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The focus for international Earth Day this month was on reducing the amount of plastic pollution in the world. Here in Hong Kong there was a huge effort to clean up beaches, which netted over 3,000 kg of rubbish, much of it from local single use products; an unfortunate demonstration on how far we have to go. However, a recent report has drawn attention to another kind of pollution, the kind we are breathing in every day.

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Air Pollution is a global health problem

A recent collaborative report by the Health Effects Institute (HEI) and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) found that based on the full figures from 2016, 95% of the world’s population live in areas that exceed the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Air Quality Guidelines for PM2.5.

PM2.5 are particles of less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, being 30 times smaller than a human hair, they can easily make their way into the deepest parts of our lungs, often carrying with them toxic substances. These pollutants are known to cause asthma, lung cancer and chronic lung diseases, as well as heart disease and strokes, with the State of Global Air 2018 report tying PM2.5 particles as a contributor to 4.1 million deaths in 2016, making it the 6th highest risk factor globally.

While China has actually seen PM2.5 concentrations plateau and actually start to decline since 2010 (on a population-weighted annual average basis), Bangladesh, India and Pakistan have seen their exposure levels rise substantially.

Hong Kong has made progress on air pollution

There is some good news and bad news when it comes to Hong Kong’s air pollution levels. The Environmental Protection Department (EPD)tracks the levels of many kinds of air pollution including PM2.5, which they refer to as Fine Suspended Particles (FSP). As you can see from this EPD chart of emissions and annual average concentrations of PM2.5, local emissions have fallen drastically since 1997.

Hong Kong Environmental Protection Department's chart of Fine Suspended Particles from 1997-2015Hong Kong Environmental Protection Department's chart legend of Fine Suspended Particles from 1997-2015

However, while there has been some reduction in the concentration of these particles in both roadside and general pollution monitoring stations, the drop off is nowhere near as steep as what we have seen in local emissions. This means at least some of this type of ambient pollution is coming from regional sources not just local Hong Kong ones.

Still many issues to be handled

While Hong Kong has seen a decline in many types of air pollution between 1997 and 2015, recently not everything has been quite so rosy. 2017 saw a rise in PM10, PM2.5 and ozone levels over recorded data in 2016, and recordings of NO2 (Nitrogen Dioxide) at roadside stations was up 5%.

In fact, the SCMP recently reported on a pilot study carried out by Hong Kong’s Clean Air Network where they gave portable NO2 detectors to volunteers to track how much NO2 they encountered in their daily lives. During the course of the study, one volunteer recorded concentrations as high as 82.8 micrograms in their own home in Yuen Long, and another experienced concentrations as high as 90.4 while on a bus during their morning commute. One thing that is worrying about this is that many of these readings were sometimes as twice as much as what was recorded in the government’s urban rooftop monitoring stations.

So overall Hong Kong performs well in terms of meeting the WHO’s Air Quality Guidelines for ozone, and sulfur dioxide (SO3), and is also doing reasonably well in meeting the short-term guidelines, or interim targets, for PM2.5 and PM10. However, our annual Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) exposure is nearly double the WHO guidelines.

But what impact will these high concentrations of NO2 really have on your health? Unfortunately, we’re not completely sure. We don’t have a full understanding of the effects that long-term exposure to NO2 has on our health, but we do know that higher levels of NO2 over the year inflames the lungs, causing coughing and wheezing, increases the number of asthma attacks and reduces lung function. This is especially bad for young children, as it can impact the development of their lung functions, with new research showing NO2 is likely to play a part in causing asthma in children.

Trying to stay healthy

While in there’s little we as individuals can do about some of the causes of the air pollution here in Hong Kong, other than pushing for more environmentally conscious policies and action from the government, there are things we can do to try and protect our own health.

First and foremost, we should all try to keep an eye on the air quality, either through the EPD’s Air Quality Health Index website here, or through Hong Kong University’s Headley Environmental Index, which not only provides you the general air quality for Hong Kong, but also shows pollution hot spots and even allows you to break the information down by specific types of pollution.

On days where the air quality is especially bad, avoid exercising outdoors or otherwise engaging in physical activity, also try to avoid exercising near high-traffic areas. This can be even more important for people that are sensitive to pollution, such as asthmatics, children, the elderly and other people with heart or respiratory illnesses. The EPD provides a chart of recommended precautionary actions based on their air quality index.

There are other ways you can try to lower the amount of indoor pollution you have to deal with at home, such as making sure the windows are closed during days of poor air quality, making sure that your kitchen is well vented if you use a propane stove and always use the exhaust hood if your stove has one. Also, don’t smoke indoors as the pollutants will linger for a long time.

Get insurance to cover the cost of any pollution-related illnesses

Depending on the severity of illnesses that are either caused by or aggravated by air pollution, they can be quite expensive. So if this is something you’re concerned about, make sure you take out health insurance first, so that your insurance policy can cover the costs of treatment.

With APRIL International’s MyHEALTH health insurance, we can help protect you and your family by covering the costs of trips to the doctor, medical checkups, medicines and drugs as part of our outpatient benefits. To learn more about your health insurance options in Hong Kong, click here.

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