Environmental Issues and Air Quality in Hong Kong

Smog hangs over the buildings in Hong Kong as seen from across the harbour in Kowloon.
View of Hong Kong from Kowloon. Photo © Ed Coyle, licensed Creative Commons Attribution No-Derivatives.

Standing on the streets of Central on a hot, windless day is not unlike being sandwiched between Marge Simpson’s chain-smoking sisters inside a telephone booth while chewing on a briquette of coal. Air pollution is a chronic problem in Hong Kong and one which the government seems unable or unwilling to get a handle on, instead they wag their fingers at the smoke-belching factories across the border in Guangdong. The pollution is most visible in the haze that frequently blankets the city, occasionally blocking the view across Victoria Harbour. Far more worrying, it has also been blamed for a rise in respiratory diseases. As a result, an incredible one-fifth of the city’s residents have considered packing their bags and their lungs and leaving for cleaner climes, according to a recent survey.

So, should you stay away? It depends. Generally the pollution is little more than an unpleasant taste and smell at certain times, its long-term effects, while undoubtedly negative, are unproven and Hong Kongers still boast one of the world’s longest life expectancies. If, however, you have asthma or any other respiratory disease, the pollution in Hong Kong is likely to aggravate your problem and you may wish to speak to a doctor before making the move.

Naturally, urban areas have much higher levels of pollution than the New Territories or Outlying Islands and certain days, depending on wind speed and rain, are worse. The Hong Kong Government produces a daily API rating which measures the pollution, although the results are based on a dated standard and are little more than propaganda. Instead, check the Greenpeace API rating, which bases its advice on the WHO pollution index and gives a more accurate, if depressing, picture. When the index is severe, try and restrict the time you spend choking fumes at street level, especially during rush hour—advice that is easier to give than follow, admittedly.

Water Quality and Food Safety

Treated, filtered, and constantly tested, Hong Kong’s tap water is drinkable—at least in theory. While the water that leaves the plant is clean, the poor state of old pipes in individual buildings means that what actually spills out looks like it passed through a rusty exhaust and tastes about the same. Although you’re unlikely to catch anything nasty, especially if you boil water first, most locals tend to purchase distilled or mineral water. In restaurants you will almost always be offered bottled water, although ice, especially that used by fruit juice sellers on the street, will likely have come from the tap.

Food safety standards are reasonably high in Hong Kong and you’re unlikely to come down with anything nasty as long as you employ a little common sense. Famously lazy with a mop and bucket, Hong Kong restaurants have become substantially more conscientious about hygiene since the SARS outbreak, although if you demand kitchens blitzed in bleach and dishes dunked in thermonuclear water it’s probably best not to peek behind kitchen curtains. Thanks to Cantonese cuisine’s insistence on freshness, seafood and poultry tend to be murdered on request at market. Meat, while freshly cut from the bone, can often be left hanging unrefrigerated in the humidity all day and some people prefer the packaged meat, often sourced outside of China, stocked in supermarkets. Fruit and vegetables, whether bought at the market or supermarket, should always be washed carefully as they are usually imported from China where pesticide use is heavy-handed.

Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Living Abroad in Hong Kong.