Current and former government environment advisers issued an open letter on Friday asking the administration to investigate the health and environmental risks posed by the use of tear gas during the ongoing social unrest.
More than 9,000 rounds of tear gas have been fired since anti-government protests started in June sparked by a now-withdrawn extradition bill. The use of tear gas is estimated to have affected 88 per cent of the city’s residents. However, the government has so far refused to release information about the composition of tear gas, sparking widespread health concerns.
“We felt concerned about the way tear gas was being used, so we started researching,” said Dr Billy Hau Chi-hang, who was a member of the council between 2013 and 2018 and a signatory to the letter.
“The picture is clear – in many countries where tear gas is used according to safety guidelines, there are no long-term effects. But, there are significant health risks if tear gas is used in narrow spaces or in large amounts on the same street,” he said.
Hau said it was not their intention to help the government or protesters. “The government has a responsibility to tell people how to handle [tear gas] if it is using so much of it in an urban setting.”
The letter was signed by 14 current and past members of the Advisory Council on the Environment, including former chairman Professor Lam Kin-che and current members Professors Albert Lee and Irene Lo Man-chi.
The council advises the government on environmental protection and nature conservation and is made up of academics, businessmen, professionals and members of various green groups.
The letter also urged the government to issue or reinstate safety guidelines related to the use of tear gas and other riot control agents, prohibit the direct use of tear gas canisters and grenades and pepper spray on people’s faces, and issue clear instructions to frontline workers including police, firefighters, reporters, cleaning workers and protesters on how to clean and dispose of their clothing after exposure to riot control agents.
The government should also release the composition of tear gas for medical reasons, Hau said. “Each manufacturer has a different formula and medical workers should know the compositions of tear gas to be able to treat patients effectively.”
On Wednesday, Secretary for Food and Health Sophia Chan Siu-chee said there was no proof tear gas posed any health risk and police could not disclose its composition due to its “sensitive nature”.
But the government’s reluctance to publicly divulge the information has led to speculation over whether tear gas could release toxic gases as it burns, including dioxins and cyanide, particularly after a Stand News reporter was diagnosed with chloracne, a skin condition caused by dioxins.
But, Secretary for the Environment Wong Kam-sing has also dismissed the claims, saying the main sources of dioxin emissions were from burning trash, shops and cars. Protesters in Hong Kong have often set fire to trash to build roadblocks, and to shops which are thought to have links to mainland China.
Hau said the council members were not convinced by the government’s reasoning. “Tear gas only has one function, which is to disperse protesters. No matter which ingredients are used, the effect is the same, the only difference is the toxicity,” he said.
“We hope the government will listen to our demand and not overreact to it. We have a responsibility to voice our concern.”
In a letter to the Post, former assistant director at the Environmental Protection Department Raymond Chan Hung called on the government to test air quality in areas where tear gas had been used. “I urge the Environmental Protection Department’s principal adviser on air quality matters to deploy resources to collect samples and then analyse the composition of the tear gas emissions across Hong Kong over the past few months,” Chan wrote.
“It should then inform the public of the results of their analysis, including how safe these chemicals are according to international standards,” he said.
This article Environmental advisers call on Hong Kong government to issue clear guidelines on the use of tear gas first appeared on South China Morning Post