Inhaling air or death?

Shakeel Mahmood, M Sirajul Islam, Salman Haider


AIR POLLUTION KILLS 15,000 Bangladeshis each year, according to a World Bank report released recently. The report says the country could save between 200 million and 800 million US dollars a year - about 0.7 to 3.0 per cent of its gross national product - if air pollution in its four major cities was reduced.

The report adds that 6.5 million people in these cities suffer each year. And the major disease is not diarrhoea, as is the popular perception, but acute respiratory infections caused mainly by polluted air. Automobile and industrial emissions, bad civic practices and poor government services are some of the major factors causing air pollution.

The World Bank gave Bangladesh $4.7 million last July to fund an air quality management project. It also supports a training programme for drivers of different vehicles to teach them how to reduce emissions. Unfortunately, implementation of these initiatives is yet to be made, according to a report carried in the Prothom Alo on June 5 this year.

Air pollution kills an estimated 2.7-3.0 million people every year across the globe. In developing countries - home to 80 per cent of the world population - about nine in every 10 deaths are due to air pollution.

In cities that lack pollution control, millions of people are at risk. Densely populated and rapidly growing cities such as Bangkok, Manila, Mexico City, and New Delhi are often entombed in a pall of pollution from trucks and cars and from uncontrolled industrial emissions. In 1995, for example, the average ozone concentration in Mexico City was about 0.15 parts per million, 10 times the natural atmospheric concentration and twice the maximum permitted in Japan or the US. The density of lead in the air of Dhaka is 463 nanograms per cubic metre, which is ten times more than the acceptable standard and several times more than the above mentioned cities.

In a seminar organised by Sunder Jiban at ICDDR,B on lead and cadmium in the blood of the children in Dhaka city was revealed. The specific aim of the study was to determine the blood lead and cadmium levels in children. It was found that both lead and cadmium levels from high-risk areas are alarmingly high. These could be due to high lead in the environment from gasoline, paints, ceramics, batteries, etc. High cadmium in hospitalised children indicates general contamination in the city. Young children are mostly exposed to cadmium through inhalation of smokes and contaminated soils and dust from industrial emissions and sewage sludge.

An appropriate measure must be taken as soon as possible, otherwise sufferings of the children (especially those aged between 4 and 7) from gastrointestinal disorders, anaemia, insomnia, weight loss, motor weakness, muscle paralysis, nephropathy, school dropout and behavioural changes, may paralyse the nation in future. Not only that, this level of lead poisoning is a major factor responsible for decreasing mental abilities of children as a result of which the country will suffer in the long run.

Lead pots, pipes, and smelters are usually held responsible by the experts for loss of intelligence among children and for brain damage and abnormal behaviour among adults. Heavy metals released into the environment today come from uncontrolled emissions by metal smelters and other industrial activities, unsafe disposal of industrial wastes and lead in water pipes, paint, and gasoline.

Heavy metals most dangerous to health include lead, mercury, cadmium, arsenic, copper, zinc and chromium. Such metals are found naturally in the soil in trace amounts, which pose many problems. When concentrated in particular areas, however, they present a serious danger. Arsenic and cadmium, for instance, can cause cancer. Mercury can cause mutations and genetic damage, while copper, lead and mercury can cause brain and bone damage. Lead additives in gasoline cause widespread health problems. In Thailand, for example, a 1990 study found that some 70,000 children in Bangkok risked losing four or more points of IQ because they were heavily exposed to lead emissions from motor vehicles. In Latin America, some 15 million children under the age of two are at risk of ill health from lead pollution.

Air pollution also reduces food production and timber harvests, because high levels of pollution impair photosynthesis. In Germany, for example, about US$4.7 billion a year in agricultural production is lost to high levels of sulphur, nitrogen oxides, and ozone.

The World Health Organisation estimates that about 700,000 deaths annually could be prevented in developing countries if three major atmospheric pollutants - carbon monoxide, suspended particulate matter, and lead - were brought down to safer levels. The direct health cost of urban air pollution in developing countries was estimated in 1995 at nearly US$100 billion a year. Chronic bronchitis along accounted for around US$40 billion).

We need to have 'strong political will' to protect the environment. There should be a complete ban on import and use of materials containing lead and also on two-stroke engines. Strictest measures to convert the auto-rickshaws and tempos to environment-friendly or phase those out through double-deckers and other heavy vehicles. Immediate screen-out of unfit vehicles and strictest measures to keep these off the streets should also be adopted. Safe disposal of industrial waste, possible interventions/mitigation for exposed population, and maintenance of optimal nutritional status of essential metals are areas that also need attention.

More importantly, initiative should be taken to create public awareness on the sources and causes of exposure to these toxic elements. The existing environmental laws are not abided by in this country, because of non-enforcement - another area that deserves immediate attention. Overall, there should be participatory approach to fight air pollution.

Source: The Daily Star, Dhaka, August 3, 2001

Home Page

Previous Page