The World Health Organization (WHO) today released its new Air Quality Guidelines (AQGs), setting “a challenge for governments around the world to improve air quality in their cities in order to protect people’s heath”. The new AQGs are based on the latest scientific evidence, and set dramatically lower standards for levels of pollution. If achieved, these standards would result in significantly reduced rates of adverse health effects. “By reducing particulate matter pollution from 70 to 20 micrograms per cubic meter (μg/m3) as set out in the new Guidelines, we estimate that we can cut deaths by around 15%,” said Dr. Maria Neira, WHO Director of Public Health and Environment. The annual average concentration of particulate matter in Hong Kong in 2005 was 75 μg/m3 at roadside stations; and 55 μg/m3 at the general air quality monitoring stations.
The new WHO AQGs are the result of an exhaustive review by international experts on the health impacts of air pollutants. Scientific findings from Hong Kong, mainland China and elsewhere in Asia formed a major part of the evidence reviewed in setting these guidelines.
The HKSAR Government argues that the air quality levels recommended by WHO may be too stringent for Hong Kong, and proposes to conduct its own 18 month review to be commissioned in mid-2007.
Concerned by the Government’s apparent reluctant to set Hong Kong’s Air Quality Objectives (AQOs) at levels which provide adequate protection for public health, a group of local researchers has formed the AQO Concern Group to campaign for Hong Kong’s AQOs to be set at levels that protect public health. The Group maintains that there is no reason why local AQOs should be set at any level less strict than the WHO AQGs.
Dr Alexis Lau of the Institute for the Environment (IENV) of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, a member of the AQO Concern Group, says “an 18 month review wastes precious time re-inventing the wheel. Such a delay is unnecessary and unacceptable.”
Another member of the group, Professor Anthony Hedley of the Department of Community Medicine of the University of Hong Kong, emphasized that “the WHO AQGs provide the best evidence-based advisory ever produced and give a clear steer for health protection of the community. If the same level of harm to the public health from our pollution came from an infectious disease, government presumably would not be proposing this unnecessary delay in admitting the problem and undertaking whatever measures were necessary to address it.”
Dr Bill Barron of IENV pointed out that the government’s acknowledgement that “the WHO AQGs cannot be met at present even at Tap Mun” is, in effect, “an admission that nowhere in the Territory is the air safe, imposing a health cost on all of us. Unfortunately, the government prefers to talk about the cost of improving the air, rather than about the cost of not solving the problem.”
A fourth member of the group, Christine Loh, summed up by noting that “most recently we issued a series of questions and comments on the Advisory Council on the Environment paper (ACE Paper 14/2006) which were delivered at the ACE public forum on Monday 18 September. We reiterated the urgent need to expedite sustained air quality improvements, avoid further procrastination and ensure the protection of public health.”