Author: Antonio Da Roza
This article was originally written by Antonio Da Roza, a resident of Discovery Bay for 25 years, in support of the debate on health and living in Discovery Bay by the Year 8 of Discovery College
LeAnn asked me to write a guest blog about air pollution, which I was happy to do, seeing as air pollution is a serious health problem in Hong Kong and we’ve been trying to get more educational materials into schools about air pollution. But then she said it had to be about Discovery Bay specifically, which makes things much harder.
One of the problems we have in Hong Kong is that there’s actually been very little research about air pollution here, compared with a lot of other places around the world. It’s one of the reasons why it’s hard to do something about air pollution, because not enough is really known about it. If there’s not enough research about air pollution in Hong Kong, you can be pretty sure that there’s virtually none specifically for Discovery Bay. So if you’ve done any research on it as part of your debate, make sure you send it along to us so we can publish it on hiki-air, our wikipedia on Hong Kong air pollution.
Let’s start with some basic legal facts.
We all have a right to life. We all also have a right to health. These are human rights set out in international treaties that almost every country in the world has agreed to. These rights are guaranteed under Hong Kong’s Basic Law. Children’s rights to health are not only guaranteed under those treaties and the Basic Law, there is also a United Nations Convention on the Rights of a Child where this right is specifically set out.
There is no specific right to clean air, but it is generally accepted that in order to fulfill the right to health, certain basic things are needed such as clean air, drinkable water, etc.
So if everybody in Hong Kong has a right to health, what difference does it make where you live if you have the same right to health that everyone else does?
Unfortunately, the laws in Hong Kong on air pollution aren’t mandatory. The Government sets objectives for how clean our air should be, but even if the air isn’t clean enough, nobody is punished for it.
Thus, levels of air pollution can vary depending on where you are in Hong Kong, as there aren’t any strong legal controls over our air quality.
Where does Hong Kong’s air pollution come from?
Surprisingly, not all our air pollution comes from China. A study by a private think-tank Civic Exchange, in partnership with the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, actually showed that mainland sources are the main influence on our air quality only 36% of the time. The study showed that 53% of the time, it’s our own air pollution that affects our air the most.
In terms of sheer amount, electricity generation is the biggest source of air pollution in Hong Kong due to growing electricity demand.
However, it’s pollution from road vehicles that affect the health of people in Hong Kong the most. This is because the effect that air pollution has on your health depends on how concentrated the air pollution is, and how close you are to the source of the air pollution. It’s a particularly bad problem in Hong Kong because we have so many old commercial diesel vehicles – public buses, light and heavy goods vehicles (trucks) are responsible for 90% of the particulates and 80% of nitrogen dioxide emissions for the ENTIRE road transport sector.
This problem is made worse by the fact that buildings in Hong Kong are so tall, and built so closely together, that the air pollution is trapped and does not scatter, making air pollution levels 2 or 3 times higher.
The most toxic kind of air pollution in Hong Kong is generated by ships and ferries. This is because they use much dirtier fuel than cars do.
According to the Hedley Index, a statistical calculation on the health cost of air pollution, just for 2009, healthcare costs (such as seeing the doctor for air pollution-related illnesses) were estimated at a total of $1.9 billion – this included 845 premature deaths and 271 cases of hospitalization for asthma in the age group of 0-14.
Short-term exposure to high levels of air pollution can aggravate or trigger breathing and heart-related health conditions. It also lowers your body’s resistance to infection – which is why air pollution is associated with the flu. Long term exposure to air pollution increases the likelihood of developing heart and lung problems as well as lung cancer, and shortens life expectancy. The health risk has been compared by one study in America to second hand cigarette smoke.
Children are particularly vulnerable to air pollution and the health problems it causes because they have higher breathing rates than adults. In children, air pollution stunts lung growth, causing lifetime defects and reducing lung function. Another study in America showed that children whose mothers were exposed to high levels or air pollution before their birth scored 4-5 points lowers on IQ tests than children whose mothers did not have such high exposure.
The major question is whether or not there is less pollution in Discovery Bay than in other places.
The advantage that Discovery Bay has is that unlike most parts of Hong Kong, we have a lower number of vehicles on our roads. The buildings are not built as closely together, so there is better air ventilation that prevents air pollution from being trapped and building up.
The problem in Discovery Bay, however, is threefold:
First, like everyone else in Hong Kong, we still suffer from the effects of haze, or smog. This is because haze is created by a chemical reaction of air pollutants in sunlight, so its effect is widespread.
Secondly, the main form of transport for which DB is famous is its ferries. Despite the fact that they have the power to do so, the Government has not made any regulations about the fuel those vessels use. Instead, they have fallen back on an international standard that allows fuel to contain 4.5% sulphur, which leads to emissions of sulphur dioxide, a major air pollutant. To put that 4.5% sulphur in context, the ultra-low sulphur diesel for road vehicles contains 0.05% sulphur – so ferries and ships are allowed to use fuel that has 90 times more sulphur in it. In fact, most vessels in Hong Kong use fuel that contains 2%-3% sulphur – because the emissions of dirtier fuel would actually corrode the parts of the boat. Imagine what that is doing to your lungs!
Thirdly, the other main form of transport for which DB is famous for, golf carts, may also be causing high levels of roadside pollution. Unlike private cars in Hong Kong, which have to be tested for the levels of air pollution they emit, golf carts are legally “village vehicles”. Village vehicles are not required to be tested for emissions. According to the Government, because there are only 785 in the whole of Hong Kong and are run by small engines, “their impact on environmental pollution is insignificant”. Unfortunately for us, 320 of those village vehicles are in DB, and it is precisely because they have such small engines that unlike in cars, there is no filtering of the air pollution they emit – so the air pollution from golf carts could be more concentrated and toxic than from private cars.
Is it really better for your health to live in DB? I don’t know, and if you have some research on it, please let us know. What I do know is:
One of the researchers at the School of Public Health at Chinese University conducted a three year study on children’s lung growth from 2007 – 2009. When the same study was conducted in the early 1990s, they found that over those three years, those children living in areas that were less polluted had more normal lung development than those who were living in areas that were more polluted. In the recent study, however, there was no clear pattern as to which areas, whether more or less polluted, had normal lung development. They were very concerned because other studies in Hong Kong have shown that places thought of as having low levels of air pollution are becoming more polluted, and catching up with those places that are highly polluted. One explanation for why lung development had been found to be abnormal the children tested is that there are no longer areas of high and low air pollution in Hong Kong, just high air pollution.