The government is deceiving itself with a pollution index that is a "meaningless" indicator of health risks, Task Force on Air Pollution leaders claimed in a blistering presentation to the Hong Kong Medical Association Friday.
What's more, the task force's recent findings show a direct correlation between air pollution and risk of death, the co-chairmen of the body said, urging the government to come up with plans to tackle the problem.
Louis Shih, vice president of the HKMA, said that exercising in polluted air "can be more harmful than good," adding that families - and especially children - are better off staying indoors.
If if they venture out on days when pollution is high, they should wear masks.
The association found that air pollution can exacerbate asthma, cause lung function to deteriorate and raise the risk of cardio-respiratory death by 2 to 3 percent for every increase of 10 micrograms per cubic meter of pollutants.
The current air pollution index "gives a false sense of security," said Professor Wong Tze-wai, of the Department of Community and Family Medicine at the Chinese University.
"When you set your own standard, and then say you passed by 1 or 2 percent, then you are deceiving yourself. It's meaningless," Wong said.
"Why bother monitoring air pollution at all if it doesn't loosely tell you whether it is good or bad for your health?"
The government sets air quality objectives, Wong said. "But, until now, I still don't know the details of how this is defined or set."
He added that, in the United States, "the air standard is set at where it begins to affect your health," utilizing studies showing how and which air pollutants are harmful.
Such standards must be reviewed every five years in the United States. But in Hong Kong, the Air Quality Objective has not been reviewed since 1987, when it was first implemented, he said.
According to the Environment Protection Department: "The overall policy objective for air quality management in Hong Kong is to achieve as soon as reasonably practicable, and to maintain thereafter, an acceptable level of air quality to safeguard the health and wellbeing of the community, and to promote the conservation and best use of air in the public interest."
"In this regard, Air Quality Objectives for seven widespread air pollutants were established in 1987, based on international standards as yardsticks for air quality management.
"These derived from scientific analyses of the relationship between pollutant concentrations in the air and the associated adverse effects of the polluted air on the health of the public."
Gary Wong, a professor at the Chinese University's Department of Paediatrics and School of Public Health, said that what really matters are the air's components, not whether there is a "high" or a "low."
Smaller particles are the really harmful ones since they cannot be blocked out, and reach directly into the blood, "which is why we say air pollution can have a direct effect on cardio respiratory death," the physician said. But, under the current index, "some harmful pollution components aren't even recorded," he added.
Chinese University's Wong said the risk of death can be twice as high near heavily traveled roads. "[That] is why we say this is a problem that affects every Hong Kong citizen. It is more universal than smoking - not everyone here smokes, but who doesn't breathe?"
Gary Wong cited a study conducted in Holland at residences 50 meters from a main road and 100 meters from a freeway. "In Hong Kong, some people may live only four or five meters from the road," he said. The task force commented: "The government has taken a fatalistic attitude, as if to say `We've done everything we can."'
Gary Wong pointed out that other countries at least have a strategic plan or a timetable to tackle the problem, but said he has seen no such thing here.
Wong-Tze-wai said: "A number of our studies have been commissioned by the government itself, so there's no excuse to say they don't know about [our concerns]."
Several health experts formed a committee in 1999 at the request of a government official - "whom I won't name" he said - and came to the conclusion that the definitions of the air quality index needed to be reviewed and tightened. "That's exactly what we are talking about now. We submitted it. We've heard nothing since. That was the end of it. We spent 18 months of our voluntary time, unpaid work. And anyway, it's outdated now. We'd have to do it all over again."
He added that traffic and coal- powered electricity stations are the primary causes of Hong Kong's air pollution.