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August 02, 2012

Hong Kong Endures Worst Smog in Two Years

by Michael Lipin

Hong Kong residents have endured the city's worst smog in more than two years, as a typhoon far to the east caused a build up of bad air that obscured the international financial center's famous skyline.

Thursday's air pollution readings at monitoring stations around the city hit the highest levels since a dust storm smothered Hong Kong in March 2010. The government urged people with heart and respiratory illnesses to reduce outdoor activities and avoid prolonged stays in areas with heavy traffic.

Heat Makes Situation Worse

With temperatures exceeding 30 degrees Celsius, local resident Dawn Lok said she felt suffocated. "When you go out on the street with traffic during the day, it's really horrible," she said.

Lok, who works in the health and beauty industry, said she wants to stay indoors as much as possible. "When I go to work, I just take a cab, because I can't stand on the street for more than a few minutes," she said.

The government says the city suffers from two types of air pollution: street-level pollutants emitted from vehicles, and regional smog whose sources include local coal-fired power plants and factories in neighboring parts of China.

Vehicle Emissions Blamed

A local group campaigning for immediate government action to clean the air blamed the latest smog primarily on vehicle exhaust fumes. The Clean Air Network said a weather system would not be able to trap pollutants over the city if its cars, buses and trucks emitted fewer harmful gases.

Francis Moriarty, a journalist with Radio Television Hong Kong, said the factory emissions in neighboring Guangdong province also are a major problem. "When you have a holiday or there's an economic downturn in mainland China, and the factories cease running or reduce their production, you see improved quality of air in Hong Kong," he said.

Hong Kong's role as one of the world's busiest ports is another factor. "Many of those ships [that use the port] are burning very dirty diesel fuel," said Moriarty.

Incentive Program Makes Impact

Hong Kong authorities have tightened air quality targets this year to try to meet World Health Organization standards. Since 1999, the government also has been offering incentives to individuals and businesses to replace diesel taxis and buses with cleaner liquid petroleum gas (LPG) vehicles and to retrofit old diesel vehicles with particulate reduction devices.

The measures have had some success, significantly reducing the concentration of toxic particles in the air. But, nitrogen dioxide levels on city streets have remained high. Moriarty said the public wants authorities to do more.

Another Challenge for Hong Kong Leader

"The new government of Leung Chun-ying, who has just come in as our chief executive, is already under severe political stress for a number of reasons. If it wants to create some political good will in a part of the community, acting on pollution would be one way to do it," he said.

Moriarty said many residents want Hong Kong to "stand up" to Chinese authorities to demand a stop to smog blowing in from the mainland. He said air pollution also has forced local people to consider moving abroad.

"When many people in the community are having to consider this question, 'As much as I love living here, and as profitable as it may be for me, do I want to pay the price of my health and the health of my loved ones?' Then it moves beyond anecdotal," he said. "It's a real life concern."

Lok had no immediate plans to leave. "I have to say honestly that I'm quite used to this kind of pollution already," she said.