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Gasp, it’s worse than we thought

SCMP

Christy Choi

HKU researchers, using a revised environmental index, say 3,200 people die prematurely every year from illnesses linked to air pollution in the city. Air pollution in Hong Kong is more harmful than previously thought, according to a revamped environmental index run by researchers at the University of Hong Kong. While previous estimates by the researchers put the number of premature deaths per year over the past five years at 1,000, the current figures estimate that 3,200 people die prematurely from pollution-related illnesses. They put the total economic cost per year of pollution at HK$40 billion, up from HK$16 billion. The Hedley Environmental Index attempts to illustrate the “silent cost” of pollution – with health effects that don’t immediately translate to a specific disease. The revamped index was introduced yesterday – the same day as the government released its air quality objectives, which show no revision from targets suggested in a 2009 consultation and are still well above limits set by the World Health Organisation, according to Hedley and his team. They said the current air pollution interpretation was still inadequate and misled the public about the true risks of air pollution. Professor Lam Tai-hing, director of HKU’s School of Public Health, said: “The government is looking at an acceptable high of 125 [micrograms per cubic metre] for sulphur dioxide. The WHO considers anything above 20 to be bad for human health.”The WHO set guidelines in 2005 with limits for pollutant levels. Any concentration higher than the limit is said to harm our health. The difference in figures for the revised index come from adjustments made to reflect the reality of living in Hong Kong. For example, the weighting of roadside pollution was increased from 50 per cent to 60 per cent because most Hongkongers spend a lot of time near roads. Nitrogen dioxide, a common byproduct in roadside pollution, was also given a higher rating to reflect this fact, Hedley said. The index takes air pollution readings from the government and correlates this to figures on premature deaths, doctor visits, and days spent in hospital with illnesses associated with toxins in the air to come up with rough figures to illustrate the hidden costs of pollution. They measure four common pollutants – nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide, ozone and other small particles in the air. The new version provides a more user friendly health-risk warning meter, based on WHO guidelines, that can be distributed through Facebook – a real-time pollution map at 14 different monitoring stations across Hong Kong; a running tally of avoidable harm to the community in terms of doctor visits, hospital stays and deaths; monthly and yearly summaries of clear and polluted days; and tangible and intangible costs to the community. To read the full article, click here.

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