Pollution in Bangladesh: The invisible tango with death

Illustration: Biplob Chakroborty

More than 215,000 people in Bangladesh succumbed to pollution in 2019. The ever lurking, at times invisible, killer—air pollution—alone claimed about 175,000 lives. Water pollution was responsible for 30,000 deaths, while soil contamination, lead pollution, occupational hazard-related pollution factors, including exposure to harmful chemicals and substances at work, made up for the rest of the death pie. This was revealed in a recent report titled "Pollution and Health: A Progress Update," by the medical journal The Lancet.

While these numbers are new, the scenario is not. This dark underbelly of the growing, flourishing nation is known to all of us. Day in and day out, we breathe, we drink, we eat, we touch death like it is nobody's business. In fact, for us it is business as usual. Unfortunately, for our lawmakers and the government, this daily brush of the common people with death has also become an acceptable norm, which is why, despite publication of multiple reports flagging this morose reality and the concerns raised by various quarters, little to no action has been taken to rectify this.

As late as March this year, it was revealed in a report by US-based organisations Health Effects Institute (HEI) and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) that, on an average, almost three years of a person's life expectancy is cut by air pollution in Bangladesh. The report, titled "State of Global Air 2020: How Does Air Pollution Affect Life Expectancy around the World?", added that outdoor air pollution is responsible for reducing 1.16 years, while indoor air pollution is responsible for reducing 1.53 years.

And Bangladesh often unfortunately finds itself at the top of the list of the most air-polluted countries in the world, based on the AQI score. According to IQAir, Bangladesh was the most air-polluted country in the world in 2021 with an average AQI of 161.

Despite these, the brick kilns keep operating at full throttle, non-compliant factories keep emitting harmful gases and discharging toxic wastes in rivers and water bodies, unfit vehicles keep polluting the air, and biomass burning, fossil fuel combustion, and dust from the various ongoing development works keep choking the life out of us. And no one bothers to take any measure to stop these.

Similarly, water pollution has exposed us to various health complications, including diarrhoea and cholera outbreaks, among other diseases. Over the years, we have allowed industries to discharge their chemical and factory wastes into the rivers without a worry, which has made the waters of our rivers so toxic and polluted that they have now become hotbeds for various diseases, including harmful skin diseases and cancer. A dip in the Buriganga, and one would emerge carrying a host of germs and bacteria, resulting in immediate reactions.

And while water sources have been compromised, the lack of an efficient water purification and distribution system by Wasa has exposed the population, especially in the big cities, to deadly bacteria and viruses, which can cause a wide variety of fatal liver diseases, including Hepatitis A and Hepatitis E. The recent cholera outbreak in Dhaka is a manifestation of the greater problem of health risks associated with water contamination. E. coli and Salmonella, among others, are some of the most commonly found bacteria in the water supplied by Dhaka Wasa. And despite reports and proof, the situation has not changed in decades.

Similarly, overuse of pesticide and insecticide in farming, along with exposure to chemical waste, has made the soil and its produce harmful for the human body. Lead, chromium, cadmium, among other heavy metals, are widely found in the fresh produce and other food items, which are consumed by the people on a daily basis. A study by Bangladesh Atomic Energy Commission and two public universities, as reported by Anadolu Agency, revealed the presence of cobalt in soil that is 38 times higher than the tolerable standard, and chromium that is 112 times higher than the tolerable levels. The study also found the presence of 11 heavy metals. This heavy metal contamination in the food chain has dangerously exposed us to various health risks, including long-term digestive tract problems and kidney issues.

Moreover, the use and misuse of soil has also taken away its healthy organic balance: according to reports, organic matter presence in soil in Bangladesh is less than two percent, which ideally should be five percent, resulting in significantly declining soil health and fertility. Moreover, use of topsoil in brick kilns—a report by Anadolu Agency suggests that 800,000 tonnes of topsoil are consumed every day to feed brick kilns—is also taking a toll on soil health and reducing the volume of cultivable land. With food consumption increasing and cultivable land decreasing in size, we seem to be stuck between a rock and a hard place.

These practices are clearly not in the interest of people. We have time and again reported on these issues, but the authorities do not seem to take any interest whatsoever in addressing them. While Mother Nature sustains mankind, we should not take her for granted, and push her into a corner where she is left with no other choice but to turn on us for survival.

The government and policymakers should very seriously look into these environmental concerns and work towards finding both immediate and long-term solutions. For us, the approach should be that of a spirit and marathon combined in a package. The polluters should be dealt with an iron fist and penalised and punished accordingly. The industries that are not environment-complaint or friendly, should be penalised as well.

Government agencies and bodies that are responsible for safeguarding the environment must now pull up their socks and roll up their sleeves and get down to work, because given the situation we are in, mammoth efforts will be needed to reverse the damage that we have done so far.

Human lives matter, the environment matters, and we must act now to save both.


Tasneem Tayeb is a columnist for The Daily Star. Her Twitter handle is @tasneem_tayeb


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