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LCQ4: Regulation of refrigerants

     Following is a question by the Hon Lo Wai-kwok and a reply by the Secretary for the Environment, Mr Wong Kam-sing, in the Legislative Council today (June 17):


     The Office of The Ombudsman has pointed out in its Direct Investigation Report on the Safety Regulation of Eco-friendly Refrigerants (the Report) published last month that in 2013, an explosion occurred and a fire broke out in the air-conditioning plant room of a restaurant in Ma On Shan during the repair of the air-conditioning systems, injuring 20 persons. The incident might have been caused by the use of unsuitable and flammable refrigerants for the relevant air-conditioning systems. The Report has also pointed out that the use of flammable refrigerants on unsuitable air-conditioning systems involves a degree of risks. However, the three government departments concerned (i.e. the Electrical and Mechanical Services Department, the Fire Services Department and the Labour Department) all consider that this issue does not fall within their respective ambits of regulation. In this connection, will the Government inform this Council:

(1) whether it has, in response to the aforesaid incident, reviewed the existing mechanism for regulating the safety of refrigerants and explored the establishment of a uniform mechanism to rationalise the present situation under which different government departments are responsible for regulating the different aspects of refrigerants; if it has, of the details; if not, the reasons for that;

(2) as the Report has pointed out that new-generation refrigerants that are more flammable but more eco-friendly are getting more commonly used in places outside Hong Kong, and some advertisements on the Internet also promote such refrigerants to Hong Kong users, whether the authorities have, in response to this trend, sought to understand the regulatory arrangements adopted by other places for flammable refrigerants, including import and export management, safety requirements for installation and repair, training of air-conditioning technicians, etc.; if they have, of the details; if not, the reasons for that; and

(3) as some traditional refrigerants have to be phased out according to the timetables set out in the Montreal Protocol, whether the authorities will cooperate with the relevant industries to formulate a list of compliant refrigerants for convenient selection by the public and to step up publicity on the safety of refrigerants among employees in the relevant industries and the public; if they will, of the details; if not, the reasons for that?



     Refrigerants generally refer to substances which produce cooling effect through its physical properties. The substances that are applied as refrigerants have been changing in tandem with technological developments. Depending on their compositions, such substances may contain other properties which may, for example, have implications on safety, health and the environment. The Government's existing regulatory system is to apply appropriate regulatory requirements to the substances on the basis of their composition. Some refrigerants are regulated by the Dangerous Goods Ordinance (DGO). If the composition of a substance meets the definition of "gas" under the Gas Safety Ordinance (GSO), appropriate provisions in the GSO may be applied to regulate such substance. Information about substances being applied as refrigerants is generally set out in the data plates of air-conditioning systems and the material safety data sheets. Most refrigerants are not liquefied petroleum gas (LPG).  

     Legislations regulating the safety and environmental matters of refrigerants are set out below.

     The DGO stipulates for Hong Kong the framework for controlling dangerous goods on land and at sea and is enforced by the Fire Services Department (FSD) and the Marine Department, etc. Section 3 of the DGO provides that the Ordinance shall apply to all explosives, compressed gases, and other substances giving off inflammable vapours, substances which become dangerous by interaction with water or air, substances liable to spontaneous combustion or of a readily combustible nature, etc. Though section 6(2) of the Ordinance also provides that the Ordinance is not applicable to any dangerous goods which are LPG within the meaning of the GSO.

     The GSO regulates gas safety matters to ensure the safety of importation, manufacture, storage, transport, supply and use of town gas, LPG and natural gas. The Ordinance is enforced by the Electrical and Mechanical Services Department (EMSD). "Gas" is defined as town gas; LPG; natural gas; or any mixture of such gases. The EMSD may invoke the applicable provisions on regulation of gases under the GSO to regulate refrigerants that fall within such definition.

     The Factory and Industrial Undertakings Ordinance and the Occupational Safety and Health Ordinance (OSHO) are enforced by the Labour Department (LD). They do not regulate the use of refrigerants but require contractors/employers to, before the commencement of any maintenance and repair work of air-conditioning systems, assess the risk including the characteristics of the refrigerants involved, and formulate and implement appropriate safety measures based on the results of the risk assessments.

     Regarding the fire incident at a restaurant in Ma On Shan in 2013 that was caused by modifications to an existing air-conditioning system, the FSD has successfully prosecuted the relevant party under the DGO for storage of dangerous goods without a licence and the use of gas cylinder without approval. The relevant party was fined $22,000. The LD has successfully prosecuted the employer who was fined $35,000 in total, for failing to provide employees with a safe system of work for transferring flammable refrigerants as required under the OSHO.

     The purpose of the Ozone Layer Protection Ordinance (OLPO) is to give effect to Hong Kong's international obligations under the 1985 Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer and the 1987 Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer. The OLPO is enforced by the Environmental Protection Department (EPD). It prohibits the manufacture of substances that deplete the ozone layer, controls the import and export of such substances through the registration and licensing systems, and phases out eventually such substances according to the timeframe set out under the Montreal Protocol. Non-ozone-depleting refrigerants do not fall under the control of the OLPO.

     The replies to the above three questions are as follows:

(1) Existing laws of Hong Kong can be applied to regulate the safety and environmental matters of substances being used as refrigerants. Relevant bureaux and enforcement departments will review and monitor the adoption of refrigerants from time to time, with a view to making continuous improvement to the regulatory mechanisms. Relevant departments will delineate clearly their respective regulatory and enforcement responsibilities as recommended by the Office of The Ombudsman.

(2) The hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) controlled under the OLPO and the Montreal Protocol are often used as refrigerants and are being phased out. Hydroflurocarbon (HFC) refrigerants are common replacements. They are non-flammable and are not subject to statutory control or the phase-out programme, and hence fully comply with the relevant safety and environmental statutory requirements.  

     There is no sign to show that air-conditioning manufacturers have stopped the production of air-conditioning equipment using HFC refrigerants. Domestic air-conditioners available in the local market do not use flammable refrigerants, and there is no information suggesting that the local market will turn to use flammable refrigerants.

(3) Refrigerants that are not ozone-depleting substance are not controlled under the OLPO, and thus the EPD has not maintained a list for such refrigerants.

     HFCs are commonly used in Hong Kong. They are non-flammable and are not being phased out under the OLPO. They fully comply with the relevant safety and environmental statutory requirements. Air-conditioning manufacturers will choose the appropriate refrigerants having regard to various factors including the prevailing technological development, the system design, respective legal requirements of the targeted markets, etc. Users should install and apply air-conditioning system according to the manuals provided by manufacturers, and should also adopt the prescribed refrigerants.  

     While there is no market trend for using flammable refrigerants in Hong Kong, relevant departments have strengthened co-ordination and collaboration with a view to monitoring the development of flammable refrigerants in a more focused manner, promoting public education and publicity for the public and air-conditioning trade, and advising the trade not to adopt flammable refrigerants for the avoidance of accidents.

     Thank you, President.

Ends/Wednesday, June 17, 2015
Issued at HKT 15:41


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