Air pollution: A silent public health emergency

Published : 21 Nov 2019 06:30 PM | Updated : 05 Sep 2020 12:10 PM

Akash Shaha, a Bengali architect worked at a firm in Switzerland’s Zurich married a Swiss doctor and migrated to Dhaka.  However, their migration unfortunately lasted for approximately 432 hours.

Shaha’s Swiss wife struggled a lot to adopt with Dhaka’s deadly air pollution and what greatly overwhelmed her was Dhaka’s dusty winter air that compelled her to go back in Zurich. As long as air quality and health are concerned, the reason is plausible at the same time bizarre indeed. Fortunately for Shaha’s wife, she had this opportunity to shift back to Zurich but those of us who are living in Dhaka do not have that privilege. We have to breathe in the air blended with invisible particulates. 

The level of air pollution in Dhaka is so alarming that it is often ranked among the top 10 most polluted cities in the global Air Quality Index. Of late, the capital city of Bangladesh has been ranked the worst in the Air Quality Index (AQI) for the third consecutive time. According to experts, when the AQI value is between 201 and 300, every city dweller may begin to experience health effects. Reportedly, Dhaka had a score of 252 on Tuesday. 

In Dhaka, with every breath we take, we inhale a number of toxic matters. In fact, in Dhaka, air pollution is not anymore a seasonal characteristic. Studies show that Dhaka’s air is contaminated not only with heavy metals like lead, chromium, cadmium, nickel, arsenic, manganese and copper, but also with other poisonous particles. The presence of pollutant particles in the air even on a normal day, except for those in the rainy season, is more than three to four times higher than the desirable limit.

 The construction of the fastest growing megacity coupled with mismanagement is the reason why city dwellers have to suffer from dust pollution throughout the year. But certainly in winter the situation deteriorates and already with the advent of winter, dust pollution has started to take a turn over to jeopardize the public health. However, the following anecdote evidently exposes the process how dust pollution disrupts the city life and jeopardizes the public health:

Mrs Zinnia Islam is a retired banker who has been suffering from osteoporosis and obesity for long. Doctor advised Mrs Islam to walk for at least an hour every day. But unfortunately she was compelled to skip her exercise because of extreme air pollution as she is also an asthma patient, and much of the capital’s Banasree area where she lives in is covered with dust, especially in winter.

Like Mrs Islam, thousands of city dwellers have to deal every day with air pollution in the capital. Experts say that children and elderly are the most vulnerable to dust pollution.

Air pollution is no longer a mere environmental problem. It has become a public health concern these days in Bangladesh. Unregulated construction sites are worsening Dhaka’s air quality. Immediate steps should be taken to control air pollution caused by dust. Also strict laws should be implemented to punish those who are responsible for dust pollution.

Travelling in different parts of the capital, one will find dust swirling almost everywhere due to construction of a number of development projects and buildings all around.

Previously, there were some air pollution hotspots in Dhaka. But in the recent years, such areas have widened to almost the entire city as roads see traffic jams throughout every working day. The situation becomes worse due to some ongoing mega projects

Experts blame construction of high-rises, roads, residential quarters, bridges, markets, schools, , and digging of roads for installing pipe lines release a huge amount of dust, cement and sand particles in air. 

Air pollution has become silent public health emergency killing over 37,000 Bangladeshis and 7 million people globally every year and damaging the health of many, many more. This is a defining moment and we must scale up action to urgently respond to this challenge.

Experts opine that the number of patients suffering from respiratory diseases such as bronchitis, lung cancer, asthma, emphysema and lower respiratory infection has been on a constant rise in the capital due mainly to increasing dust pollution.

Lung specialists warn that dust pollution is making Dhaka hazardous, particularly for children and the elderly. A long-term exposure to dust pollution provokes lung cancer and development or progression of chronic illness. Doctors suggest that people should wear mask when travelling outside to stay safe from dust pollution.

Air pollution is a health risk at every stage of life. Exposure to air pollution during pregnancy can damage a developing baby’s vital organs including the brain, heart and lungs and lead to a range of conditions including asthma, heart disease and cancers.

Air pollution also negatively affects brain development during childhood, lowering children’s chances of success in school and employment possibilities later in life.

The WHO’s latest estimates show that air pollution is responsible for one-quarter to one-third of deaths from heart attack, stroke, lung cancer and chronic respiratory disease.

No one, rich or poor, can escape air pollution. A clean and healthy environment is the single most important precondition for ensuring good health. By cleaning up the air we breathe, we can prevent or at least reduce some of the greatest health risks.

Experts envisage that it is possible to control air pollutionif the authorities concerned put forth their efforts in a coordinated manner. Considering the situation, it is high time to integrate quick measures to check pollution from building construction, brick kilns, and car emissions.

In Dhaka, dust pollution should be a key issue that authorities concerned must address in the sphere of sustainable construction, indeed not only for the sake of environment, but also public health. Necessary laws should immediately be implemented to compel the builders, constructors, and construction workers to build roads and buildings following rules and regulations. Also authorities concerned, including the Department of Environment (DoE), should devise immediate actions and reinforce its monitoring system for minimizing dust emissions on construction sites.

There is much that we can do to improve air quality, but we must all play our part. No person, group, city, country or region can solve the problem alone. We need strong commitments and actions from everyone: government, Policy makers, civil society, the private sector and even the individual. There is no denying that It will take time and endurance but we all have a critical role to play.

Sayeed  Hossain Shuvro is  Editorial Assistant,  

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