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November, 2002:

Sulphur Success A Welcome Precedent

Victoria Button, SCMP – Saturday November 23 2002

Environmental campaigners yesterday said evidence that a cut in sulphur in fuel saved lives should spur the government to a greater sense of urgency in attacking air pollution.

Commentators welcomed a groundbreaking University of Hong Kong study showing a 1990 sulphur level cut swiftly saved 600 premature deaths a year. But green groups said more work was urgently needed across a range of areas, including cuts to respirable suspended particulates (RSP) and improved cross-border co-operation. Some suggested the government should include health costs related to pollution from vehicles when comparing the relative cost of building roads and railways.

The chairman of Clear the Air, Lincoln Chan, said the study was encouraging. ‘If it can be done with sulphur, it can be done with RSP. We should think positive. Air pollution is mass murder,’ he said.

Mr Chan urged the government to speed up the conversion of minibuses to LPG, ban idling engines in parked cars, crack down on vehicles using illegal fuel and step up cross-border anti-pollution efforts.

Friends of the Earth campaigner Jennifer Wang also urged action – including a ban on diesel vehicles – to counter respirable suspended particles. Air quality objectives in Hong Kong were less stringent than those of many cities overseas, she said.

The deputy chairman of Legco’s panel on environmental affairs, Cyd Ho Sau-lan, of The Frontier, said officials should count health costs when considering the merits of building roads.

‘Transportation is one area we could improve. The study shows that if we took more stringent measures to improve air quality then the mortality rate could be improved a lot,’ she said. Implementing smoking bans in indoor public venues also would cut health bills.

The chief executive of the think-tank Civic Exchange, Christine Loh Kung-wai, said it was important to note from the study that the health benefit of cutting pollution was almost immediate. ‘Benefits come quickly. We need to do everything we can to reduce pollution levels because it can help public health,’ she said.

In May, the South China Morning Post revealed that unpublished government tests found levels of fine particles called PM2.5 – a type of respirable suspended particulate – were up to four times higher in Hong Kong than a US safety limit.

American authorities set a limit on fine particles in 1997 after concluding they were more likely than coarse particles to penetrate the lungs, causing premature death and illness. The tests showed pedestrians in Des Voeux Road are exposed to about twice as much PM2.5 as those in London’s busy Marylebone Road.