Past research showed the health impact of air pollution on the elderly, and a new study suggests a link with Covid-19 deaths as well. No pandemic battle plan can be complete without taking into account environmental factors.
Most Covid-19-related deaths in Hong Kong have involved elderly patients, turning the spotlight on the health status of our senior citizens (“‘More elderly people will die’: Hong Kong’s Covid-19 death surge”, August 9).
Hong Kong is a fast-ageing society. About a third of its population will be aged 65 or above by the middle of the century, according to Hong Kong census projections. As the pandemic may last for some time, a key question is how the government could help improve their health.
One way is to reduce environmental health risks posed to the elderly, including air pollution.
A recent study conducted by Harvard University showed that an increase of 1 unit of PM2.5 (fine particulate matter) is associated with an 8 per cent increase in the Covid-19 death rate. Experts have warned that the elderly are especially vulnerable, as many have existing chronic health conditions.
One of the under-discussed risk factors of developing chronic diseases among the elderly comes from the environment. A previous University of Hong Kong study tracking over 60,000 elderly residents for up to 13 years showed that every 10-unit increase of PM2.5 exposure is associated with a 22 per cent increase in deaths from cardiovascular causes, a 42 per cent increase in coronary heart disease and a 24 per cent increase in strokes.
Better pollution management should start with better quality of data. There is currently no government definition on air pollution “exposure hotspots”, or data networks that inform the policymakers where, when and how these “exposure hotspots” may affect the vulnerable in each district.
Take Wong Tai Sin as an example. It has the highest proportion of elderly people among all districts in Hong Kong and is one of the areas hit hardest by Covid-19, but at the same time, it is one of the two districts (the other is Kowloon City) not equipped with any Environmental Protection Department air pollution monitoring station.
For the past two decades, Hongkongers have been exposed to chronic roadside air pollution, sometimes at levels that reached twice the safety standards recommended by the World Health Organisation. A lot of damage has been done. Currently, two out of three elderly people in the city suffer from one or more chronic health conditions, including hypertension, heart disease and diabetes. Over the last 10 years, there has been a 76 per cent increase in the number of elderly people diagnosed with such conditions.
Hong Kong must first recover economically and socially from the Covid-19 outbreak, but any recovery has to be achieved with longer-lasting environmental well-being in mind, so as to strengthen the collective resilience against future challenges.
Patrick Fung, CEO, Clean Air Network
This piece of letter was also published on SCMP on 13 August 2020