of children and adolescents. This damage will lead to lifelong health problems in many and a reduction in life expectancy."
Professor Wong Tze Wai, with the Chinese University of Hong Kong, concluded an earlier paper, Health Impact of Roadside Air Pollution, by observing that: "Roadside air pollution is a cause for concern; levels of air pollutants at roadside are very high; public health is severely affected; needs urgent action to reduce roadside levels..."
Given these dire warnings by acknowledged public health experts, it is curious that roadside pollution does not excite the same sort of fears in the mind of the public as Sars and bird flu, even though it is responsible for far more deaths.
The World Health Organisation says there have been 341 deaths worldwide from bird flu since 2003 and a total of 913 deaths from Sars.
According to the Hedley Environmental Index, which measures the impact of air pollution on public health in Hong Kong, the average annual number of avoidable deaths attributable to air pollution over the past five years is 3,200. That is a total of 16,000 avoidable deaths in Hong Kong over the past five years alone. These figures are arrived at by a peer-reviewed methodology and have not been challenged by the government or the medical profession.
One of the reasons for the apparent lack of concern is that those struck down are not pronounced dead as a result of contracting a disease with a name like bird flu. It is a "silent injury". People die from toxic attack on their respiratory and other functions.
Another reason for the apparent lack of understanding by the public of the risks posed by air pollution is the government's Air Pollution Index. This takes the readings from the government's air monitoring stations and reduces them to one number on a scale of 0 to 500 and divides the scale into five broad levels ranging from low to severe.
The system is explained at: The problem is that these measurements are based on Hong Kong's woefully outdated air quality objectives set in 1987 and hugely understate the health impacts. (See how API relates to air quality objectives (AQOs) at
Try comparing the government's API and the Hedley index ( We did this several days last week when the API index indicated low and "safe to go out", while the Hedley index, using the same data but calibrated to the World Health Organisation Guidelines, measured "very poor".
In other words, the API is completely misleading. Or as Professor Hedley called it on RTHK's Backchat programme, "a complete piece of fiction". He added: "It's the government's responsibility to translate this problem into health risks and to inform people what they are facing and what their children will face in future years - even if they clean up tomorrow."
So perhaps it is time for Secretary of the Environment Edward Yau Tang-wah (Golden Bauhinia) to stop this shameful practice and either publish figures that indicate the true health impacts or to stop publishing this information, which deliberately misleads the public.