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Forget the alcohol: Hong Kong’s polluted air poses a greater threat to Beer Run runners

[Sponsored] Just recently, the Food and Health Bureau shrugged problems arising from air pollution off, dismissing air quality as an “environmental issue”.

Despite a fall in the presence of major air pollutants over the past few years, Hong Kong is far from being out of the woods. According to the Hedley Environmental Index by the School of Public Health, the University of Hong Kong, five people are killed by air pollution every day. Official figures from 2016 show that death caused by respiratory and circulatory diseases related to air pollution rose to almost 20,000 in 2015, making the “environmental issue” second only to cancer as a leading cause of death for Hongkongers.

The seemingly invisible culprit made an appearance in the form of a whopping number of hospital admissions and visits to the doctor on 29 and 30 July 2017, when the city was swathed in air pollution so severe that the Air Quality Health Index was “SERIOUS”. During the two-day episode, the Hedley Environmental Index counted 583 doctor visits an hour (in contrast to the hourly average of 302 in 2016), 1,293 bed-days, and 19 deaths.

 Clear Air Network pollution

Photo: Clear Air Network.

Even on “normal” days, Hong Kong’s roadside pollution has, over the past two decades, been breaching the safety levels recommended by the World Health Organisation. To compound the problem, the government’s plans for an extensive road transport network in the western part of Hong Kong, set for 2030 and beyond, could bring more bad news for residents in the area: official air quality data from the first half of 2017 shows that on average, the presence of nitrogen dioxide (NO2), a major roadside pollutant, is greater in the western part of Hong Kong than it is in the east by almost one third. The western part of Hong Kong also happens to have a higher proportion of economically disadvantaged citizens, who, according to scholars, face higher mortality risks as a result of air pollution.

NO2 in West Kowloon and the New Territories.

NO2 in West Kowloon and the New Territories. Photo: Clear Air Network.

Yet, it appears that the administration remains lukewarm to this public health emergency. While the Environment Bureau has launched end-of-pipe measures in light of the issue, roadside pollution cannot be solved by one bureau alone: the Transport and Housing Bureau should deliver clear policy objectives to reduce roadside pollution, alleviate traffic congestion, and lessen the overall demand for roadside transport by setting targets and a timeline. The bureau should be held publicly accountable for their performance in improving the quality of transport and the environmental impact it causes.

Meanwhile, the Food and Health Bureau should give priority to air pollution in its control strategies for non-communicable diseases by setting up an action plan to facilitate and advise respective bureaux on the relevant policies. It is time that cross-bureau collaboration, led by the Chief Executive, evolved from slogan to action.

pollution hong kong

Photo: HKFP remix.

You can also take the lead: sign the Clean Air Network’s petition to urge the new administration to, ahead of the Chief Executive’s first policy address, commit to tackling air pollution by adopting a holistic public health policy approach like other major cities, and to delegate responsibility to different bureaux.

clear the air petition

Sign the petition.

Taking alcohol out of the Beer Run will do little to make roadside conditions safer for runners (and pedestrians and roadside workers) if the problem of air pollution persists. Without the government’s commitment to solving the issue, this public health emergency will continue to linger—and there is no running from it.

Forget the alcohol: Hong Kong's polluted air poses a greater threat to Beer Run runners