January 18th, 2012
01:00 AM GMT
Hong Kong (CNN) - Hong Kong is one of the world's richest cities. Almost one in 10 households boasts a millionaire. The government sits on a cash pile of about $80 billion. Yet Hong Kongers are choking, sometimes to death, on their own success.
A bold claim, but the statistics are compelling. The Hong Kong University School of Public Health has just unveiled a new real-time cost of pollution index. According to new research from the university and local think tank Civic Exchange, there are 3,200 avoidable deaths a year in Hong Kong due to air pollution - more than three times higher than previous estimates.
As I write this (at 7:15 p.m. HKT Tuesday) the index reports there has been seven preventable deaths and more than 14,000 preventable doctor's visits in Hong Kong in the 19 hours beginning midnight on Monday. Preventable, because the bad air quality that researchers say was responsible, can be easily improved.
The HKU's team leader Professor Anthony Hedley - 22 years as chairman of community medicine at the university - says the model they have developed is "state of the art.” Certainly the Hong Kong government has nothing like it. In fact, they have no statistics on pollution-related health costs, and their methods for measuring pollution are, say critics, well out of date.
But even with that technology, the quality of the air at roadside level in Hong Kong is rapidly deteriorating. Roadside pollution levels reached a record high last year. The number of days that pollution was rated "high" hit 20%. That is five times more than in 2005.
And the impact, according to the Hedley Index, has been hard. To take December as an example: 311 people died, nearly 800,000 visits were made to doctors and heathcare experts and days lost at work cost the economy about $60 million.
But clean air campaigners say the level of roadside pollution could be brought to within acceptable World Health Organisation levels within weeks.
Roadside pollution is the chief cause of pollution-related respiratory illness in Hong Kong, according to Mike Kilburn of the thinktank Civic Exchange. He says that if the government spent some of their cash reserves in a cash-for-clunkers scheme to take dirty trucks and buses off the streets, then air quality would improve dramatically. Instead the government is giving Hong Kongers a tax rebate of around $800 per person.
The government appears to have been stung into action by the release of the Hedley Index. A few hours after the index was released the Environmental Protection Department held a press conference to announce it was modifying its pollution monitoring to bring it in line with WHO standards.
But many clean air campaigners greeted that move was greeted with a "too little, too late" response. The question they want answered is why is a government as rich as Hong Kong's is not spending more on a move which could have a big and rapid impact.
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