Living With Hong Kong's Air Pollution

Living With Hong Kong's Air Pollution

Hong Kong has had pretty lousy air pollution for years that seemingly gets worse with each passing year. If you look at the real-time air quality index on any given day, Hong Kong suffers moderate to unhealthy levels of air pollution citywide. 

If you are thinking of living in Hong Kong, the levels of pollution are something you might have to consider, especially if you are sensitive to pollutants. There are also more profound questions to explore here, too. For example, how bad is the pollution in Hong Kong? What are the impacts on our health? Where does the pollution come from and, what can we do about it?

How Bad is Air Pollution in Hong Kong?

Air Pollution in Hong Kong often manifests as a haze that blankets the city. On bad days, if you look across the harbour, all the buildings disappear as they are swallowed up by the mist of pollution. The skies in Hong Kong are often grey simply because of the level of pollutants in the air at any given time. 

Air pollution in Hong Kong doesn't just affect visibility but also puts a real dampener on the economy. The Hedley Environment Index gives us an authentic look at how air pollution affects the economy, and it's quite alarming. From the date of publishing this article, there has been an average of 1.5 deaths a week over the last four weeks related to air pollution. Over the same period, 164 hospital bed days have been recorded, and 783 doctor visits have been logged. 

These costs fall under "loss of tangible costs" like health care and "loss of healthy life value" due to pain and suffering with a combined estimated economic value of over HK$17,000,000 this year alone. If you look at the data over the last three years, that number grows scarily more significant sitting at over HK$4,000,000,000.

It's safe to say that air pollution in Hong Kong isn't a problem that's only affecting the weather. It hits the economy massively, and we also pay a psychological and physical cost, too. 

How Does Air Pollution Affect My Health?

There is a phenomenon that some people experience here dubbed the "Hong Kong cough". It's a dry cough that isn't related to having a cold or flu, but rather a symptom of the terrible air quality. Working in international schools, you will invariably hear parents mention that their child has a persistent cough. The more seasoned expats among us know that their child has the dreaded "Hong Kong cough". 

The Centre for Health Protection describes it in more clinical terms as a person experiencing "nose and throat irritation, shortness of breath, coughing and chest tightness." The Centre for Health Protection has also done local studies though that show "There was a strong association between high pollution incidents and both hospital admissions and premature deaths for respiratory and cardiovascular diseases.".

There are those in Hong Kong that suffer terribly because of the levels of air pollution present here. People who like to do exercise or spend time outdoors pay an even higher cost. Avid runners have noted that they can't just go out for a run as they have to consider the levels of air pollution first. If they end up going out for a run without checking the levels of air pollution, it causes some runners to throw up and suffer severe tight-chestedness. If you're a runner or like doing exercise outdoors, it's really in your best interest to check the air pollution levels before leaving the house.  

Photo by  Jérémy Stenuit  on  Unsplash  edited by Jamie Thorne

Photo by Jérémy Stenuit on Unsplash edited by Jamie Thorne

On the flip side of this, some feel fine while out and about in Hong Kong's heavy pollution. Some say that the Hong Kong air suits them better compared to other countries that have much lower levels of air pollution. Most of these people tend to suffer from hay fever-related illnesses and do better in a city that lacks the irritants that sets them off. 

Even when taking these stories into account, air pollution levels here are high and undoubtedly harmful. The city hosts moderate to high air pollution levels daily that will adversely affect your health. However, most people don't seem to react to it. Some people claim to get used to it after two or three months of living here and feel perfectly fine. 

What Causes Air Pollution in Hong Kong? 

Hong Kong has days that are crystal clear, but these days are rare. It's so nice when you get one. Beaches become jam-packed, and it seems everyone in the city rushes out to enjoy these precious moments. One such occasion that brings days of clear blue skies is when Chinese New Year rolls around. In the Pearl River Delta around Chinese New Year, a lot of factories close down, which noticeably lowers air pollution levels in Hong Kong.

While factories in the Mainland affect the levels of air pollution here, there is also a lot of locally created pollution, too. Hong Kong is a city in constant gridlock, thanks to the number of cars on the road. The vehicles that cram into this city release high amounts of carbon monoxide as well as nitrogen monoxide, which we inevitably inhale. 

You'll be surprised to learn that it isn't traffic that contributes the most to the levels of air pollution in Hong Kong. It's power plants. These power plants are responsible for pumping out most of the cities sulphur dioxide, Nitrous and suspended particle matter according to an article by Green Peace East Asia.

What Can We Do About it?

Pollution over Hong Kong

Pollution over Hong Kong

Healthy Matters has a whole website dedicated to healthy living in Hong Kong, and we think it's best to start with arming yourself with the right information. Here's an article listing the six best apps you can use to monitor air quality in Hong Kong. At the very least, if you have one of these bad boys installed, you'll be able to best prepare for the day ahead. If you go for a hike, why not check the air quality first to make sure you're not spending the day ingesting high levels of pollution.

Indoor air quality needs as much thought as outdoor air quality, as we spend as much as 70 per cent of our time indoors. The Indoor Air Quality Information Centre has tons of information regarding what you can do to increase the quality of the air in your home. As well as following these simple steps, some people opt to buy an air purifier to improve air quality indoors. Some say they work, and some don't so do your research thoroughly. As we will explore in the next section, another option might be to choose where you live wisely.

Are All Parts of Hong Kong Equally Polluted?

When many expats move here, they hear about the levels of pollution and start instantly looking for less polluted areas to live in Hong Kong. This is especially true for those moving here with young families. After all, you don't want your little ones breathing in too many pollutants. 

So, are all areas equally polluted with dirty air? Well, it depends on the day as local and Mainland sources of pollution get swept around by the wind, what area is most polluted really changes by the day. Take a look at the image below. You can see that on this particular day (Oct 7, 2019) that Tsuen Wan in the New Territories has the lowest levels of pollution. The highest belongs to Causeway Bay on the Hong Kong island side. 

Screenshot taken from the  AQI .

Screenshot taken from the AQI.

The simplest answer is this: Not all parts of Hong Kong are equally polluted, but how polluted they are changes daily. In reality, no matter where you live in Hong Kong, Air pollution is going to be a permanent part of your life, so adjust accordingly. 

Closing Comments 

All in all, if you decide to move to Hong Kong or are living here and aren't aware of the levels of pollution, it really is worth thinking about. Hong Kong is a beautiful city, and air pollution (as well as other kinds of pollution) is a blight on this city that needs a solution. We hope the government can muster better solutions rather than saying "we will reduce everything." but in reality, produce meaningless results. Having said all this, Hong Kong, we still love you!

If you've made it this far, thank you! It means a lot to us. As always, if you have any questions, please reach out to us at jamie@navigatehk.com

Header Photo by Carolina Pimenta on Unsplash edited by Jamie Thorne

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