According to the World Health Organization (WHO), air pollution is "the world's single largest environmental risk to health" and currently
“nine out of ten people worldwide breathe polluted air”.
So it seems we can’t really escape it, especially in Asia. And if you’ve lived in Hong Kong, even for a short period, you have experienced notable exposure to air pollution.
The consequences of breathing this air are not ideal. Ranging from minor upper respiratory irritation to chronic respiratory disease and heart disease, air pollution may also lead to cancer, chronic bronchitis and asthma attacks and it affects a number of different systems and organs in the body.
Thankfully, there is more awareness today than there was just a few short years ago. The Hong Kong government has been undertaking a number of initiatives to inform the public. For example, the Environmental Protection Department releases hourly Air Quality Health Index (AQHI) information which is meant to direct the public to take precautionary measures to protect their health based on the level of ambient pollution. This is done using a 1-10 scale for the level of pollution along with guidelines for each level.
Currently, most sources of outdoor air pollution are well beyond the control of individuals. Eco-warriors will continue to battle on, but tackling air pollution demands action by policy-makers worldwide. Here in Hong Kong, there are multiple sources of air pollution but we can point to three main factors – roadside pollution from motor vehicles, marine vessel emissions and power plants in Hong Kong and the Pearl River Delta. The respective governing departments will have to step up to make the changes necessary to protect the health of the public, especially vulnerable populations.
Children are particularly vulnerable because they breathe more rapidly than adults and the cell layer in their lungs is more permeable to pollutant particles. The tiny particles can also cross the blood-brain barrier, which is less resistant in children, permanently harming cognitive development and their future prospects, according to a Unicef Report. Childhood is a critical period for brain formation and research shows exposure to pollution decreases cognitive performance and impairs neurological function. Additionally, exposure to environmental pollutants during important times of physiological development can lead to long-lasting health problems, dysfunction and disease.
Humans these days spend the majority of our time indoors. For children, much of that time is spent in school. So what are schools in Asia doing to protect our children and their staff?
In South Korea, the government recently passed a revised school health act to improve quality of air and safety at preschools and primary and secondary schools. The law requires the installation of air-cleaning systems and air quality sensors in classrooms. The Education Ministry aims to have air-cleaning equipment installed in all classrooms in preschools, elementary schools and special education schools, followed by installations at all middle and high school classrooms by the end of the year.
In Beijing, more than two years ago, education authorities gave way to public pressure, agreeing to install air purification equipment in schools. The decision to install air purifiers came nearly a year after the commission rejected a similar public call from parents.
Singapore revised its air quality index to add PM2.5 and installed about 25,000 air purifiers in ministry of education primary, secondary and kindergartens as of July 2016. Minister of Education, Ng Chee Meng, said this
“will further enhance the well-being of our students and staff.”
Here in Hong Kong, the Education Bureau (EDB) publishes health risk guidelines based on the government’s AQHI, which does not fully account for hazardous factors like PM2.5 considered by the WHO. Schools following these guidelines are really taking the minimum precautions and may even be misguided by the AQHI in terms of actual health risk. The steps some Hong Kong schools are taking to safeguard the health of their students and staff include installing air purifiers throughout the school, monitoring indoor and outdoor air quality locally and creating their own policies to handle poor air quality days.
One example of a school doing this is Discovery Bay International School. The school takes information from the government as well as from another source and their own monitoring equipment. Decisions regarding outdoor activities are made based on all the available information and a school policy, with a far higher standard than that provided by the EDB, is adhered to. Air purifiers are used throughout the school.
Other schools in Hong Kong with air purification include the following*:
Island Christian Academy
Kellett Kowloon Bay
Discovery Bay International School
Nord Anglia (Lam Tin)
Kingston International School
ICHK Hong Lok Yuen
Fairchild Junior Academy
Mudpies Education Centre
Hong Kong Academy
Mills International Preschool
Tutortime Caine Road
FIS new campus in TKO
Galilee International Kindergarten
Mighty Oaks International Kindergarten
Discovery Mind Primary School
Discovery Mind Kindergarten
International Montessori School
*If your school has air purifiers or an air quality policy above and beyond that of the EBD, please let us know. We’d love to add them to this list.
This article appeared in Playtimes Autumn Issue 2019.