30 April 2013

Bad Air Day

Air pollution in Beijing, Shanghai and other cities on the mainland has been making headlines worldwide.  Coverage has been as relentless as the endless string of bad air days. China is the largest producer of emissions in the world. The country’s statistics do not include Hong Kong.  It is considered a Special Administrative Region until 2047.  However, the island has bad air too.  Earlier this month, just days before a scheduled 10K hike on Lantau, I was sucked into the Environmental Protection Department’s air index readings.  Toxins were in the air.  With just three days before the hike would it blow over and out or would I be forced to remain indoors for my health?

T minus 3 days
I woke to see a yellow haze in the air.  Growing up in central Ohio made me used to shellacked skies of hot and humid days, but Hong Kong’s hue was different. I wasn’t looking up at it from a great distance I was breathing it in.  My eyes watered, my nose tickled, my face reddened, my throat became raw…and I was in my apartment!  I turned on the air purifier full blast and stayed inside all day.

Air pollution index readings take place in 11 stations throughout Hong Kong. They measure ozone and nitrogen dioxide levels.  The air quality index has a chart ranking the levels, such as 0-25 Low - within acceptable standards and 151-200 Very High.  Three days before the hike the level was 205 and 210, or Severe.  Severe levels reading between 201 – 500 means that people “with existing heart or respiratory illnesses may experience significant aggravation of their symptoms. There may also be widespread symptoms in the healthy population (e.g. eye irritation, wheezing, coughing, phlegm and sore throats).”

T minus 2 days
Another day of unbearable slightness of breathing.  I had to go out and run errands. My first stop was to purchase a box of paper facemasks with elastic bands that loop around the ears.  Asians tend to wear masks when they have colds and I thought for sure that the entire population would be wearing them to filter the air.  (One idea that popped into my head was to take my red lipstick and paint lips on the mask.  For James, I thought, I’ll draw a mustache!)  To my surprise no one was wearing face protection.  The streets were busy and the sidewalks crammed with the usual mid-day crowd.  Clearly in Asia’s financial core there’s no masking the pain.

A mix of local and regional pollutants causes Hong Kong’s smog.  Emissions from industrial facilities, coal-fired power plants, dirty diesel vehicles and ships burning bunker fuel, the world’s dirtiest transportation fuel, are the source.   The bad air gets trapped among the skyscrapers and cannot escape.  The only hope we had for a hike was a big wind or soaking rain to get the air circulating.

T minus 1 day
Third day same as the 1st.  The air purifier had been humming away for two days of severe levels pollution.  I went out this time to visit James in his office on the 99th floor of Hong Kong’s tallest building.  At that level I’m usually on top of the world looking down on creation, but not that day. I couldn’t see a thing through the vapor.  Skyscrapers aren’t so high when pollution comes down to earth.

Lantau Island.  It’s prominently rural, but it’s also home to the airport and Disneyland.  Our 10K excursion was to hike from Big Buddha, the world’s largest outdoor bronze statue of a seated Buddha, to the fishing village, Tai O.   A rewarding day trip if the air clears.

Take off
Is that fog or smog?  I woke to gray skies and immediately texted for the hikers’ official weather report.  It wasn’t pollution; we were to take off at 8.  We went with the hope that the misty cloud hanging overhead would burn off when the sun was high in the sky.

The misty cloud never dissipated.  We started our hike at Big Buddha but we couldn’t see it or the horizon on our ascent.  When we reached the top the only view we had was of the wild water buffalos lying down chewing their cud.  We made our way down to Tai O and strolled the seaside village where houses stood on stilts and streets were stocked with stands selling salted fish and fresh catch.  At that foggy bottom we were closer to Macau than to Central and feeling very distant from the previous days of killer smog.

According to the Hedley Environmental Index, there were 322 premature deaths in March of this year as a result of adverse health effects due to air pollution.  Government officials in Hong Kong and China have proposed billions of dollars to combat pollution and that doesn’t include the latest threat to the skies: light pollution.    The University of Hong Kong recently found that the city’s light pollution is 1,000 times brighter than globally accepted levels.  Among the side effects, it causes insomnia in humans and death in birds (they tweet all night by the artificial light and often times don’t make their migration destination).  The smog of war burns bright in the Fragrant Harbor.

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