Breathing in poison | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, October 21, 2020 / LAST MODIFIED: 10:04 AM, October 21, 2020

Breathing in poison

1,73,500 died in Bangladesh last year as air pollution turns deadly

Air pollution led to 1,73,500 deaths in Bangladesh last year, says a global report as experts find the country's air becoming increasingly poisonous in the absence of effective measures to control the release of pollutants. 

The report titled "State of Global Air 2020" also places air pollution at fourth among all major mortality risk factors worldwide, surpassed by high blood pressure, tobacco use, and poor diet.

And it caused 6.7 million deaths across the globe last year.

The report, due to be released today by the US-based Health Effects Institute and Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, found South Asia to be the most polluted region in the world in terms of air.

It put Bangladesh among the top 10 countries with the highest outdoor PM2.5 levels in 2019, according to a researcher involved with the study.

The previous report, released in 2017, said air pollution led to 1,23,000 deaths in Bangladesh that year.

It mentioned that life expectancy in Bangladesh would have seen the highest expected gain of nearly 1.3 years if the air pollution level met the World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines.

According to the latest study, more than 2.1 million people died due to air pollution in South Asia last year -- including 16,70,000 in India, 2,35,700 in Pakistan and 42,100 in Nepal.

India, Pakistan and Nepal are among the ten countries with the highest outdoor PM2.5 levels.

PM2.5 -- or particulate matter 2.5 -- refers to the pollutants, which are tiny particles that reduce visibility and cause the air to appear hazy when levels are elevated. These include both organic and inorganic particles, such as dust, pollen, soot, smoke, and liquid droplets.

In Bangladesh, Pakistan and India, 100 percent of the population live in areas where PM2.5 levels are higher than that in the WHO Air Quality Guideline; it is 98 percent in Nepal, according to the report.

In the first-ever comprehensive analysis of air pollution's global impact on newborns, the study found that outdoor and household particulate matter contributed to the deaths of nearly 500,000 infants in their first month of life.

"Nearly two-thirds of the infant deaths are linked to use of household burning of solid fuels, hitting hardest in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa," the report said.

In Bangladesh, 20 percent of all neonatal deaths are linked to air pollution which accounted for the deaths of 10,500 infants. Among the neonatal deaths, 62 percent is attributable to household air pollution.

The major sources of the pollution, as per the study, are household solid fuels, dust from construction, coal power plants, brick production, transportation and diesel-powered equipment, among others.

HEALTH RISK FACTOR

Air pollution researcher Prof Abdus Salam of Dhaka University said air pollution is increasing in the country and no effective step is visible to reduce it.

He said the coal industry is expanding further and construction works are being done without appropriate controlling measures.

"The real number of deaths would be much more. If you check the statistics of patients with cancer and COPD [chronic obstructive pulmonary disease], you will see a rise. The main reason is poor air quality."

Prof Md Rashidul Hassan, president of Bangladesh Lung Foundation, said the number of lung patients has been on the rise for over a decade. Asthma is noticeably present in people aged under eight and over 45.

"If we fail to improve air quality, sufferings will increase," he warned.

"People are exposed more to indoor air pollution as they spend a good amount of time either at home or in the workplace."

The observations of the two experts also corroborate the findings of the global study, which found air pollution has become the second leading health risk factor after high blood pressure in Bangladesh.

The report warned that though the full links between air pollution and Covid-19 are not yet known, there is clear evidence connecting air pollution and increased heart and lung diseases.

There is a growing concern that air pollution exposure, especially in the most polluted regions of South Asia, could significantly worsen the effects of Covid-19, said the report.

The study found that there has been little or no sustained progress over the last decade in the most polluted countries of South Asia and Africa in regards to air quality.

WAY OUT?

Prof Salam said in the months of November, December, January and February, people in Bangladesh live with the worst air quality.

"The two city corporations and the Department of Environment should take special measures centering these months," he said, adding that an end to garbage burning will reduce air pollution by around 30 percent.

A high official of Department of Environment, wishing not to be named, acknowledged that the air pollution is on the rise in the country.

"The government has taken some measures like stopping operations of brick kilns and promoting concrete blocks. But it will take a few more years to get the benefits," he said.

In an email to The Daily Star, Dr Pallavi Pant of Health Effects Institute wrote, "Countries in South Asia, including Bangladesh, continue to experience high levels of air pollution which has led to a significant impact on people's health. Recognising this, policymakers are formulating specific policies to improve air quality including the draft Clean Air Act in Bangladesh."

It is crucial that the efforts are continued and expanded with a focus on sources including power plants, industries, brick kilns, waste burning and vehicles over the next few years, said Pallavi, who was involved with the global study.

Dr Sumi Mehta, senior epidemiologist at global public health organisation Vital Strategies, says the trend is clear. 

"As air pollution continues to increase across rapidly urbanising areas of Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, it will further exacerbate the epidemic of non-communicable diseases, including chronic respiratory and cardiovascular illness," added Dr Sumi, an independent researcher who is aware of the study. 

"The good news is we know how to address all the leading sources of pollution; these data clearly show we have a public health imperative to rapidly implement clean air solutions."

Dr Zulfiqar Bhutta, another independent researcher who saw the report, said the State of Global Air report is a reminder that air pollution is not just an environmental issue; it is a major public health problem.

"The message for us could not be clearer -- we need urgent and sustained action to clean up the air both outdoors and in the home. The need is especially acute in South Asia where mothers and children are chronically exposed to very high levels of air pollution," said Dr Zulfiqar, founding director at Aga Khan University's Institute for Global Health & Development.

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