Bangladesh experienced only one day per week of good air quality on average last year, elevating the country’s pollution issues to a level similar to South Asian neighbours India and Pakistan, official data has revealed.
In 2016, Bangladesh experienced 51 days of “extremely vulnerable” air quality, according to the Department of Environment (DoE) figures.
There were also 54 “very unhealthy” and 30 “unhealthy” days, 67 “caution” and 88 “moderate” days, and only 59 days where the air quality was deemed to be “good”. There was no date available for the remaining 17 days of last year.
Bangladesh faces a massive increase in air pollution during the October to March dry seasons, with February the worst month.
According to experts, this is caused by brick burning in kilns around that time of the year in addition to continual exhaust fumes from the over congested roads.
In Bangladesh, air quality falls mostly due to the high prevalence of fine particle (PM2.5) and coarse dust (PM10), which are the main pollutants.
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PM refers to atmospheric particulate matter, a measurement of the diameter of particles in the air in micrometres. As a comparison, an average strand of human hair measures 100-140 micrometres – 10 times the size of dust and 40 times bigger than the fine particulate matter.
According to the State of Global Air 2017 (SG), India and Bangladesh have experienced some of the largest increases in PM2.5, with a total of 122,400 deaths in Bangladesh in 2015 alone attributable to this fine particle pollution.
Earlier this year, the Dhaka Tribune reported that PM2.5 and PM10 levels in the capital are 8-13 times higher than what experts deem safe. In the global context, WHO says Dhaka ranks 44th in terms PM2.5 pollution, and 71st in coarse dust pollution (PM10).
Other pollutants such as carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, ozone, and sulfur dioxide do not cross the standard level of risk, according to Clean Air and Sustainable Environment (CASE) – a project by the DoE.
In 2015, the DoE assessed the composition of PM2.5 in the air of Dhaka and found that 58% was attributable to brick kilns, 10% to motor vehicles, 8% to road dust, 8% to fugitive lead emissions, 8% to soil dust and 7% to biomass burning.
“The state of air pollution in the country, especially in Dhaka, is the worst. There is dust everywhere,” General Secretary of Bangladesh Poribesh Andolon (BAPA) Dr Abdul Matin said.
“You can see new cars on the road every day, and new brick factories are built without any regulation. In terms controlling the level of environment pollution the government has failed.”
Breath in, choke out
The World Bank (WB) has estimated that a 20% reduction in exposure to urban air pollution worldwide would save 1,200 to 3,500 lives and avoid 80 to 230 million cases of illness each year.
According to WHO, PM10 and PM2.5 can penetrate and lodge deep inside the lungs, and chronic exposure to particles contributes to the risk of developing cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, as well as of lung cancer.
Among the top 10 causes of death in Bangladesh, five of them – lung cancer (13%), lower respiratory infections (7%), chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (7%), ischemic heart disease (6%), and stroke (5%) – are related to air pollution.
According to the National Institute of Diseases of Chest and Hospital (NIDCH), nearly seven million people in Bangladesh suffer from asthma. Over half of these are children.
Former director of NIDCH, Dr AKM Mostafa Hossain, told the Dhaka Tribune that respiratory diseases increase every year during the dry season.
“The patients are affected by chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asthma, pneumonia, obstructive lung disease, bronchitis, lung cancer, lower respiratory infection, and other airway diseases,” said Mostafa.
According to ICDDRB, around 50,000 children die of pneumonia every year and an estimated 80,000 children aged under five are admitted to hospital with virus-associated acute respiratory illnesses. The true number of cases, however, is likely to be much higher.
What is being done?
The Brick Manufacturing and Brick Kilns Establishment (Control) Act which came into force on July 1, 2014, set a two-year deadline for the brick kilns to convert, modernize and relocate.
“Bangladesh is one of the few countries which has strict laws for controlling vehicle [emissions] and brick factories, but these will only work when we have a more rigorous system in place to control pollution at the source level,” said Dr Niaz Ahmed Khan, the former country representative of Bangladesh at the International Union for Conservation Nature (IUCN).
Niaz – also a former chair of development studies of Dhaka University – said at least 24,000 vehicles take to the streets of Dhaka every day.
“We have a fundamental problem. The government is approaching the matter on an ad hoc basis [but] defining contingency cannot be a substitute for a systematic governance,” he said.
Director of CASE and joint secretary of Ministry of Environment and Forests, Dr SM Munjurul Hannan Khan, said the government monitors industrial activities in an attempt to limit air pollution.
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“The government has established strong monitoring of brick manufacturing, and brick kilns are regulated under the law,” he said.
“We have an online monitoring system. We analyse the air quality data and if we find any area is being polluted, we start drives to immediately take action against those who break the law. Moreover, environment friendly technology is being used in different brick kilns such as Zig-Zag, or Tunnel Kiln.”
Golam Saroar, scientific officer (modelling) of CASE Project of DoE, told the Dhaka Tribune that compared to other Asian countries or cities, Dhaka is in a good position.
“The government has taken different measures to control air quality such as paved roads, introduced CNG run vehicles, and took action against old vehicles –otherwise the air quality would have been five times worse than now,” he said.
Emphasizing on how Bangladesh can further curb air pollution, Abu Naser, chairman of Poribesh Bachao Andolon, said: “Good quality lubricant and fuels for vehicles, and examining their fitness regularly can also control air pollution.”
Abu said the government needs to be stricter in terms of implementing the law.
“Construction materials need to be covered properly, and proper planning should be done while road construction – if they do it at night, that would cause less harm,” he said.