Is the pollution in Hong Kong really bad?

Question: I've heard that Hong Kong is really, really crowded and polluted. Will I be able to stand it?

Mr T replies: You may find the pollution distressing at times, but there are also many parts of HK that are amazingly unaffected.

Air pollution is a problem in Hong Kong - there's no denying this. But in many outlying areas such as Sai Kung and the south side of Hong Kong Island, it isn't as bad as right down amongst the skyscrapers downtown. A lot of the pollution in HK drifts down from southern China when the winds are from the north, and covers the whole city. When the winds are southwesterly, which is the prevailing directing in the summer, it's often far better.

Hong Kong has quite a few beaches, and most are all right for swimming, if not pristine. I've certainly swum in Deep Water Bay and Repulse Bay (on Hong Kong Island) and Clearwater Bay (in the eastern New Territories) numerous times with no ill effects. The water is at its best in the autumn, when the weather here is dry. In the summer, the water tends to be a bit muddy, because there's so much runoff from the heavy rain we get. A more remote beach, Tai Long Wan, is particularly good -- by far the best beach in HK, by my reckoning, and I know Mr B concurs. See his series of hiking photos of a trip to there here. There are also some decent beaches on Lantau Island, and lots of little 'unofficial' beaches you can get to by hiking only.

Hong Kong is also very mountainous. The built-up areas account for only about 10% of the land area, so there are actually places you can get totally lost in the wild. Both Mr B and Mr T like to hike, and we've got lots of information on this on our hiking page.

All in all, the situation is lot better than you might expect from the world's most densely populated city!


air pollution

We are a family with 2 young children considering a move to Hong Kong. One big consideration for us is the level of air pollution. I have heard everything from it is the equivalent to smoking 8 packs of cigarettes a day to, depending on the day and location, it is no worse than any other major city. Just wondering what the conditions are like from the people who are currently living there. Also, any tips on best places to live that receive less of the smog? Thanks for your views and advice.

How bad is the Hong Kong air pollution?

It's got worse over the last 10 years, and it's definitely the thing I dislike most about living in Hong Kong, but it hasn't got to the stage it would make me think about moving. Our two children are 3 months old and 2 years 9 months old, and I haven't seen any problems I could trace back to air pollution.

The wind direction makes a huge difference. When it blows from the North, Hong Kong is definitely having a bad air day, as all the pollution from South China blows down to us. When the wind blows from the South (ie the open sea), the skies are very clear - you can see that in some of our banner photos. And in the Summer if there are days with no wind at all, then the smog can get nasty (I think many cities face this problem).

Where to live? The Tung Chung area around the airport seems to regularly appear in the high pollution readings, so I'd give that a miss. Living in the older built-up areas (eg Mong Kok) or on a low floor near any of the busy roads is obviously going to be a problem too, but then you probably won't be choosing them anyway. The Southern side of HK island (eg South Horizons) gets the best of the Southerly winds, and is probably the best place to live. We're in a highrise which is on the North side of HK island and quite open - it's ok too.


PS I hadn't heard the "equivalent to smoking 8 packs of cigarettes a day" line before. If it was true I think the HK tourist association would already be using it as a plus in their advertising to mainland visitors.

Air pollution

I’m with MrB on this one. I also loathe the air pollution – who doesn’t? – but it’s not affecting my life to a point where I would say it’s intolerable, or that I’d consider moving because of it.

I know there have been some high-profile cases of just this reaction recently. For example, an expatriate distance runner who competed internationally for Hong Kong made a big public pronouncement about the air pollution earlier this year, and is leaving for the purity of New Zealand. He claimed the air was actively harming his own health, and that of his children.

But I also think it’s very hard to pin down quantifiable health effects of pollution. There’s no arguing it’s good for you, obviously. But Hong Kong currently has the world’s fifth-best life expectancy, far ahead of the USA (#48), the UK (#38) and even, yes, New Zealand (#33). So there must be lots of other things we would need to worry about if we lived elsewhere!

Purely anecdotally, I had a lot of problems with chronic sinus/respiratory infections about 8-10 years ago. But even as the pollution has demonstrably worsened in the intervening period, I’ve gotten much better – go figure.

Oh, and there’s simply no way living in HK is equal to smoking 8 packs of cigarettes a day. That sounds like hyperbole or a misunderstanding of some sort to me.

I think MrB is right on the money with his perception that the air on the northern/western sides of HK is generally worse than that on the eastern/southern sides. But on days when it’s bad, it’s bad all over, and vice versa. I’m not sure I’d let this criterion be the deciding factor in where I chose to live here.

No hayfever

Something that's related - I used to get a runny nose during the Summer in the UK, but apart from a few sneezy days each Spring that hasn't come back while I've been here. I'm not sure if it is due to the pollution, higher humidity, different plants, sea-breezes...

Whatever the reason, it's been a good benefit.


air pollution

I spent 2 weeks in HK last fall with my toddler twins, considering a move, and it was the gruesome air that pretty much killed the momentum behind the idea. Still pondering it, but am hoping to see some progress first. Totalitarian states usually make the best case for the notion that if there's a will there's a way!

The air seemed decent on Lamma, though. Anyway, I remember hearing that cigarette comparison and I believe HK air was said to be like smoking 8 cigarettes a day, not 8 packs. Still, I thought if was horrendous ... and this comes from a New Yorker. The air here in NYC might have been nearly as bad at times when I was growing up in the 60s and 70s ... now I'd say it's a nonfactor, so I'd like to think there's hope for HK.

Hong Kong pollution - a satellite view

Google have recently updated their satellite images of Hong Kong. At least most of them. Unfortunately the new set seem to have been taken on a smoggy day. If you look at this view you'll see the old images on the left, and the new smoggy image on the right.


Walmart to the rescue?

As mentioned above, a North wind means hazy, polluted days for Hong Kong, as the dirty air from Guangdong blows our way. Could Walmart be the people to clear our skies?

The biggest energy user in South China is the manufacturing sector, all those factories churning out the ‘Made in China’ products for the world to buy. Since they use the most energy, they also generate the most pollution. Some pollution is produced indirectly, where they consume electricity from the grid which in turn comes from polluting power stations. But in many cases they generate pollution directly, burning oil or coal onsite to generate heat, electricity, or both for their own use. Up to 90% of Guangdong factories are reckoned to run some sort of 'back yard' generator.

How do we encourage these companies to choose the least-polluting fuels if they are generating their own energy? And however they get their energy, how to make sure they use it as efficiently as possible?

Rely on enlightened owners and managers?

Hong Kong is the biggest external investor in Guangdong’s manufacturing, meaning that many factories are owned and managed by Hong Kong people. Can we rely on their desire to give their families and children a pollution-free environment? Well… I guess the thinking goes along the lines of “If I work to become less polluting than my competitors, and that increases my prices and puts me out of business, how is THAT helping anyone?”

A big stick?

Could the Hong Kong government encourage local business owners to minimize pollution in their Guangdong factories? It doesn’t look likely. Yesterday’s policy address had tackling pollution as one of the priorities, but it only talked about some simple measures aimed at reducing locally produced pollution.

A big carrot?

Enter Walmart. I read a recent article that talks about what they are doing to become a greener company. They are not just looking at improvements they can make in their own stores, but at improvements they can make throughout their supply chain.

The article gives an example where a salmon fishing –boat captain who follows all the rules has problems competing with unregulated fisheries. This year, Walmart gave him hope when it announced they will only buy wild-caught salmon from fisheries that have been certified as sustainable. The section ends: “It's not just Alaskan fishermen who are talking. So are corn farmers in Iowa (who want to sell more ethanol through Wal-Mart), coffee growers in Brazil (who are being promised higher prices for their beans), and factory bosses in China (who are being told to cut their energy and fuel costs).”

Could this be the answer? What if  Walmart only purchase from factories that are certified to be low-polluters? When reducing pollution helps you win business from other dirtier competitors, it looks a lot more attractive to business owners than the thought of increased costs.

To be fair to Hong Kong business, there are companies and local business organisations that recognize the damage that their factories’ pollution causes in Hong Kong. One of their complaints is that even if they want to use less-polluting fuels, it can be impossible to buy them. Price-controls currently in place cause imbalances in the supply of certain types of fuel, encouraging the production and distribution of the cheaper, more polluting varieties.

Could Walmart’s plans help here too? If the Guangdong government takes steps to help its manufacturers reduce pollution, that can give them a competitive advantage over manufacturers from other countries, and from other regions in China when dealing with Walmart. Would the government be interested? An article in 2004 wrote: The world's largest retailer, Wal-Mart Stores Inc, says its inventory of stock produced in China is expected to hit US$18 billion this year, keeping the annual growth rate of over 20 per cent consistent over two years., and If Wal-Mart were an individual economy, it would rank as China's eighth-biggest trading partner, ahead of Russia, Australia and Canada," Xu said.

US$18 billion? Yep, I think they’d probably be interested to see how they can help.


 - Owning up to Responsibility for Manufacturing Contributions to the Pearl River Delta’s Poor Air Quality, - By Bill Barron, Simon Ng Ka-wing and Ben Lin Chubin, Institute for the Environment, HKUST (in co-operation with Civic Exchange)
 - Energy Supply and Fuels Supply in Guangdong: Impact on Air Quality in Hong Kong and Guangdong - By Christine Loh
 - Latest initiatives fail to clear air, The Standard
 - The green machine, Fortune
 - Wal-Mart's China inventory to hit US$18b this year, People's Daily


It's either gotten real worse. Or you guys just aren't exposed to it long enough. I was just there, for only a few days, and had to leave for health reasons.

My fiance is 17 from HK (I'm 19), and she has a non-malignant cancer, and heart disease. In her class that has 20 girls, 4 others also have breast cancer. AT 17! It's UN-NATURAL. Part of why we are getting married is because I know she will die if she stays there. Even her doctor agrees with me. Cancer and heart disease are major results of air pollution and she has both, and where I live it's unheard of, to have either at 17. I was a conservative who wasn't very anti-pollution until I went to HK saw it at it's worse, and can see it killing my fiance.

As for me, I had asthma as a child, but it left me as an adult, but literally, it was like being smothered all the time, as if my asthma had come back. ESPECIALLY roadside. Funny how while in the USA we worry about the humidity index, in HK we worry about the pollution index. There are two measurements, just regular HK, and then roadside. Roadside pollution is horrific. Don't walk to work, school, or any other area. Might as well have your kids drink mercury.

An update


I am considering to move to HK to work. I have found all the info that has been provided here useful when trying to figure out if I shall go or not. However, lately I have started to be concerned with the pollution. I have read some other bloggs that westerners have written and many of them complain about the polluted air. Some a lot.

Since I am used to rather clean air in my home country (Sweden) I am having second thoughts about HK. I am worried I will not like it at all due to the air. It makes me really sad since it has been a dream of mine for a long time now.

It would be very appreciated if any of you would like to give me an updated view of how you think things are now.

Best regards


Air pollution update


If I could change one thing about living in HK, it reducing the air pollution would be #1. When I visit my hometown in Wales, it really strikes me how clear the skies are (and how quiet it is too). So you'll definitely notice the difference if you move here, and I guess it will annoy you too.

I have the feeling it's got a little better over the last couple of years though. I'm not sure if that's just me getting used to it, if it was just luck with the wind direction in recent years, or if it's really getting better.

'Number of hours of reduced visibility' is used as one way to gauge whether air pollution is getting better or worse. If you look at the measurements from the Hong Kong Observatory (which experiences similar conditions to people living in Hong Kong or Kowloon) you can see 2004 & 5 were the worst, and that things were better in 2006 & 7. But you can also see that 2006 & 7 were still far worse than the 1990's, and that March 2008 was the worst March on record. So it'll take a couple more years before it's clear if we've reached a plateau or we're really on a downward (improving) trend.

Will it annoy you enough to ruin your time in Hong Kong? If you're planning to be here for a contract lasting 1-3 years, I don't think it's going to have any serious impact on your health in that time. There will be days when it's smoggy and miserable. But there are plenty of clear-sky days too, and Hong Kong has plenty of good points in its favour. I wouldn't miss the chance to live somewhere very different for a couple of years.

Regards, MrB

MrB, Thank you very much for


Thank you very much for your input. Due to my proffession I tend to read a lot in a different forum called pprune. The posts there are for some strange reason very often not that balanced and sometimes seem extremely biased. So it is a relief to read what all of you are saying here. You take up what is good as well as what is bad but don't seem to get carried away in either direction.

My intention has been to stay a little longer than 1-3 years but I suppose it is always possible to move again if the pollution bothers me and the air does not get better or even gets worse.

Once again, thanks a lot.


Air pollution

A, you're welcome. If you do decide to live here, I hope you'll write back in a few months time to let us know what you think about the pollution.

Regards, MrB

I too was considering a move

I too was considering a move to HK from the US. I have a one year old child. After spending a week in HK, I decided that the pollution was enough to not make me want to move there. I am sure there are places that don't bear the brunt as much, but I went to Stanley and I still thought the air was polluted. I am a fairly serious runner and am particularly sensitive to the air quality, so clean air is a major factor for me since I run outside every day for about an hour. That said, there are plenty of expat families there. As wonderful as HK may be for a variety of reasons, it just didn't feel like the right place for someone like me.


Just to note that it certainly has not got better.
Yesterday measured the worst pollution count on records,it was nasty to say the least. When my lease is up I'm off to the new territories.

Pollution yesterday

Yes, J, yesterday was a stinker, wasn't it? High temperatures around many parts of HK of 35-37, and then that pollution.

It was (and is, today as well) a classic typhoon-related scenario. There's yet another typhoon (i.e. 'Fung-Wong') that crossed Taiwan yesterday, and that's just landed in the eastern mainland. When typhoons follow that path, as they have with incredible frequency the past few years, we get the absolute worst weather HK has to offer: extreme heat, plus west or northwest winds bringing down a full helping of all the pollutants southern China has to offer.

Note, though, that living in the NT doesn't help at all in this kind of weather. The record pollution reading set yesterday was at Tap Mun, which is way to heck out in the northeastern part of Sai Kung. In other words, On a day like yesterday, the pollution has little to do with Hong Kong’s own pollutants; it’s all about what the wind brings us.

Ironically, as this article and series of updates by MrB shows, it’s the air quality in the urban areas of HK that may be improving, while in areas such as Tap Mun it does indeed seem to be getting worse.

Having said that, on other days, you'll generally do better in the NT with air quality, and there are other reasons for preferring living there as well!

 Mr Tall

stone age

I’ll say everyone contribute to this high level of pollution, not only the wind or factories. 

We have well developed public transport & the majority of the public ride on it.  This obviously helps reducing the level of pollution.  In the meantime, most households boost at least one unit of air-conditioner.  It means a heat exchange, bringing in the cool air & extracting the hot air.  If your window is right opposite to your neighbour’s air-conditioner, then you don’t want to open the window because you can feel the heat wave.  The newer residential buildings have lower clear storey, whereas the commercial buildings have cladding walls and windows can’t be opened.  They are designed to “can’t live without air-con”. 

Someone said “the only way to combat pollution is to cease all business operations, ban fossil fuel & electricity, then grow your own food.  Back to the stone age”.


Dig for Victory

This article has more to say about the ways to "tackle climate change" - grow your own food.  It reminds the older generation of the war years.  They grew their food because import was not possilbe.

Simply speaking, "waste not, want not".

I don't know anyone in HK

I don't know anyone in HK who has lung cancer. My dad worked in the most polluted block in Central for 28 years and he is still oh so healthy. I like the smog. *lol Where I am now, it is so clean and everyone gets 4, 5 allergies.

Air Pollution in Hong Kong

November 29th 2008 - I have just returned to the UK from a 10-day business trip to HK. The air quality was worrying. Even on bright cloudless days, a white mist-like veil envelops the area and the horizon could not be seen in any direction. Many Chinese can be seen wearing masks or simply covering their noses with a tissue. Standing at the Star Ferry terminal close to the Harbour Plaza Hotel at the eastern end of Kowloon, looking across to Hong Kong island, it was impossible to see the Peak. That's a distance of no more than 3 miles! I recalled from a visit 7 years ago that taxi drivers were to have been offered a subsidy to change their diesel engines from diesel to LPG. Last Tuesday a particularly articulate cab-driver told me (in excellent English) that no such grants had been forthcoming but that, in fact many had changed their fuel to LPG and it did seem that there was less fuel exhaust smell in the atmosphere than at the time of my previous visit. But, he went on, vehicle exhaust pollution was not the real problem. For the real cause one had to look to "mainland China" and the "unrestricted outpourings of pollution from industry" which he explained, drifted south on the prevailing wind. Obviously the issue was close to my new friend's heart: pointing out the many new commercial tower blocks being built (on the site of newly-demolished older buildings) he said that these would represent a vast increase in the amount of air-conditioned officxe space. particularly in Causeway Bay and Central. A good thing surely, I suggested, for those who will work in these enormous blocks. Maybe, he repled, but the air-conditioning plants create heat - Hong Kong is now a "hot island". Heat rises, he explained patiently, and the effect is that in warm weather a very large column of hot air rises from the city and this convection sucks-in cooler air, which most of the time, is the heavily-polluted air coming from the north. He was the only taxi-driver to whom I gave a tip during my stay.

Finally, whilst there I had the opportunity to talk to a senior representative of the Hong Kong Government over dinner. "The problem for us here", he commented, "is that too many people smoke".

Re: Air Pollution in Hong Kong

One only has to look to the Mainland for the cause of Hong Kong's pollution. When winds are light from the west and northwest, pollutants trapped in the atmosphere cause haze and low visibility conditions to exist in the Pearl River Delta areas and particularly at the Airport and surrounding environs. The pollution is further exacerbated in the city with urban convection. When winds are easterly to south-easterly and depending on wind speed, visibility levels tend to be slightly better in Sai Kung as opposed to Tung Chung.

To be fair, the masks are

To be fair, the masks are generally worn by people who are sick so as to avoid spreading diseases. This is a remnant of the SARS scare that has become part of everyday life.

Overall though, I would say you're spot on!

Re: Air Pollution in Hong Kong


As moddsey notes, your cab driver was right about the source of the worst of our air pollution, but off the mark on a couple of other points.

The government did offer grants to taxi drivers to change from diesel to LPG. That offer ran from 2000 to 2004.

I don't think the convection has a great effect on the source of our pollution. Any slight updraft caused by the heat from airconditioners would be overwhelmed by the effects of the wind direction. The time of maximum aircon use is the summer, which happens to be the time of the year we get lowest air pollution levels. Summer is also the time of year the wind is more likely to blow from the south and so blow in clean air from the sea.

Although you found the air pollution bad, the air this November has seemed clearer to me than for several years. Hopefully we'll see a continuing downward trend in the BSI.


November Weather

Peter - you should have stayed a few more days.  On Saturday, 29 November, we had one of the clearest days I've seen in Hong Kong for a good long while.  Yesterday wasn't quite so good but certainly one of the better days.  I did end up wishing I'd done the Harlech/Lugard Road walk on Saturday instead of yesterday.

Sitting outside at the Peak Lookout in the early evening, I was gifted with an astounding sunset.  It even made up for the horrendous prices they charge.

November weather; pollution

Yes, to follow up on some of the comments here in response to Peter's cabbie lesson on pollution.

Both this past Friday and Saturday were spectacular; I can't recall clearer autumn weather in all my years here. Yesterday and today have seen the return of some haze, but it's not too bad. I'm looking out my office window at the moment and still picking out lots of visual detail on Tate's Cairn, which is several miles away. In really bad pollution I can't see the Nine Dragons at all. I'm interested, in fact, in why the air's so good this autumn -- it seems inexplicably better than in recent years.

The cabbie's invocation of the 'heat island' effect made me wonder if he'd been reading too many articles about that school that wants to expand into a corner of Kowloon Park. This was a huge controversy earlier this autumn. The argument against it was that it would require the felling of about 30 or 40 trees, and that this would exacerbate the 'heat island' effect in Tsim Sha Tsui.

Now, this is indisputably true -- in the most ridiculously literal sense. Trees do make for cooler ground temperatures than buildings and roads. But the effect of 40 trees on a city the size of Hong Kong is functionally zero; you're talking about such a miniscule percentage of the surface area here as to be practically meaningless.

This is not to say the school should have been given permission to knock the trees down; there are other meaningful arguments against it.

But the articles/letters to the editor I read at that time communicated an almost total misunderstanding of urban heat islands/global warming/etc. Yes, there's no doubt that HK is an enormous heat island. But the effects of heat islands are mostly to maintain artificially high nighttime temperatures, since roads and buildings absord daytime sun and heat, then release them gradually overnight.

I notice this in spades when I go jogging. There's a very large area of reclaimed land next to my housing estate; at the moment it's covered in grass, scrub and small trees. When I run past it in the early evenings, it's like running past an open fridge; a steady cool breeze is pushing down off it as it rapidly cools. Then, later on, as I run past and through a couple of other housing estates, it's just the opposite -- it's like an open oven, as I can feel warmth radiating from the tarmac and masonry. 

The thing about heat islands is that, well, they don't really do much harm, since they're not connected to the CO2 effects in global warming models. In fact it's arguable they're one of the main distorting factors that make it difficult to actually assess how much of global warming is truly global, and how much is just formerly-rural temperature measuring stations that are now urban and hence register much higher than they used to, especially at night. (I would argue this is certainly an issue at the HK Observatory, as it's about as urbanized a station as you're going to find).

Anyway, I've gone on a bit longer than I had planned, but this is an issue I'm quite interested in!