Air pollution in Hong Kong, one of the perpetual banes of living and working in this Asian financial hub, reached record levels on Monday, setting off an official government warning to avoid outdoor activities and physical exertion.
Pollution levels have been elevated in the city for days, casting a gray pall over the harbor and obscuring views of Hong Kong’s famed skyline. But by Monday afternoon, Hong Kong’s official air pollution index rose further still, to the worst levels since records started being kept in 1995, said a spokeswoman for the Environmental Protection Department.
Pollution levels are now 12 to 14 times the amount recommended by the World Health Organization, according to the Clean Air Network, which campaigns to inform the public on Hong Kong’s pollution issues.
Air pollution index levels exceeded a measurement of 400 points at several stations, even though 100 or above is classified as “very high” and comes with the advice that people who are sensitive to pollution should reduce outdoor activities. Anything above 200 is considered “severe,” and can lead to coughing, phlegm and sore throats, the authorities warned. The previous record was 202, set in July 2008.
High air pollution levels are often cited by international companies as a major drawback of doing business in the city, and the extreme levels on Monday, though highly unusual, may hinder the city’s efforts to bolster its image as a desirable place to live.
The current high levels were partly caused by a sandstorm in northern China, which has been moving south, the Hong Kong environment department said. The sandstorm, the nation’s worst in more than a year, has affected 270 million people across 16 provinces and offers a sign of the worsening problem of desertification in the north, according to scientists and meteorologists. On Monday, Beijing was blanketed in a yellow haze of sand and grit.
The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences estimates that there are two dozen sandstorms a year, six times the number 50 years ago, according to China Daily, an official English-language newspaper. The sand has mostly blown in from the deserts of the province of Inner Mongolia and the country of Mongolia, on China’s northern border. China has over 600,000 square miles of desert; about 30,000 square miles of grasslands became desert in the last few decades, China Daily reported, citing a deputy director of the Chinese Academy of Meteorological Sciences. But environmental advocates said roadside pollution was also crucial to explaining the record levels.
Mike Kilburn, an environmental program manager at Civic Exchange, a public policy research institution, said in a statement: “Even though the dust storms have created record levels of particulate emissions, we must not lose sight of the fact that roadside pollution remains the single biggest threat to public health in Hong Kong.”