Mon, Feb 20, 2017 - Page 7 News List

Where the wind blows: How China’s
dirty air becomes Hong Kong’s problem

Last month there were 300,000 doctor’s visits in Hong Kong linked to smog — much of which wafts over from China. However, in a busy town obsessed with money, will it take a direct economic hit to wake people to the danger?

By Benjamin Haas  /  The Guardian, HONG KONG

Illustration: Yusha

At the age of three, Margaux Giraudon developed something akin to a smoker’s cough. Thereafter, she became all too familiar with the inside of her doctor’s office in Hong Kong.

For years, her father, Nicolas Giraudon, was told the same thing by doctors: “Your daughter is sensitive to changes in the weather.”

Eventually she grew so ill that she was hooked up to breathing machines in the hospital for three days, inhaling medicine delivered in a mist. At that point, Giraudon decided it was time for the family to return to his native France.

“She was scared — she didn’t know what was going on, and she saw the look on our faces,” Giraudon says. “Her mother and I were completely shocked. When you have children, you want the best for them; you want to protect them as much as possible.”

For Giraudon, those three days transformed Hong Kong from an international city bustling with excitement and opportunity into a death trap that was slowly poisoning his family. Born on the island, Margaux had developed asthmatic bronchitis, which caused her lung capacity to fall by nearly a third compared with other children her age.

While Hong Kong’s air pollution rarely commands the attention of the toxic cloud that frequently covers northern China, dubbed the “airpocalypse,” the air is anything but clean there. Levels of cancer-causing pollutants have exceeded WHO standards for more than 15 years, rising to more than five times acceptable levels at its peak.

As far back as 2013, the government called air pollution the “greatest daily health risk to the people of Hong Kong.”

Despite awareness of the dangers, the notoriously pro-business territory has moved at a glacial pace in tackling the problem, commissioning study after study, but taking little concrete action.

The fast-paced business world is what originally brought Giraudon to Hong Kong in 2009. In the six years before his daughter became sick, he did not experience any noticeable effects from air pollution. The 42-year-old media executive went hiking in the mountains around the territory and jogged all over his new home, realizing a lifelong dream of working in Asia. He did not buy air purifiers, dismissing the costly machines as a marketing trick.

However, after his daughter’s hospital stay, Giraudon transformed completely. He bought a device to measure air pollution and became obsessed. Every room in his house was fitted with an expensive air purifier and he checked the air quality constantly.

“My flat in Hong Kong felt like living in a spaceship,” he says. “I was measuring the level of pollution 24 hours a day, measuring humidity to combat mold, to make sure everything was within acceptable levels.”

Giraudon would hear his neighbor’s children coughing at night and knew they did not have air filters.

“I became the guy nobody invited for dinner,” he says with a sigh. “Especially the newcomers, who were all really excited to arrive in Hong Kong — and then I would come with my readings and warnings. People didn’t want to hear about it.”

Giraudon began taking his testing equipment to his daughter’s school and was shocked to discover the air was terrible.

However, he also found another group of people who did not want to hear about the problem: school officials. He launched a campaign to clean the air there and was met with resistance at every turn.

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