Hong Kong’s government faced renewed calls to improve air quality as residents endured a second day of such severe pollution that they were told to stay indoors.
The Environmental Protection Department advised the city’s 7.2 million residents to avoid outdoor activities for a second day as pollution lingered at “severe” levels at five of 14 general and roadside stations. The air pollution index fell below 300 at all stations as of 6 p.m., after most hit the maximum 500 level yesterday, the department said on its Web site.
As smog obscured the skyline, company officials and environmentalists said Hong Kong’s status as a business and tourism center could suffer unless the government takes action. Organizers of Hong Kong’s Rugby Sevens tournament, which starts this week, said visiting teams should decide whether to train.
“The government needs to have more focus and look at near- term solutions,” said Richard R. Vuylsteke, president of the American Chamber of Commerce. “Air pollution is a cancer on the attractiveness of this place, and there should be the wherewithal and willpower to address it.”
Pollution should return to a “regular level” of 70-120 tomorrow, Secretary for the Environment Edward Yau told a news conference in the city. An index reading of more than 50 is defined as “high” and more than 100 is deemed “very high.”
Companies said the pollution could harm their ability to attract workers and some executives worried about family members.
“I’m concerned about the welfare of my children,” said David L. Cunningham, president for Asia Pacific at FedEx Corp., the world’s largest cargo airline. “And I’m concerned from a business standpoint because it’s becoming more and more difficult to recruit people because of Hong Kong’s air quality issues.”
Hong Kong Secretary for the Environment Edward Yau said the record pollution readings in Hong Kong were the result of “a sandstorm originating in the northern part of mainland China.”
“People can help in alleviating the situation by using public transport, switching off idling car engines, and reducing smoking,” Yau told a news conference yesterday. “We will also contact power companies to see if they can use cleaner fuel for electricity generation to minimize local pollution.”
Chief Executive Donald Tsang said in January that it was unacceptable that air quality had reached “dangerous” levels one in every eight days last year.
Hong Kong’s pollution levels spiked as rugby fans prepared to descend on the city for the annual Sevens tournament. Organizers said they were monitoring the situation.
Warrick Dent, tournament director of the Cathay Pacific/Credit Suisse Hong Kong Sevens, said yesterday that teams from Canada, Zimbabwe and Portugal had trained without complaint despite the rise in Air Pollution Index levels.
“Ultimately the decision on whether or not to train will be at the discretion of the participating teams,” he said. Credit Suisse Group AG, one of the sponsors, declined to comment.
Hong Kong’s air pollution was rated “very high” for four days before the weekend sandstorm, which blanketed Beijing in yellow dust. A “very high” reading, above 100, means people with heart and respiratory illnesses should reduce outdoor activities, according to the Environmental Protection Department’s Web site. “Severe” readings, from 201-500, mean the general public should reduce physical exertion and outdoor activities. The Web site doesn’t give advice for readings above 500.
Before yesterday, Hong Kong’s highest recorded pollution level was 202, set in July 2008.
Joanne Ooi, chief executive officer of the Clean Air Network, said Hong Kong could improve air quality by replacing older buses and trucks and providing subsidies to the transport industry.
“A majority of the time most pollution is from diesel trucks and buses,” Ooi said. “So in fact there is low-hanging fruit in terms of policies the government could pursue.”
--With assistance from Bei Hu. Editors: Bruce Grant, Dirk Beveridge.To contact the reporter on this story: Frederik Balfour in Hong Kong at firstname.lastname@example.org