Background: In July, 1990, a restriction was introduced over one weekend that required all power plants and road vehicles in Hong Kong to use fuel oil with a sulphur content of not more than 0.5% by weight. This intervention led to an immediate fall in ambient sulphur dioxide (SO2). We assessed the effect of this intervention on mortality over the next 5 years.
Methods: Changes in trends in deaths were estimated by a Poisson regression model of deaths each month between 1985 and 1995. Changes in seasonal deaths immediately after the intervention were measured by the increase in deaths from warm to cool season. We also estimated the annual proportional change in number of deaths before and after the intervention. We used age-specific death rates to estimate person-years of life gained.
Findings: In the first 12 months after introduction of the restriction, a substantial reduction in seasonal deaths was noted, followed by a peak in the cool-season death rate between 13 and 24 months, returning to the expected pattern during years 3-5. Compared with predictions, the intervention led to a significant decline in the average annual trend in deaths from all causes (2.1%; p=0.001), respiratory (3.9%; p=0.0014) and cardiovascular (2.0%; p=0.0214) diseases, but not from other causes. The average gain in life expectancy per year of exposure to the lower pollutant concentration was 20 days (females) to 41 days (males).
Interpretation: 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 pollution has immediate and long-term health benefits.