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Container ship health risk ‘ignored’

South China Morning Post — 12 June 2011

Inaction over sulphur dioxide levels near ports is endangering the lives of thousands, scientist says

Hongkongers living near container ports are being subjected to levels of sulphur dioxide much higher than should be allowed, says the author of a government report on marine pollution.

Scientists, environmentalists and even the shipping industry have accused the government of dragging its feet in regulating pollution from container ships and other ocean vessels, putting at risk the health of thousands of people living in areas like Kwai Chung and Tsing Yi.

“It’s a very big health threat,” said Hong Kong University of Science and Technology visiting scholar Simon Ng Ka-wing, who is working on a report on marine emissions for the Environmental Protection Department (EPD). “At the moment, many people living in Kwai Chung don’t even know that shipping emissions are harming their health.”

According to an index developed by University of Hong Kong public health professor Anthony Hedley, air pollution in the city kills between 1,000 and 2,000 people a year. About a third of those deaths can be directly attributed to shipping emissions, based on studies held after the government legislated low-sulphur fuel for road vehicles in the 1990s.

“If you have grown up in highly polluted air, you will likely have lower levels of lung function, which will expose you to a higher risk of heart and lung disease and premature death,” Hedley said. “We are stacking up a great deal of problems for many children growing up in Hong Kong’s environment because the pollution levels are so very high.”

A study last year by Chak Chan, head of the University of Science and Technology’s Institute for the Environment, suggested that levels of roadside sulphur dioxide in Hong Kong were significantly higher than those reported by the government.

Chan said that because the EPD had only three roadside pollution monitoring stations, in Mong Kok, Causeway Bay and Central, most roadside pollution went unmeasured. His study used a mobile monitoring station that drove around the city collecting data in 2009 and 2010.

“We measured a high level of sulphur dioxide in [Kwai Chung],” Chan said. “It also depends on the wind direction. When it blows towards the north, it affects the Kwai Chung area, but if it’s the other way it hits the [Hong Kong] island side.”

Hedley warned that “anyone living downwind from the East Lamma Channel” could see their health seriously affected by marine pollution.

The high levels of sulphur dioxide come from bunker fuel, an inexpensive form of low-grade oil that is used to power ocean-going vessels.

It has a sulphur content of about 3 per cent, compared to 0.001 per cent in the cleanest diesel fuel. When bunker fuel is burned, it is converted into small particulates that reduce visibility and cause lung damage, leading to a higher risk of stroke, heart attack and respiratory illnesses such as pneumonia.

Many ports in Europe and North America prevent ships from burning bunker fuel while berthed, but Hong Kong does not.

“The government has regulations on road vehicles, but when it comes to marine vessels there is no restriction on what kind of fuel can be used, even though sulphur dioxide’s impact on human health is much more severe compared to other pollutants,” Chan said.

Next year, the use of high-sulphur fuels will be banned up to 200 nautical miles off the coasts of Canada and the United States. Their environmental agencies estimate these measures will save 8,300 lives a year.

In a written response to questions, an EPD spokeswoman said Hong Kong had been “diligently implementing” measures required by international conventions to restrict marine pollution.

“We have been watching closely the development of worldwide policies, measures and new technologies in controlling the emissions of oceangoing vessels and will explore the feasibility of introducing them to Hong Kong,” she said.

But observers were sceptical that any new legislation would be passed before the end of the current administration’s term.

Earlier this year, Environment Secretary Edward Yau Tang-wah expressed support for the Fair Wind Charter, a voluntary agreement signed by 15 shipping lines to switch from bunker fuel to low-sulphur fuel when berthed in Hong Kong. Yau, however, made no commitment to impose new regulatory controls.

Arthur Bowring, managing director of the Hong Kong Ship Owners’ Association, said: “The middle ranks of the EPD are very involved, but higher up in government there’s a general reluctance and I’m not sure where it’s coming from.”

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