Hazardous air pollution reduces life expectancy by eight years in Bangladesh

Dhaka, once surrounded by trees, is now a megacity full of concretes. Image via Flickr by ASaber91. CC BY 2.0.

Dhaka, once surrounded by trees, is now a megacity full of concretes. Image via Flickr by ASaber91. CC BY 2.0.

The inhabitants of Dhaka, Bangladesh's capital, had a very difficult January as the air quality was hazardous for nine days, the most in the past seven years. An Air Quality Index (AQI) score of 50 or below represents good air quality, 201 to 300 is Very Unhealthy. A score of over 300 is marked as hazardous air quality which may have widespread effects among the general population and may lead to moderate to severe respiratory symptoms in members of sensitive groups.

Air pollution is a longstanding problem in Dhaka that may only be worsening. Studies show that the megacity's residents regularly inhale severely polluted air, reducing their normal life expectancy by an average of seven to eight years.

In Bangladesh, January is known for its poor air quality, due to the lack of rain. The Atmospheric Pollution Study Center at Stamford University reported that in 2017, there were five days in January with disastrous air pollution Between 2017–2022, the number of days with disastrous air pollution has only increased, starting from four in 2017 to eight in 2022.

Why is Dhaka's air quality so bad?

A significant portion of the air pollution in Dhaka is generated by three sources — traditional brick kilns, dust particles in the air during the winter season, and exhaust fumes from vehicles.

More than a thousand traditional brick kilns in the suburbs of Dhaka create a significant amount of air pollution. Moreover, industrial fumes and waste, mismanagement of solid waste, burning of trash and vast construction initiatives throughout the city all add to the air pollution.

The Air Quality Research Center of the Department of Chemistry at Dhaka University has studied the sources of air pollution in Dhaka. According to them, dust and smog make up half of Dhaka's air pollution. The smog is composed of smoke and small particles from biomass such as straw, wood, and chaff. The dust is generated by construction sites and air pollution from aging vehicles.

Many feel that the mega construction works like the Dhaka Metro Rail system has also increased air pollution in the city. Image via Wikipedia by Selim Khandoker. CC BY-SA 4.0.

Many feel that the mega construction works like the Dhaka Metro Rail system has also increased air pollution in the city. Image via Wikipedia by Selim Khandoker. CC BY-SA 4.0.

During the winter season construction increases as there is less rain. However, mismanaged digging of soil and poor disposal of building waste contribute to the increase in dust particles in the air.

Also, the widespread burning of garbage contributes to air pollution, as UNICEF Bangladesh tweeted:

News daily The Daily Star tweeted that air pollution levels are high in areas where major construction work is occurring, most affecting those who are stuck in the traffic on their daily commute:

“Living in Dhaka is becoming very difficult”

Dhaka is home to approximately twenty million people, making it the fourth-largest city in South Asia in terms of population. Since Bangladesh achieved independence in 1971, Dhaka has grown exponentially, with numerous infrastructure and urbanization projects being implemented. This has encouraged people from villages and other cities to come and settle in Dhaka. To make the city more livable, the government has initiated several major development projects such as a metro rail, subway, and the Dhaka Elevated Expressway.

Economist Anu Muhammad sees Dhaka's air pollution as a result of this “development,” as he discussed in a Fcebook post:

যে ধারায় ‘উন্নয়ন’ হচ্ছে মানুষের এই বিষাক্ত যাত্রা তারই ফল। বিশুদ্ধ নিরাপদ বাতাস, নিরাপদ পানি, নিরাপদ খাবার, নিরাপদ জীবন সবই এখন ধরাছোয়ার বাইরে চলে যাচ্ছে। শুধু থাকছে ‘উন্নয়নের’ পরিসংখ্যান!

The inhabitants of Dhaka have been set on a malicious trail as a consequence of the current trend of “development.” Fresh and secure air, fresh water, safe food and safe life are all now out of reach. All that is left are the “development” statistics!

Syeda Rizwana Hasan, the Chief Executive of Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (BELA) who was named as one of the 40 Environmental Heroes of the World by TIME magazine, and received the Goldman Environmental Prize (2009) also attributed Dhaka's air pollution to unplanned development:

সরকার চাইলে উন্নয়ন প্রকল্পগুলো জবাবদিহির আওতায় এনে বায়ুদূষণ কমাতে পারতো। গাছ লাগিয়ে, জলাশয়গুলো রক্ষা করেও বায়ুদূষণ নিয়ন্ত্রণ করা যেত। বায়ুদূষণ মানুষের জীবনের অধিকারের ওপর হস্তক্ষেপ করছে, মরণের দিকে ঠেলে দিচ্ছে, মানুষকে কঠিন কঠিন অসুখ দিচ্ছে। এদিকে আমরা ন্যূনতম মনোনিবেশ করছি না।

The government could have reduced air pollution by making development projects accountable. Air pollution could also be controlled by planting trees and protecting water bodies. Air pollution is interfering with people's right to life, causing serious illness to people and leading to death. We are not mindful of it.

Climate activist Farzana Faruk Jhumu mentions on Twitter that “Living in Dhaka is getting harder every day”:

Pollution leading to diseases

The prolonged and persistent air pollution has lasting impacts on people in the form of diseases and deteriorating mental health. The number of patients suffering from respiratory diseases in public and private hospitals has increased. The citizens of the city are also seeing increased vector-borne diseases like dengue fever and deteriorating mental health among many.

In November 2022, the World Bank published a research report titled “Breathing Heavy: New Evidence on Air Pollution and Health in Bangladesh.” According to their research, about eighty-eight thousand people die every year due to ailments related to air pollution in Bangladesh.

Although the Department of Environment has campaigned its “Air Pollution Prevention Guidelines” by identifying the reasons behind air pollution, no major initiative of the government is visible to mitigate the pollution except for sprinkling water on the roads to prevent dust from being airborne.

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