2002 no breath of fresh air in HK
HONG KONG, China (CNN) -- The former British colony began 2002 blanketed in thick smog as air pollution soared to its highest level in almost two years.
A level of 75-90 on the pollution index is considered high in Hong Kong, but no one expected the new year to splutter in with a reading double this.
In one congested urban area on Hong Kong Island where the concrete canyons rise up above vehicle-filled streets, the index reached a dangerously high reading of 153.
The area where the reading was highest, Causeway Bay, is a district with a high density of workers and shoppers returning after the New Year break.
On bad days, a thick blanket of haze shrouds the famous Victoria Harbour and tourists can watch the sun set behind a screen of photochemical soup.
The government has made repeated pledges to combat the problem; it has raised the fixed penalty on smoky vehicles and created some traffic-free zones in congested areas.
But many people have been asking the government to do more.
Third highest reading ever
Local media touted the reading as the highest since March 2000 and the third highest on record.
They reiterated that the deterioration in air quality may reopen the debate on whether the government is doing enough to clean up the territory.
The Environmental Protection Department told local media that the high readings were due to a lack of wind, which meant pollution particles were unable to disperse and became increasingly concentrated.
Whatever official reason was given, Hong Kong residents in a recent survey said they were concerned "a great deal" with air pollution and that the government ought to make it a top priority.
A pledge by Hong Kong's Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa to clean up the city and promote its greener side seems to have fallen on deaf ears.
In the survey of 960 people by non-profit public policy think tank Civic Exchange, 55 percent of respondents in the survey said they were somewhat dissatisfied with efforts by the government to tackle both air and water pollution.
Pollution has worsened in recent years, pushing lawmakers and activists to clamor for more government initiatives to clean up the air.
As many of the territory's residents return to work in 2002 worrying about rising unemployment and Asia's economic woes, the cost of air pollution may not have been a priority.
Yet a recent Environment Protection Department-commissioned study has found that the economic cost of air pollution to Hong Kong amounts to $18 million (HK $140 million) per year.
The amount included a large proportion in medical expenses.
Air quality is indicated by the Air Pollution Index (API), which measures particles of pollutant chemicals in the air.
Hong Kong has many roadside monitoring stations that pump out readings that are closely followed by both local media and environmental organizations.
An API under 50 is considered low, 50 to 100 is high. When the level reaches 100, people with heart and breathing problems are advised to avoid congested areas.
Although some small areas of Hong Kong have been turned into traffic-free zones in order to improve deteriorating air quality, API readings above 100 have occurred on a number of days during 2001.
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