Environment & Economy By Edited by Peter Tremblay 220 Views

Air pollution: Dhaka's silent killer



About 10 years ago Muhammad Motin was a farmer in a remote village in northern Bangladesh. The plot of land Motin had was not large enough for him to support his family which included his three sons. In search of a better life, he uprooted his family and they migrated to Dhaka, the country’s capital. His family found a place in an overcrowded slum in Gabtoli near the city’s major inter-district bus terminal. The now 49-year-old pulled rickshaws for a living and he made better money than before, but the work in the polluted streets began to affect his lungs.

“I have visited doctors five to six times a year over the past five years,” Motin told ucanews.com. “I have coughing and breathing problems,” he said.   Doctors gave him medicine and advised him to wear a face mask to protect him from dust and polluted air. He also took the doctor’s advice to cease smoking. Despite adhering to his doctor’s advice, Motin continued to suffer daily from respiratory problems which affected his ability to work to support his family. “It seems my suffering will never end,” he said. 

Muhammad Motin, a rickshaw puller, wearing a face mask to escape Dhaka’s air pollution. (Photo by Stephan Uttom/ucanews.com)   

Abdul Baten*, 40, a traffic police sergeant in the Mirpur area of Dhaka has had to deal with similar issues. “For 15 years I have been doing this job and I have been suffering from skin diseases and lung problems for years,” Baten told ucanews.com. The policeman says sometimes his coughing is so bad he cannot sleep at night. “With the extreme coughing I visited a doctor who found that I had tuberculosis. He prescribed me medicine that I need to take for the long-term,” said the Muslim father of two. Baten said his skin problems are also a result of working outside in the city. “My whole body starts itching when I get exposed to dust while on duty,” he said. “But I cannot quit working as I am the only breadwinner of the family and I have to pay tuition fees of my two children.

I am totally helpless.” These are just two cases of how pollution can affect the inhabitants of Dhaka, a city ranked fifth worst in the world in terms of air quality according to the latest air quality index (AQI) put out by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. According to the State of Global Air report 2018, the city’s air consists of hazardous levels of common six particle pollutants — PM 2.5, PM 10, nitrous oxide, sulfur oxide, carbon monoxide, and ozone.

Smoke from brick kilns, mills and factories, emission from motor vehicles using fuel with sulfur, construction work and the open-air dumping of waste have been cited as the main causes of Dhaka's air pollution. Five of the top 10 diseases that cause death in Bangladesh are linked to air pollution, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Dhaka is also among the top 50 out of 3,000 cities with the highest concentration of PM 2.5, the most efficient and potent killer particle pollutant, said WHO. During winter, the city’s daily PM2.5 level increases to over 200 micrograms per cubic meter — eight times the level considered safe by the WHO. In 2016, Bangladesh Health Ministry sponsored research estimated that more than 100,000 deaths across the country were linked to exposure to PM 2.5. Dr. M.A. Matin, secretary-general of leading environmental group Bangladesh Poribesh Andolon (BAPA), said that air pollution has long been a problem for the country.

“A study carried by the UK government’s Department for International Development (DFID) in 2000 found that most deaths in health institutes across Bangladesh were caused from air pollution,” Matin said.   “This was an unprecedented finding as most people had perceived water borne diseases or water pollution were responsible for most deaths,” he said. “The study was done 19 years ago, and the situation has since worsened. Today, it is an established fact that air pollution is a silent but deadly killer for mortality and morbidity in Bangladesh.” Dr. Edward Pallab Rozario, secretary of Catholic Bishops’ Commission for Healthcare, said air pollution affects some groups more than others. “Children suffer from respiratory problems, pneumonia, loss of appetite and vomiting. Pregnant women exposed to air pollution risk having a miscarriage,” were two of the examples that Dr. Rozario gave. “All in all it is a fatal crisis for us,” said Dr. Rozario who heads health programs at Catholic charity Caritas.     

The government is trying hard to improve air quality through various initiatives, Tajminur Rahman, a deputy director from the government’s Department of Environment. “Battling air pollution is a gigantic task because there were many driving factors,” Rahman told ucanews.com. He said the government often remains helpless amid pressure from lobby groups linked to the business community as well as a serious lack of awareness among people over air pollution. BAPA’s Matin said he refuses to accept the government’s excuse of helplessness over the issue. “Our government seems to be following the Chinese model of development, so it says if we want development we need to endure pollution,” Matin said. “China is a wealthy country and it can fix pollution after development work is completed, but we don’t have this recovery capacity,” he said. “We want development but not at the expense of environment and health.”