SCMP Tuesday, January 9, 2001

Dirty air worst for 9 months


Air pollution hit a nine-month high in Central yesterday, adding weight to a government proposal to ban vehicles from key streets to improve air quality and cut traffic accidents.
The lack of wind on Sunday caused pollutants - particularly nitrogen dioxide from vehicles - to be trapped and accumulate to very high levels, persisting for at least 24 hours, said principal environmental protection officer Raymond Leung Pak-ming.
The roadside air pollution index started to exceed 100 on Sunday afternoon, reaching 149 by 6am yesterday. That was the highest since the index reached 174 on March 29 last year. As winds picked up, the index eased to 139 by 1pm, but was still above 100 at 7pm. Winter is specially prone to worsening air pollution because of stable wind conditions. Last year there were 193 hours, or 21 days, with the index over 100 in Central. Causeway Bay and Mongkok hit 139 and 129 respectively yesterday.
The Environmental Protection Department says that when the index tops 100, people with respiratory and heart problems should stay indoors.
Doctors issued fresh warnings about the effects of poor air quality, particularly on children and the elderly suffering from respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. Professor Wong Tze-wai, of the Chinese University's department of community medicine, said studies showed that hospital admissions and deaths from such diseases increased when air pollution worsened.
"For all types of pollutants, there's been an average of 1.5 to three per cent increase per 10 micrograms of increased pollutant." Deaths were lower but still directly related to air pollution of between a 0.5 per cent to two per cent increase, he said.
To try to cut air pollution, transport officials are proposing to make eight streets in Central pedestrian-only, starting this year.
It was revealed on Sunday that, under the proposal, vehicles would be barred from a section of Queen's Road Central, between D'Aguilar Street and Pottinger Street. Lan Kwai Fong, D'Aguilar Street and Wo On Lane would be traffic-free from midday to midnight, while Elgin Street and Peel Street would be devoted to pedestrians from 7pm to midnight.
Citizens Party's founder, former legislator Christine Loh Kung-wai, welcomed the plan. "It's obviously very significant to look at pedestrianisation of Central. Central is representative of the core business, it represents Hong Kong. So I'm very happy that they are looking at doing something there. If you can do it in Central, boy, you can do it in other areas," said Ms Loh, who is now chairwoman of Save our Shorelines.
Richard Feldman, chairman of the Lan Kwai Fong Association, said: "I think it's an exciting plan. It has great environmental benefits. In terms of Lan Kwai Fong itself, it is very exciting. In general, we support the plan wholeheartedly." There could be more alfresco dining in the area, for instance, he said. Minor concerns, such as delivery problems, signage, and time schedule for pedestrian zones, could be easily resolved.
Christine Cheong, spokeswoman for the Lan Kwai Fong Group of restaurants, agreed. "People can walk up and down Lan Kwai Fong. It's much better for the area."
Independent legislator Bernard Chan Charnwut, who is a member of the Legislative Council panel on health services, said that while he supported the plan, the Government should think about pedestrianisation as part of "a total solution" to transport problems.
The Frontier legislator Emily Lau Wai-hing, a member of the Legco panel on environmental affairs, also supported the plan but called for public consultation: "We need to explain to them what it's about - all sorts of people will be inconvenienced."
Today's forecast for air pollution is 70-95 in all districts.