It is everyone’s dream to raise their children in good conditions. For that, parents will risk all costs for the growth of their children, for example, providing them with the best care and education. In today’s Hong Kong, regardless of the general environmental factors, many families will move away from the city centre to a place with better air quality so as to avoid their contact with polluted air. Dr. Ng, a pediatric respiratory specialist and former head of the Department of Pediatrics of Kwong Wah Hospital said he has seen parents who are worried about their children’s respiratory conditions such as wheezing and asthma over the years. Families who live in public housing commissioned him to write medical reports just to help them be transferred to another unit with better air quality. “I write more than 10 copies a year,” said Dr. Ng.
Are we exaggerating the case here? Of course not. Dr. Ng and his team have discovered that the increasing concentration of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) in the air is the key contributing factor of the increase in children’s wheezing problem. The NO2 emissions found in Hong Kong are mainly from vehicles. Therefore expectant mothers should avoid the crowds during pregnancy if they do not want their children to suffer from respiratory diseases such as asthma. However, it is easier said than done when we are in Hong Kong, one of the busiest cities in the world.
Dr. NG Kwok Keung, specialist in children’s respiratory health (left)
Patrick Fung, Chief Executive Officer of Clean Air Network (right)
“It’s not great news when we have good business.”
Having practiced medicine for many years, Dr. Ng has seen respiratory diseases recurring due to environmental pollution. He emphasised that the first four to five years of the birth of a child is a critical period for their lungs growth. In addition, children inhale faster than adults. If they are exposed to pollutants, especially NO2, their lungs will be irritated and thus cause them asthma and other respiratory issues. “It’s not great news when we see new patients,” said Dr. Ng.
In order to lower the chance of children suffering from asthma, women should avoid contact with air pollutants during pregnancy. Because being exposed in air pollutants will increase the probability of premature birth of the fetus. The lungs function of premature babies is weaker than usual, this might trigger wheezing in later age.
Instead of treating patients with respiratory issues, we should “treat” the environment
Studies conducted overseas showed that babies who live within 50 meters of major highways and are frequently exposed to air pollutants have a 6% higher risk of developing bronchiolitis. When Dr. Ng worked at Kwong Wah Hospital, he participated in a medical research and analysed the health data of 46,000 children between the ages of 0 and 6 from 2004 to 2015. It is found that the NO2 concentration in the air has risen dramatically in the past 12 years, and the hospital admission rate of young children due to wheezing has also been increased. This proves a positive relationship between respiratory diseases found in children and concentration of NO2 in the air.
Dr. Ng is discouraged by the current situation. He said he could always help his patients and provide the best medical treatment. However, he said it is better to solve the root cause of these respiratory issues found in youngsters, which is to fight for better air quality. “Looking into the future, how do we create an environment without air pollution and ensure both parents and kids growing up in a NO2 free place?”, Dr Ng questioned.
Zero-emission buses can help block NO2 at the source
Clean Air Network and Dr. Ng share the same vision. They both believe that children’s health condition could only be restored when air pollutants are blocked at the source. Because of that, they strive to promote zero-emission traffic. Since franchised buses release high concentrations of NO2 when operating, diesel engines are therefore advised to be replaced by electric ones. In addition, Clean Air Network has been working with the Sham Shui Po district over the years, the group specifically looked into the air pollution issue there. They are conducting interviews with families who have kids aged 0 to 6, to learn more about the kids’ lungs conditions. It is hoped that the survey could be continued in the long run, and so the gathered data could be compared. This could also help the group to understand the impact of air pollution on children’s health better. At the end of the day, the group wants the government to actively implement measures to solve the air pollution problem in Hong Kong.
“The child is the father of the man,” said Dr. Ng. He trusts that children are the future of us all and it is the society’s responsibility to let them grow up in places that are air pollution free and safe.
What should children eat to reduce the chance of developing respiratory diseases?
Besides avoiding contacts with outdoor pollutants, it is best for the children to cultivate good eating habits. Dr. Ng, a specialist in children’s respiratory health, advises the following suggestions for parents:
1. Breastfeeding is recommended for children at birth, until the age of 6 months to 1. They can try non-staple foods at 4 months old. Also, eating non-staple foods earlier can reduce the chance of allergies.
2. Develop a habit of eating fruits since childhood, 3 servings in the morning, afternoon and evening. This can help the kids to absorb sufficient vitamin C.
3. Eat deep-sea fish rich in OMEGA 3, such as mackerel, salmon, tuna. This can help stabilize cells and reduce allergies.
4. Eat more nuts, such as almonds and walnuts, which contain magnesium since the age of 3.
5. Avoid consuming too much sodium.
Dr. Ng added that the indoor environment should also be carefully considered. Smoking or second-hand smoke should be avoided. And in fact, cooking with gases will increase indoor pollutants. Thus he recommends using induction cookers instead. Moreover, it is best to keep the air circulated at home, this is to avoid allergens. He also encourages children to exercise at least one hour a day to strengthen their heart and lungs conditions.
(Editor’s note: Hong Kong people have been exposed to high levels of air pollution for a long time. We are exposed to toxic air every day and it is affecting our health. While many other cities around the world have set clear zero-emission targets and adopt zero-emission buses on a large scale, Hong Kong is far behind. In this article, Clean Air Network invites experts, scholars and doctors who are concerned about air pollution and sustainable transportation development to find the crux of the problem and discuss how Hong Kong buses can “get ahead” to achieve zero-emission.)