‘Immediate And Long-term Health Benefits’ From Reduction In Sulphur Emissions

Reducing the sulphur content of pollutants can have a substantial impact in reducing death from respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, conclude authors of a study in this week’s issue of THE LANCET which describes the effect of a public-health initiative in Hong Kong.

A change in law to restrict sulphur emissions was introduced in Hong Kong in July 1990; all power plants and road vehicles had to use fuel oil with a sulphur content restricted to not more than 0·5% by weight. This intervention led to an immediate fall in ambient sulphur dioxide concentration.

Anthony Johnson Hedley and colleagues from the University of Hong Kong and St. George’s Hospital Medical School, London, assessed the effect of this intervention on death from various causes in Hong Kong in the first five years after the sulphur-emissions restriction was introduced, providing comparisons with mortality data for the five years before the law change.

The decrease in ambient sulphur dioxide concentrations after the intervention led to a decline in the average annual trend in deaths from all causes of around 2%. The greatest impact of the policy change was a reduction in deaths from respiratory disease of nearly 5% and a 2% reduction in deaths from cardiovascular disease. In terms of increased survival, the intervention was estimated to result in a 20-day lifetime increase for women and 40 days increased life expectancy on average for men.

Anthony Hedley comments: “Pollution resulting from sulphur-rich fuels has an effect on death rates, especially respiratory and cardiovascular deaths. The outcome of the Hong Kong intervention provides direct evidence that control of this source of pollution has immediate and long-term health benefits.”

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