Monday, August 30, 2010

The Air We Breathe

I have mentioned before that my relationship with this city is a bit rocky at times. Most of the time I’m happy here but there is one thing that bothers me time and time again, and it will eventually drive me away. Hong Kong’s biggest flaw, in my opinion, is the air pollution. There seems to be a great deal of time wasting playing the blame game: Locals here say the problem lies with the factories across the border, while the Chinese say most of those factories are owned and run by Hong Kong businessmen. There’s also a bit of denial about the amount of pollution generated by local traffic and the fact that we all rely on electricity from coal-fire power stations.

Whatever the cause or the source it’s a problem we all share. I would be quite happy here for a long time if the air quality was better all year round. My first year here I had more chest infections than I had ever had in my life. I would come home from a day in town with a tight chest, burning eyes and an itchy throat. When I washed my face at night I’d be wiping off black muck. It wasn’t good. Then I guess I just got used to it and instead I’d be sick when I went back to Australia, as my body went into detox mode. I see more kids here fighting allergies, asthma and respiratory infections than I ever saw in Australia. Having said that, the air quality here this summer has been fantastic. The air was clear and the sky was blue, and for a few months it was easy to pretend that we live in a city that doesn’t have an air pollution problem. Much like the government does year round. The change in the wind direction this weekend brought it all back, and it was very hard to ignore. I subscribe to alerts from the Clean Air Network and on both Saturday and Sunday I received emails warning me that the air quality had reached “hazardous” levels. I only needed to look out the window to know that this was not an overreaction. Even with two air purifiers running full-time I could smell the “bad” air inside the house. It sounds melodramatic but I felt trapped; I didn’t want to go outside but it wasn’t much better inside. Nothing depresses me more than being able to see and smell the air. We hardly went out at all on the weekend, not wanting J to be breathing in goodness knows what, and for the first time in quite a while I was searching for a ventolin inhaler. I don’t want to begin to think what a few months, or years, of this will do to my son’s tiny lungs.

I spent J’s naptime yesterday searching for jobs in Australia and the UK on the internet, but all I learned was that nothing I could do would even come close to supporting us like my husband’s job does. We don’t live an extravagant lifestyle by anybody’s definition but we’re comfortable, and the company he works for makes staying here very appealing. My husband calls it “the Golden Handcuff.” If we left HK and D continued working here and commuting, he’d be away for two weeks at a time. At the moment he’s home for that amount of time and then some. We wouldn’t have as much help as we do here anywhere else in the world and I would have a hard time finding as great a support network and group of friends. We’d make do, like many other families do, but we wouldn’t be as happy or as comfortable. Although, we would probably be healthier. Having to make the choice between sacrificing health or lifestyle makes me uneasy, and at the moment I feel like a bad parent for choosing lifestyle. We don’t know what long-term impact a few years spent inhaling “hazardous” levels of air pollution will have on our health, but I’m sure we’re not going to be better off for it.

Since we moved here I’ve become much more aware of our impact on the environment. It is so obvious here that it’s hard to avoid. Early on I switched to biodegradable and eco-friendly cleaning products and when my son was born I was determined to use eco-nappies and wipes. It’s a hassle sometimes but it’s definitely worth the effort, and I feel better physically now that there are less chemicals being used in the house. I should’ve done it years ago. I’m afraid that I’m such a convert that I will often preach about the merits of an eco-friendly household if anyone so much as comments on J’s chlorine-free nappies. I’m not sure if I’m an eco-hero or a pain in the butt, but I feel like I need to do something to reduce my family’s carbon footprint. It’s very difficult to avoid running the air-conditioners all summer, driving our car, or buying imported food in Hong Kong, and while we live here and consume such huge amounts of electricity, unfortunately, we are part of the problem. Now that I’m a parent I’m even more conscious of it and it worries me, a lot.

If, like me, you’re at all concerned and wondering how you might become part of the solution, or if you want to sign up for pollution alerts check out the (Clean Air Network) CAN’s website, They also have a Facebook group if you’re that way inclined. There's also a book called Going Green in Hong Kong ( I’m a bit obsessed with eco-friendly household products so please let me know if you want any info on those and I will go on for hours…

In other news, I survived my first day at work and, despite some tears in the morning and being absolutely shattered by the end of the day, I think I’ll go back. See you Wednesday x

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