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Air pollution affects the health of expats and visitors in Hong Kong

Hong Kong’s air pollution has been in the headlines recently due to its harmful effects on the health of residents and those visiting. The problem is so severe in some areas that expats and their families are considering the option of jumping ship to other cities, like Tokyo and Singapore, where the air is considerably cleaner. Some residents have likened the pollution and its effects as reminiscent of Victorian-era Britain, which really paints a picture of how poor air pollution in Hong Kong has become.

For those planning on moving to Hong Kong or wanting to make a visit to see friends and family, the advice from Pacific Prime Hong Kong is to be aware of the ill-effects of air pollution in the city, and make preparations to protect against pollutants such as particulate matter PM 2.5 during the hot and humid weather.

This article will aim to explain what air pollution is, look at the source of pollutants, and suggest ways to combat and protect one’s health during high levels of air pollution, from getting a protective face-mask to private medical insurance.

Individual Health Insurance Plans

What is air pollution?

Air pollution is a mix of harmful gases and particles that can reach dangerous concentrations, especially in highly congested areas like cities. One adverse pollutant that is responsible for the poor visibility and health effects of residents in Hong Kong is particulate soot.

Formation of particulate soot

Particulate soot is a byproduct of burning fossil fuels – particularly coal – and can come from a variety of sources, including motor vehicles, combustion of coal for electrical and industrial fuel manufacturing, and slash-and-burn farming. Particulate soot is a major contributor to reduced visibility that is normally seen as haze or smog on a clear day.

Particulate matter – PM2.5

PM2.5 refers to atmospheric particulate matter (PM) that have a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometers. To detect PM2.5, an electron microscope is required as it is invisible to the naked eyes.

Is PM2.5 dangerous?

The answer is yes. Due to the size of the ultra-fine particles, they tend to stay longer in the air than other heavier particles like PM10. As they remain longer in the air, the chances of people breathing in the particulate matter are increased, and the health effects can be detrimental. Health conditions caused by PM2.5 can range from aggravated cardiovascular illnesses to decreased lung function.

Smog in Hong Kong

Smog is derived from the merging of two words – smog and fog. For scenarios like in Hong Kong and other countless cities and countries experiencing air pollution, smog is used to describe the type of fog which has particulate soot in it.

What does smog look like?

Smog appears as a yellowish or light brown fog formed mainly from a mixture of pollutants in the atmosphere including particulate matter and harmful volatile organic and inorganic compounds such as carbon monoxide (CO), carbon dioxide (CO2), sulfur dioxide SO2), and nitrogen oxides (NOx). It can be seen hovering across the skyline and is worse when concentration levels are so high that it falls to ground level.

How does smog form?

Smog is often the result of a combination of factors including high emissions of particulate soot and inorganic by-products, high temperatures, intense sunshine, and calm winds. The time at which smog forms really depends on the temperature. Temperature inversions are situations when warm air does not rise and stays near the ground. When this is combined with a clear sky with plenty of sunshine and calm winds, the result is smog that remains concentrated and static for extended periods of time near ground level.

How bad is the problem in Hong Kong?

Pollution in Hong Kong seems to be getting worse. According to the South China Morning Post, the beginning of October 2019 saw Hong Kong’s air quality return to unhealthy levels of haze and pollution. The forecast by the Environmental Protection Department indicated that the Air Quality Health Index would increase from moderate to high levels as temperatures fluctuate between 27 to 32 degrees Celsius.

Prolonged spells of sunshine in Hong Kong have also enhanced photochemical smog activity and the rapid formation of ozone and fine particulates in the Pearl River Delta region. The high level of ozone produced from combustion activities have promoted the formation of nitrogen dioxide as well.

So far since the beginning of this month, 12 general monitoring stations around Hong Kong have measured the air quality index and results have indicated very high-risk levels. The monitoring station in Tap Mun off Sai Kung recorded a ‘serious’ level, making the island the worst impacted area of Hong Kong.

What is the air quality health index?

The Air Quality Health Index (AQHI) is compiled by the Environmental Protection Department and is responsible for informing the public of the short-term health risks of air pollution in Hong Kong. The AQHIs are reported on a scale of 1 to 10 and 10+ and are grouped into five AQHI health risk categories. The Environmental Protection Department then releases health advice and warnings to keep members of the public informed of the risks in their area.

How to reduce the impact of air pollution in Hong Kong?

Residents can altogether contribute to cleaner air in small ways. At the street level, pollution mainly comes from the emissions of vehicles on the roads of Hong Kong.

Swap private car use for public transport in Hong Kong

Residents and visitors that commute using their own private cars can reduce emission levels by swapping for Hong Kong’s various modes of public transport:

Vehicle maintenance

Residents that require the use of private vehicles can help reduce emissions by regularly maintaining them in the following ways:

Keeping the vehicle properly tuned

  • A vehicle that is inefficient on the road will use more fuel and therefore emit more pollutants. Not only will the cost of traveling increase for the driver, but having the vehicle on the road will continue to do more harm than good for the environment. Getting a professional mechanic to look at the vehicle’s exhaust system can help highlight any problems that need addressing, such as the vehicle’s catalytic converter. Annual vehicle examinations will help check the roadworthiness of the vehicle and highlight any safety issues and the level of emissions.
  • Owners of vehicles should inspect tires on a regular basis and ensure that the tire pressure is well maintained. Otherwise, under-inflated tires will use more fuel and accelerate tire wear.

While driving

  • How the vehicle is driven can affect fuel consumption and therefore the number of pollutants emitted from the vehicle. Drivers are recommended to avoid unnecessary deceleration and acceleration and to switch off idling engines when stuck in traffic to reduce fuel consumption.

What is the impact of PM2.5 on the health of residents and visitors in Hong Kong?

PM2.5 are extremely small particles that can easily bypass the nose and throat and penetrate deep into the lungs and eventually via the circulatory systems.

Professor David Hui Shu-Cheong, an expert in respiratory medicine at Chinese University, said, “Air pollution increases the risk of exacerbation in patients with existing asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. The air pollutants like PM2.5 can cause more inflammation and swelling of the airways leading to more airflow obstructions.”

Health is at stake in places where pollution is generally poor, which is why it pays to be aware of the weather forecast and how to avoid inhaling pollutants.

Advice for people living, working, and traveling in Hong Kong

Awareness and protection are key to reducing the health impact of air pollution on people’s health. It is recommended to do the following during situations where air quality is very poor and dangerous to health.

  1. Reduce or avoid strenuous, outdoor activity, and exercise.
  2. Stay clear of pollution hotspots. See Hong Kong air pollution real-time AQI.
  3. If traveling to work, aim to get there before the rush hour when air pollution tends to peak with commuter activity.
  4. Wear air-filtering face masks such as the N95 respirator. 
  5. Secure private medical insurance to cover unexpected health costs when getting treated for symptoms and conditions.

Where to get more advice about the best private healthcare insurance in Hong Kong?

For expatriates, their loved ones, and the off-the-road traveler or visitor from another country, it is reassuring to know that Hong Kong has one of the most advanced healthcare systems in the world and there is a plethora of healthcare options available should treatment be required. With the current levels of pollution, it is highly recommended to have medical insurance as the risks are too high.

Additionally, medical care is not cheap in Hong Kong, with inpatient care at a private hospital costing an average of HKD $4,430 per day. It’s essential to secure health insurance to offset these high costs. To learn more about your medical insurance options, contact our insurance advisors at Pacific Prime Hong Kong today.

The advisors are able to help compare international medical insurance plans for expats workers, family members, and individuals traveling, and also offer impartial advice to help simplify insurance plans.

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Content Creator at Pacific Prime Hong Kong
Jimmy is a content writer who helps simplify insurance for readers interested in international private medical insurance. He is on a mission in Thailand to support locals, expatriates, and businesses by bring the latest news and updates to his Pacific Prime blog articles.

His expert view and wealth of knowledge on insurance can also be found in his blogs for China, Dubai, Hong Kong, and Singapore.