About 400 Hong Kong people a year die unnecessarily from breathing in bunker fuel from ocean-going vessels that come to the city, research by a think-tank has found out.
The report, titled A Price Worth Paying, took five years to produce and is the first comprehensive study of the impact of emissions from container ships, cruise liners and oil tankers in the Pearl River Delta region, Hong Kong and Macau.
The study, released by Civic Exchange, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology's Atmospheric Research Center, and the University of Hong Kong's School of Public Health, has called on the authorities to mandate that ships use cleaner fuels.
The report, financed by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, showed that sulfur dioxide emitted from ships results in 519 people dying each year in the delta region, and 75 percent of them are Hongkongers.
A total of 93 die in the inner delta region, including Macau and Shenzhen, and 42 in the outer delta region including Jiangmen and Huizhou.
Using government pollution and Hospital Authority data in 2008 and computer simulation, the team found that "shipping is by far the most important source of sulfur dioxide pollution, more than that of vehicular emissions," Civic Exchange's head of transport and sustainability research, Simon Ng Ka- wing, said.
Lai Hak-kan of the HKU School of Public Health said the 384 deaths in Hong Kong a year as a result of the pollution by ships is "a very conservative estimate."
The team also found that 75 to 80 percent of all emissions, both within and beyond Hong Kong waters, came from container vessels, while cruise ships accounted for 10 percent. "If we are going to have bigger terminals to accommodate larger cruise ships, the emission problem will worsen," Ng said.
Emission hot spots are the container terminals in Kwai Chung, Shekou and Yantian on the mainland, and the main fairways cutting through Hong Kong - the East Lamma Channel, Ma Wan Channel and the Urmston Road waterway going to Shekou.
"Shekou and Yantian are basically our neighbors," he said.
"If there is a downwind, then a lot of pollutants are blown into Hong Kong."
Alexis Lau Kai-hon, director of the HKUST Atmospheric Research Center, said: "The take-home message is really that Hong Kong is affected substantially by marine pollution."
At 15 micrograms per cubic meter, Hongkongers inhale the highest level of the major pollutant, compared with 1-2 micrograms in Jiangmen, Guangzhou and Foshan, which are further inland.
"Secondly, the pollution is highest when the ships are at berth," Lau said.
The authorities should be asking ships to switch to 0.5 percent sulfur when berthed in Hong Kong waters, or mandate a 0.1 percent sulfur limit within local waters, he says.
The long-term goal is to designate local waters as an "emission control area" and require ships within 185 kilometers of Hong Kong to use 0.1 percent sulfur.
This would reduce deaths by 91 percent to 33 a year in the Hong Kong, the research found.