Hong Kong’s air pollution index reached “very high” levels today as a tropical storm that passed through Taiwan trapped pollutants and blanketed the city in haze, triggering a government health warning.
The index was 153 at roadside-monitoring stations in the Central business district, nearing the highest in more than four months, as of 3:00 p.m. The reading was 159 in the commercial district Causeway Bay and 152 in Mong Kok. A reading of more than 100 triggers a government warning for people with heart or respiratory illness to avoid prolonged stays in heavy-traffic areas.
Severe Tropical Storm Trami is heading toward southeastern China after unleashing rain in Taiwan, leading to still air in parts of the Pearl River region. Leung Chun-ying, who took over as Hong Kong’s leader last July, has made cleaning up the city’s skies a priority with air quality worsening since 2007.
“Because of the typhoon, we don’t have any wind, the air now is like static, pollutants accumulate and they can’t get out,” Kwong Sum-yin, chief executive officer at Clean Air Network, a non-profit advocacy group, said by phone today. “Central is pretty bad, exactly because we have so many skyscrapers.”
The former British colony, which will raise its air quality standards, has never met its targets since they were adopted 26 years ago, according to a government audit in November. Hong Kong relies on the wind to help sweep away choking emissions from Chinese factories and vehicles.
“The high air pollution incident is a result of the trapping of local pollutants, in particular nitrogen dioxide, in the territory under the light wind,” the Environmental Protection Department said in an e-mailed statement today. The air quality will improve gradually today as the wind picks up, it said, citing the city’s observatory.
The department also said most pollutants, except ozone and roadside nitrogen dioxide, have dropped in recent years. The government is seeking to further cut local emissions, especially those from vehicles, it said.
“We do consider it a challenge to Hong Kong’s competitiveness,” Richard Vuylsteke, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, said by phone today. “People that the companies try to hire to come here - like people with asthma or their children with asthma problems - will finally find they would prefer to go to Singapore or some place else to work.”
The government said it will offer HK$10 billion ($1.3 billion) in subsidies to replace old diesel vehicles and limit their life-span to battle smog that’s responsible for more than 1,600 premature deaths in the first half of the year. The Chinese city is also seeking to enact legislation that will mandate ships berthing at its ports to switch to cleaner fuel over the next two years.
Still, the government needs to take more and faster action to eliminate buses and trucks that don’t meet environmental standard, said Jens-Erik Olsen, chairman of the European Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong.
“The polluters are the trucks and the buses,” Olsen said today by phone. “We have asked the government to take immediate action on roadside pollution in Hong Kong for years. It is a disgrace.”