I need some fresh air

smog

Over the past couple of weeks, red alerts have been issued in over 20 cities in Northern China due to severe air pollution.  We have seen images of cities covered in smog and children taking exams while wearing masks. This is not the first time it has happened nor will it be the last, despite efforts by the government to reduce emissions. To achieve the status of the factory of the world, China has ended up depriving its residents of a very essential commodity – fresh air. China is not alone in this plight, although the severity is probably worse than most countries. Forest fires in Indonesia have resulted in haze which not only affects the country itself but also neighboring countries. In India, air quality has steadily worsened due to burning in paddy fields, vehicle emissions and industrial activities.

In September this year, WHO released an air quality model showing that 92% of the world’s population lives in places where air quality levels exceed WHO limits. Not surprisingly, the most polluted areas are the poorer countries, which tend to be over populated, rely on burning coal for power and don’t have the proper regulation or framework to control emissions.

who-pollution-map

WHO air pollution map

I have witnessed firsthand the effects of air pollution. Back in 2012, I lived in Beijing for a few months and even though it was during the least polluted season of the year, I was perpetually coughing. I thought that I was always recovering from some sort of cold due to my unhealthy lifestyle. When I made a trip to Chengdu and miraculously stopped coughing when I was there (and resumed when I got back to Beijing), it dawned on me that it was due to the pollution.

Hong Kong has suffered from the side effects of China’s industrialization. A few of my colleagues and friends here make it a habit to check the daily Air Quality Index. However, I don’t see the point of doing so because life goes on. Unless the pollution levels get as severe as in Beijing, where we seem to be living within a cloud, it is unlikely that I can tell my employer that I’m not going to work because I’m going to shut myself indoors. It is part and parcel of living in Hong Kong. We get the exciting Asian experience, but we’ve given up our right to fresh air.

While we all know that air pollution affects our health, the effects may not be immediate or obvious. Since I started living in Hong Kong, the worse effect I have had that can be directly attributable to pollution is allergic reactions from time to time such as itchy eyes, throat and nose. My health has generally deteriorated in the past couple of years. I have been down with a cold at least three times this year, while during my first year in Hong Kong, I didn’t have a cold even once. I am also feeling fatigued most days, but that could be attributable to the failed sleep training of my two year old. On top of these possible side effects, who knows what could be the long term effects on my health and general wellbeing?

When we visited Sydney this year and I saw the clear blue skies, I immediately felt refreshed and wished that I could enjoy such a pollutant free environment every day. Being able to inhale fresh air should be part of our basic rights, but is increasingly becoming a rarity.

In all honesty, though, each of us contributes to this issue and most of us, me included, do not consciously think of it. Even though we focus on certain environmentally friendly actions like recycling and reducing waste, there has been less focus on our actions which lead to air pollution. For example, we should be encouraged to take public transportation instead of driving cars and taking it a step further, to take the subway rather than taxies. Reducing the use of electricity could also help reduce the need for additional coal fired power plants, which are still being used in Hong Kong. I know that one person’s action is unlikely to make much difference, but it’s a good start! So there you go – my first New Year’s resolution is to reduce my contribution to air pollution by taking the MTR where possible and cutting my electricity use.

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