Sunday, October 14, 2012

You Must Be Choking!

I love our life here, along with so many things about Hong Kong. During the summer when the sun shines and the sky is blue, it feels close to paradise, and I can see what must've drawn people here many years ago. On a clear day the view of Hong Kong island and the Kowloon peninsula, from anywhere in the territory, is spectacular. But it doesn't last long...

I've only ranted a couple of times about the air "situation" here because it does get boring. People who live here don't like it but they've come to accept that it's a part of life here, and ranting about it won't change anything. It's a bit like complaining to the poms that it rains in London, or telling the Aussies how expensive it is to live in Sydney - we know already! The trouble is, I can't accept the pollution, I can't turn a blind eye and just get on with it - it's the one thing that's stopping us from settling here permanently (sorry Mum). Once the wind changes direction at the end of summer the haze settles in like a thick, yellowish fog. You can smell it as soon as you step outside, some days you can smell it inside. The visibility drops significantly and you start to feel like you really shouldn't spend too much time outside, let alone attempt to exert yourself in the great outdoors. I find it suffocating and infuriating.

I don't understand enough about the composition of the air we breathe, or the pollutants in it, to give you an in-depth discussion on the topic, but I can give you a little summary based on what I understand.  There are a couple of different ways to measure "air quality" and a few different organisations around the place that measure it on a daily basis. The Local Environmental Protection Department have their own Air Pollution Index which is "the conversion of the ambient respirable suspended particulate (RSP), sulphur dioxide (SO2), carbon monoxide (CO), ozone (O3) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) concentrations." The level corresponds to a rating somewhere between 0-500, with 100 being the limit according to HK Air Quality Objectives. Anything over that represents a level of pollutants in the air which would be "harmful to human health." The most common criticism of this is that Hong Kong's government has set its own objectives and measuring system, and these are way too high by international standards. According to the Clean Air Network, a local NGO, "Hong Kong’s Air Quality Objectives, recommended maximum guidelines for 7 pollutants, permit pollutant levels 2-4 times greater than those recommended under the WHO AQGs." The warning system, which tells people basically when to avoid going outside, kicks in at too high a level as well, and this leads to a lot of people getting very sick each year because they do crazy stuff like exercising or breathing... (For more info on the API see here).

Some say the pollution comes from trucks and ships that use "dirty" fuels and coal fired power stations, others say it all comes from the mainland factories just across the border - I say it's a combination of these things, combined with a government that doesn't care enough. Since we moved to HK 5 years ago, there have been a number of days on which the pollution levels have not only exceeded the WHO threshold for what is considered safe, but they have set new records for Hong Kong's pollution readings. Every year it seems a new record is set, and the number of days that the pollution levels are hazardous are increasing. There was a day this summer when the API reached something like 250, and it was so bad it made the news in other parts of the world. People on the street were struggling to breathe and I was sure there was more pollution in the air than actual oxygen! 

In the short term this poor quality air can lead to watery eyes, sneezing, coughing, sinus pain and irritation, and a tight, burning feeling in the throat and chest, but who knows what it means for our health in the long term? It's certainly not good for my mum guilt! We spent the afternoon at the beach today, ignoring the fact that we couldn't see the horizon, and both boys came home coughing and rubbing their eyes. I feel pretty rotten myself, and the EPD website tells me the main pollutant today was "Respirable Suspended Particulate" (aka dust, organic matter, nitrates, sulphates etc) which can "penetrate deep into the lungs" - great! According to one independent air quality watchdog, the number of particulates in the air was 21 times higher than the WHO limit for safety. 21 times!

Whatever all the numbers mean, however you measure it and wherever it comes from, one thing is certain - we shouldn't have to inhale the crap that we do. And I don't want my boys growing up in a place where toxic air is such a routine part of life that we just don't mention it anymore. It's only October and the wind won't change direction again for at least 6 months, and I've already had enough. Time for a holiday?

1 comment:

  1. you are absolutely right, but the answer is also quite relative. When we shifted to HK the first time i.e. 5 years ago, we shifted from Mumbai, so when I would hear these mums complaining about the pollution, I did not know what they were talking about, making an issue about nothing. I felt HK was just fine, after all I had come from Mumbai! But then we moved out and settled in UK for 2 years. This time when I moved back, I was one of those mums!