Press Release: Bad Air Quality is a Threat to Public Health

Today a group of health, science and public policy researchers launched the Air Quality Objectives Concern Group (AQOCG) and called for Hong Kong’s Air Quality Objectives (AQO) to be set at levels that protect public health. The newly formed group urged Hong Kong to adopt the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) Air Quality Guidelines as soon as possible and for Hong Kong’s AQOs to be set at levels that inform rather than mislead the public and policy makers about the costs of failing to reduce air pollution.
“Hong Kong’s AQOs are grossly out of date and have not been reviewed even when other developed countries including the US, European Union, Australia and the UK, have progressively tightened their standards,” commented Professor TW Wong from Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Department of Community Medicine. He added, “there is still no explicit acknowledgment by the Government that AQOs should be set up for the protection of public health”.
Professor Anthony Hedley of the Department of Community Medicine at the University of Hong Kong firmly (HKU) elaborated, “the adoption of the WHO Air Quality Guidelines is vitally important in Hong Kong to protect the health of both children and adults. The differences between Hong Kong’s average pollutant levels and the new WHO Air Quality Guidelines are responsible for a huge burden of illness each year, including about 1,600 deaths (4 per day), 64,200 hospital admissions (176 per day) and 6,811,960 doctor visits (18,600 per day). These serious health outcomes result in annual community losses of over HK$2 billion in direct health care costs and productivity losses and HK$19 billion in intangible costs for pain, suffering and personal loss.”
Professor Alexis Lau of the Institute for Environment at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) explained that “the current Air Pollution Index (API) is derived from Hong Kong’s current AQOs. Our lax AQOs lead to lower API values, which in turn mislead the public as they under-represent the health impacts of the ambient air.”
Professor Hedley further clarified that even “Low” API readings are associated with concentrations of pollutants that are clearly shown to be harmful by WHO research. For example, for a “low” API of 25, particulates (PM10) and Sulphur Dioxide (SO2) will be 32% to 100% above the WHO Air Quality Guidelines.”
Dr CM Wong also from HKU, Department of Community Medicine highlighted Hong Kong’s recent poor air quality, “in November 2006 pollution levels have been extremely high as measured at both general and roadside stations. For instance, on 19th – 20th November 2006, general monitoring stations showed that particulates were 86 micrograms per cubic meter (ug/m3) and SO2 55 ug/m3 while roadside levels were 107 ug/m3and 50 ug/m3, respectively.
These levels are higher than the WHO Air Quality Guidelines by 150% (for SO2) and 300-400% (for PM10).” Using this recent data Dr. Wong estimated that doctor visits, hospital admissions and deaths are occurring at annual rates of: 
• 6 million (based on general stations air pollution levels) to 10 million (based on roadside stations air pollution levels) doctor visits; 
• 6,400 (general) to 90,000 (roadside) hospital admissions; and
• 2,100 (general) to 2,800 (roadside) deaths.”
“The government has so far highlighted the substantial cost for improving air quality without acknowledging the potentially greater costs to society if air quality fails to improve or continues to deteriorate,” explained another member of the group, Dr. Bill Barron of the Institute for Environment, HKUST. He added, “the Government’s proposal to wait until 2009 to come up with new AQOs, when the scientific basis for them is already available, needlessly prolongs the time in which the public continues to be mislead about the true ‘costs’ of living with our air pollution.”
The group emphasized that the Government’s proposed 18-month study to revise the AQOs is not necessary. In its place, the group called for a study that maps out a long-term air quality management strategy with interim targets and that identifies control measures, policy options and action items that are needed to achieve the AQOs over the long term.
Dr Sarah McGhee from the HKU, Department of Community Medicine commented that “rescaling of the API to WHO criteria will help to focus the government and whole community on pollution in terms of damage to health, stress on the health care system and pain and suffering.”
Christine Loh, Chief Executive Officer of Civic Exchange added, “we urgently need a reliable set of AQOs to be used as a basis for action to solve our public health crisis. We need them now, not in 18-months time. We also need a clear time table with associated health-based milestones which ultimately must converge to the WHO Air Quality Guidelines.”