Hong Kong, Taiwan suffer from Chinese sandstorms

HONG KONG (Reuters) - Hong Kong’s harbor was cloaked in thick smog on Monday as air pollution soared to record levels ahead of the Hong Kong Sevens rugby tournament this weekend, the city’s premier sporting event.

Star Ferries cross the Victoria Harbour from Hong Kong island to Kowloon in this file photo from December 15, 2009. REUTERS/Tim Chong

Taiwan, too, was hit by what are being called the worst sandstorms in 25 years, though particulate levels had declined on Monday and there were no findings of airborne toxins.

Sandstorms from northern China were mostly blamed, with a second dust storm hitting Beijing on Monday, though state media said it was not as severe as Saturday’s, which blanketed the city with a layer of fine dust and turned the sky orange.

The official Xinhua news agency said the sand, carried by strong winds, had also affected Inner Mongolia, as well as Shanxi and Hebei provinces.

Hong Kong’s environmental protection department said local air pollution indices soared to levels of around 500, smashing the previous record of 202 recorded in July 2008. A reading above 51 is considered high.

People with heart and lung diseases were urged to avoid outdoor activities amid what were described as “severe” readings.

Hong Kong experts are studying the contents of the latest smog but a public health academic warned it came after a week of serious air pollution.

“We don’t know what this air is made of ... but it is possible that it is not as toxic as the air that is coming out of the tailpipes of old trucks in Hong Kong or old power station chimneys, or ship funnels going into the harbor and the port,” said Anthony Hedley, chair professor of the School of Public Health at the University of Hong Kong.

“The interesting thing may be that it is coming on top of several days of fairly intense exposure to mostly Hong Kong-made pollutants and some other of parts of the Pearl River Delta,” Hedley told Reuters.

Pollutants included particulates, nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide and ozone.

Hong Kong’s patchy air quality has been a controversial social issue in recent years, tarnishing the city’s reputation as a financial hub versus greener rival cities like Singapore. It has also affected the health of many of its citizens.

According to the Hedley Environmental Index, which monitors and publishes in real-time the economic costs of Hong Kong’s air pollution, the bad air would have resulted in 175 premature deaths and 1.29 million visits to the doctor so far this year.

It would also have resulted in an estimated loss of HK$394 million ($51 million) in healthcare costs and lost productivity. The city’s stock market and businesses weren’t immediately affected by the smog front, and are expected to operate as usual on Tuesday.

While officials have strived to clean up vehicles and power stations locally, pollutants blown in from tens of thousands of factories in southern China’s manufacturing and export hub on the Pearl River Delta have also had a serious impact on air quality.

The haze may clear up in coming days, however, according to the city’s weather observatory, with the Hong Kong Sevens rugby tournament due to kick off on Friday.

Some 120,000 visitors are expected to attend the event, a major tourism draw for the former British colony that returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

In Taiwan, several people were hospitalized on Sunday, when air over much of northern Taiwan was declared “hazardous,” as cold dusty winds cut visibility and scattered dust on cars and buildings.