Hong Kong (AFP) March 22, 2010
Air pollution in Hong Kong and Taiwan soared to record levels as officials warned Monday of a public health menace from a toxic stew of particulates, fuelled by a massive sandstorm over Beijing.
Readings of Hong Kong's Air Pollution Index were more than double the level at which the general public is advised to stay indoors.
"Today's API is at record high levels," a spokeswoman for the Environmental Protection Department told AFP.
Hong Kong's famed skyline and harbour is often shrouded in a blanket of haze which has been criticised as a public health disaster and blamed for driving many expatriates away from the international financial hub.
Pollution in nearby Taiwan hit record levels Sunday, shrouding the island and forcing authorities on Monday to call on residents to stay indoors.
"This was the first time ever in Taiwan that air pollution was measured to be at such serious levels over such a wide geographic area," said Chang Shun-ching, an official at the Environmental Protection Administration.
"Residents should stay indoors," he said. "For those who need to go out, they had better wear face masks."
Doctors at two Taipei-area hospitals contacted by AFP said the number of outpatients complaining of respiratory difficulties and eye allergies had surged by 30 percent above normal rates.
At all but three monitoring stations in Taiwan, each cubic metre of air was found to contain 1,000 micrograms of pollutants per hour. A level of 150 micrograms per cubic metre per hour is enough for the air quality to be described as "poor".
Chinese authorities warned residents across a huge swathe of the country's north including the capital Beijing to avoid going outside Monday, as the sandstorm blanketed the region in fine yellow dust and a mustard-yellow haze.
Residents complained of coughing and noses clogged with grit, although authorities said the sandstorm was weakening.
Sandstorms are an annual occurrence in arid northern China in the spring, when temperatures start to rise, stirring up clouds of dust that can travel across China to South Korea and Japan, and even to the United States.
Scientists blame a combination of deforestation and prolonged drought for the encroachment of desert into more of northern China. The consequences are felt near and wide.
Hong Kong's API is a ratio based on the concentration of pollutants in the air, including sulphur dioxide and lead. Monday's record readings soared as high as 495 at one roadside station.
People with heart or respiratory problems are advised to stay indoors at an API reading of more than 100. The public is advised to stay indoors or avoid prolonged exposure to heavy traffic areas at more than 200.
"This is very scary, over 300 is very scary, very polluted," Edwin Lau, director of Friends of the Earth Hong Kong, told AFP.
Schools across Hong Kong kept students indoors, with most cancelling outdoor playground activities and games, or off-campus trips.
"We have stopped any outdoor physical activity or playing to safeguard the children," John Ainsworth, a vice-principal at the exclusive Bradbury School, told AFP.
The city's air quality problem was exacerbated by an unusual combination of the Chinese sandstorm and strong southerly winds which blew particulates into the city.
Earlier this month, a group of Hong Kong businesses -- including Starbucks, Pacific Coffee, Ben & Jerry's and Pure Fitness -- launched an unprecedented petition campaign to combat Hong Kong's worsening air pollution.
The organisers also placed ads in newspapers, warning that the city's smog "kills three people a day" and that its air is "three times dirtier than New York City's".
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