Pollution causes 15,000 deaths annually
Shakeel A. I. Mahmood, M. Sirajul Islam Molla, Salman Haider

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

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

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 emission. But, unfortunately no remarkable implementation of such initiatives has yet been made.

Air pollution kills an estimated 2.7-3.0 million people every year throughout the world, which is about 6 per cent of all annual deaths. About 9 deaths in every 10 due to air pollution take place in the developing world, where about 80 per cent of all people live. Again out of this 2.7 million, 1.6+ million die in Asian countries only.

In cities that lack pollution control, millions of people are at risk from air pollution. Densely populated and rapidly growing cities such as Bangkok, Manila, Mexico City, and New Delhi are often entombed in a pall of pollution from fume emitting 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 that in the acceptable standard and several times more than the above mentioned cities, even than the most polluted city of Mexico. Following are some data in support of the above statement:

In a seminar organized by Sunder Jiban at ICDDR,B the content of lead and cadmium in the blood of the children in Dhaka city was revealed. The study was conducted at some important parts of the Dhaka city, such as the Tejgaon Industrial Area, Mohammadpur, and Keraniganj. A group of nine children from other parts of Dhaka city admitted to the CRSC of ICDDR,B was used for comparison. The specific aim of the study was to determine the blood lead (Pb) and cadmium (Cd) levels in children. It was found that both Pb and Cd levels in the blood of the children from high-risk areas were alarmingly high. These could be due to high lead in the environment from gasoline, paints, ceramics, batteries, etc. High Pb in hospitalized children indicates general contamination in the Dhaka city. Young children are mostly exposed to Cd through inhalation of smoke and contaminated dust from industrial emissions and sewage sludge.

An appropriate measure must be taken as soon as possible, otherwise the suffering of the children (specially who are at age between 4 and 7) from gastrointestinal disorders, anemia, insomnia, weight loss, motor weakness, muscle paralysis, nephropathy, school drop-out and behavioural changes, may paralyze the nation in future. Not only that, this level of lead poisoning is a major factor responsible for decreasing the mental abilities of the children as a result of which the country will have acute shortage of intellectuals 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 by way of uncontrolled emissions by metal smelters and other industrial activities, unsafe disposal of industrial wastes and lead in water pipes, paint, and gasoline.

The 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 even 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 is not only a health hazard but 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 due to high levels of sulfur, 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 alone accounted for around US$40 billion).

The following stringent measures can be fully implemented and also adopted without wasting further time to save the huge amount by making the atmosphere environment-friendly:

  • 'Strong political will' to protect the environment;

  • Complete ban on import and use of lead containing materials;

  • Complete ban on 2-stroke engine vehicles, as envisaged;

  • Strictest measures to convert the baby-taxies and tempos to environment-friendly ones or phase those out through double-deckers and other heavy vehicles, as envisaged;

  • Immediate screen-out of unfit vehicles and strictest measures to ban their plying on the streets, as envisaged;

  • Safe disposal of industrial waste;

  • Possible interventions/mitigation for exposed population;

  • Maintenance of optimal nutritional status of essential metals;

  • Creating more and more public awareness on the sources and causes of exposure to these toxic elements;

  • Strict enforcement of existing laws and creation and enforcement of new laws, if necessary;

  • Formation of a national steering committee including NGO representatives with administrative powers;

  • International convention on climate change to come to a consensus for a global challenge to improve the living standards without destroying the environment;

  • The UN sanction can be imposed on the countries, where environmental condition come below the standard level, as it is a matter of human rights.


We do not want to die so disastrously. We will fight against the evil forces polluting our environment. We urge all concerned citizens of the country to unite and move in a body to create pressure on the government to save the environment for the sake our children who will hold the steering wheel of the country in the future. Now is the time to get the politicians committed to do the work for the nation. Let us take all possible steps to make people understand the environmental situation of the country and the importance of safe environment.


Source: The Daily Star, Dhaka, February 15, 2002


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