January 18th, 2012
01:00 AM GMT
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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have no statistics on pollution-related health costs, and their methods for measuring pollution are, say critics, well out of date.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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Filed under: AsiaenvironmentHong Kong


soundoff (34 Responses)
  1. HKbound

    Interesting, yet I believe that most HK pollution comes from the Chinese Pearl River Delta industries and not from some old bangers on HK roads.

    January 18, 2012 at 2:49 am |
  2. statement8

    What is going on here? ALL this news about pollution and absolutely NO NEWS on the D&G Racism in Hong Kong?

    January 18, 2012 at 3:50 am |
  3. PHILIPPE M MOISAN

    The pollution issue in Hong Kong speaks volumes about the flaws in the SAR government.

    There is no need to discuss whether pollution is a problem now or will be a problem later. When equipped with a huge surplus of funds, a responsive government has the luxury to take concerted (In some cases, BOLD) action with an eye to the medium term, areas such as environmental protection, quality of education et al... The HK government has no concept of this... Their BOLD action all too often involves concrete structures.

    As to the origin of the pollution (Homemade or from Chinese factories), this issue should not be used to prolong the debate... ACTION must be taken immediately on Hong Kong hometurf to improve conditions.

    January 18, 2012 at 4:54 am |
  4. Voice of Reason

    The best way to protest this is to wear a gas mask and draw negative worldwide attention until the government gets embarrassed enough to do something about it

    January 18, 2012 at 5:11 am |
  5. kcm367

    Pollution mainly comes from the Chinese Pearl River Delta instead of those double-decker bus black gas and smoking old men.... If you are blind.

    January 18, 2012 at 5:43 am |
  6. From Someone Who Lives It

    I've lived in HK for nearly 8 years, and spend much of my time commuting between China's Pearl River Delta and Hong Kong. Over the last couple of year I have seen the China air significantly cleaner than the HK air. As I come back to HK after a day trip to China, the air pollution significantly increases as I approach HK. We can no longer blame our neighbors up north. We're now creating most of it.

    January 18, 2012 at 8:15 am |
  7. Ron

    I lived in HK on and off since 1962, and I can tell you the vast majority of HK's pollution comes from China. Its all the factories, trucks and cars brought about over the past 20 years by the West's demand for 'cheap plastic stuff', coupled with a total lack of forethought, appropriate and enforced regulation on behalf of the Chinese government.

    January 18, 2012 at 8:19 am |
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    Hey...Pollution is the major factor that affects our health. We can say that it is type of slow poision. Rate of pollution increases day by day and we have try to protect our country.....

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    January 18, 2012 at 8:42 am |
  9. Pwetpwet

    In Summer 2011, a great number of Shenzhen factories were halted in an attempt to clear the air for the Shenzhen Universiades.
    The day after, HK sky was crystal clear, and remained like this... until the factories activity got resumed.

    January 18, 2012 at 9:25 am |
  10. Mark

    Hi, I have lived in Hong Kong before moving to the UK. I visit Hong Kong once a year, and I can see how air pollution is becoming worse and worse. I think one of the main problem is that, Hong Kong is building skyscrapers everywhere in the city, not allowing the polluted air to escape. I believe the Hong Kong government needs to do something sooner rather than later and tackle this problem. I don't want the 6000 HKD given from the government in the recent 6000 HKD scheme, I want CLEAN AIR!

    More on the D&G stuff please.

    January 18, 2012 at 9:31 am |
  11. Reflecto

    I am not a resident, but I did notice during a recent visit that the vast majority of the vehicles I saw in HK were low or very low polluting, much better than the situation in Seoul, yet the pollution was unarguably much worse in HK. The air pollution in HK seemed to me to be totally out of proportion to the number of vehicles on the road. The number may seem high to local residents but it is actually quite low for a city of this size, no doubt due to the superlative public transit system. I did notice when taking pictures from the Peak in the early morning that the worst of the pollution seems to start in the north/northwest.

    January 18, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
  12. Kyle H. Davis

    statement8: That's because it is NOT RACISM. I despise it when people misuse the term out of ignorance. Being born in HK does not change ones race... Nobody in the world has a form in which "Hong Kong Native" is a choice for "Race".

    Get over it.

    January 18, 2012 at 12:54 pm |
  13. Jim

    Hong Kong has some of the worst pollution because of all the factories in mainland China. I cannot believe that the real story was missed. China is an environmental nightmare; lack of clean water, questionable food safety and the WORST air pollution in the world. In Guangzhou you cannot even see the sky. It is ALWAYS gray , and you can occasionally get a sense of where the sun is and see only faint shadows. "From someone who lives in it" clearly does not know what they are talking about. It is so bad there that multinational companies give their expats an extra 2 weeks of vacation to get out of the brown gloom that is now the Pearl River delta.

    January 18, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
  14. spike humer

    This is very good stuff, and it is good for those person who would like to open for his/er small business. Thanks for such a post.

    January 18, 2012 at 1:09 pm |
  15. Bruno

    They haven't mentioned any long term health problems that the people dying of pollution may be carrying.

    January 18, 2012 at 2:56 pm |
  16. azeddinne el mahdag

    that city need trees to make it shine

    January 18, 2012 at 4:11 pm |
  17. wysiwyg

    For a large city with a high concentration of people per km2 I would think its extremely good.
    I would think a similar large city in a so called industrialsed western country would be far worse with much more deaths from other factors.
    I would be concern of a wealthly country with citizens driving gas guzzling cars,wastage of food,gluttony and sending its waste to developing countries.
    The responsibility for this pollution as we discover is fault of foreign corporates that exploit the resources in china.
    They know very well they are exploiting the labour and enviroment in china or asia.

    January 18, 2012 at 5:00 pm |
  18. /sigh

    Hong kong is a "special administration region", they purposely force the richer citizens to live their in order to bost it as their capital, it has very little of the actual Chinese population.
    If you want to know what china truly is look at places such as foxconn, that is the true china.

    January 18, 2012 at 5:36 pm |
  19. Mike

    @sigh: I live in Hong Kong and while there is a strong upper class and solid middle class, 1 in 7 people are poor in Hong Kong. No one can 'force' the rich to live in Hong Kong. Hong Kong is not the capital of China. According to the CIA Factbook, 95% of people here are Chinese, so I don't know about you but I'd say that Hong Kong is mainly Chinese. We are indeed a "SAR" region with british common law system, freedom of speech, protest etc. Our air pollution is not the best but it's not as bad as that ridiculous yellowish picture shows in the video. I've lived in Hong Kong, the U.S, Canada and the U.K. As a megalopolis, there is only so much you can do, and even making public transit cleaner won't do that much when the pollution is coming from as many other commentators say, from our Mainland neighbours. Mainland China and Hong Kong are two different worlds. Our GDP is US$46,000 per capita. We are a highly developed region. Sort of like the singapore-malaysia relationship. Except Hong Kong isn't its own country....(yet we still have a very autonomous and free way of life)
    And yes more attention on the D&G issue please.

    January 18, 2012 at 8:10 pm |
  20. Anonymous

    I was in Hong Kong's airport a little over two weeks ago for a stop over. It's just truly horrifying to look at all that air. I recorded it on my phone to preserve the memory of it. Although, I think China's air quality is much worse than this, Hong Kong's air is already just.....not pleasant to look at. I wouldn't want to breathe it if I stepped out of the airport.

    I remember seeing images of when Hong Kong had nice blue skies, and this was before it went back to China. It's a shame... >__< (Any way to throw rocks at the Chinese factories and make them explode in order to get that clean air back?)

    January 18, 2012 at 11:55 pm |
  21. IndustrialBones

    I thought they got rid of the pollution when the English left.

    January 19, 2012 at 12:28 am |
  22. IndustrialBones

    I saw the same color in Phoenix and Los Angeles – In Athens and every major city Ive been to.. Sort of like the color of Wolf's Beard – dirty color.

    January 19, 2012 at 12:30 am |
  23. mahmutmaha

    the standards of expectations on governance has gone up around the world.

    January 19, 2012 at 1:06 am |
  24. Laura

    i have been living in HK for 14 years, and roadside pollution just got worse and worse.
    Those who claim the pollution comes from across the border have their head in the sand. Yes, we do suffer from regional pollution, the infamous brown cloud over China and India, but anybody can tell that the air you breath in densely built areas, with a lot of traffic is much much worse than the air you breath on the outlying islands, or in Sai Kung. The canyon effect created by taller and taller buildings on the side of narrow streets means that car fumes are constantly trapped there. They should pedestrianize those streets, or allow only electric buses and trams there. I have to wear an industrial mask when i walk in Central! Also, most of trucks and buses are old and very polluting. Private traffic has increased a lot since the handover, and the government is doing nothing to curb it. How about a congestion charge, for a start? Instead of forcing developers to build flats and offices that rely on natural ventilation, thus bringing down energy consumption, people are encouraged to waste energy, keep their aircon on freezing temperatures thanks to the government's subsidies. Energy comes from coal-fired power stations. Cargo ships use bunker fuel, because they can. In Europe they would be forced to switch to cleaner fuel. The list is sooo long...but this government hasn't done anything to change people's behaviours and mindsets.

    January 19, 2012 at 4:27 am |
  25. Eric

    @Kyle: another prat who can't see the forest for the trees. Nearly every Hong Konger considers themselves different from Chinese from the Mainland. Even the spoken language is different (and no, it's not a 'dialect' of Mandarin). When you have thousands of people turning out to protest discriminatory treatment, which is exactly what it was, then perhaps 'racism' is a fair enough term.
    Put it this way: if a Swede calls a Norwegian a 'dumb Norwegian mxtherfxcker', that's not racism by you, eh? Cos they're both white?
    Anyway, this is all exaggerated balls. I live in Hong Kong. Pollution? I've seen much worse elsewhere. Slow news day, perhaps.

    January 19, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
  26. mrfixitrick

    Air pollution kills somewhere between half a million and 4.5 million people a year needlessly. As a species, we simply need to stop the burning of fuels...and now we now have the technology to do it!

    Newly invented fuel-less plasma power reactors that are safe, cheap and non-polluting, will make the burning of oil look like the utterly foolish, wasteful and destructive activity that it is.

    Cities like Hong Kong can now elect to buy into the new technology, or suffer the consequences of those who lie with dinosaurs.

    January 19, 2012 at 8:41 pm |
  27. John

    These posts show just how far we have to go to achieve public understanding of risk and the size of the problem.
    We have the worst air quality in the world for our level of GDP,but also some of the worst in Asia outside of greater China.
    While there is no doubt we are impacted by cross boundary pollution who is generating that? Answer: Hong Kong and foreign businesses based in Hong Kong, poisoning children on both sides of the boundary. The claim that "most" pollution
    is from the north is simply not supported by the evidence ;time weighted,most pollutants at monitoring stations is from our streets or marine emissions in inshore waters. As for traffic just follow the diurnal variations in Particulates and nitrogen dioxide. At 6am they start to go up like a rocket;at midnight they come down until by about 6am they are often at, or even below, the World Health annual limit. Go to tap Mun where there is no traffic;there the NO2 levels are among the lowest in the world. In the meantime we have huge impacts on child health,not just now but in the long term. And yes the sick the elderly and the poor;does having an underlying health problem make a pollution death any less disastrous Bruno. Many "underlying health problems" will have been triggered or aggravated by pollution exposures.

    January 20, 2012 at 2:37 am |
  28. vas

    lets worry about our economy first than talk about pollution in china... feel stupid

    January 21, 2012 at 9:22 pm |
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  34. Lee du Ploy

    The reluctant concubine.

    S.A.R.S was a distater which needed immediate action,people were dying , and worse of all the economy came to a "standstill
    A clean up on a monumental scale happened because it effected peoples business's.

    Hong Kong is merely a convenient place of business .....no one takes pollution ,the silent killer seriously, after all there is no immediate effect and the deaths that do occur as a consequence could be argued may happen through unspecified causes., effectively two bald men fighting over a comb.

    Sad as it is, pollution will only be taken seriously when it effects the wealthy, the one in seven poor will just have to made do.

    I came to Hong kong five years ago to research a book dealing with Prosopagnosia, speaking as a health professional and dealing daily with the fallout of stress and its cousin anxiety on patients I have to conclude that a major cause for stress is caused by pollution.

    We ignore it at out peril.

    lee du Ploy

    August 15, 2012 at 7:55 am |

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