Air pollution choking Dhaka

Thousands of people in Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka, are dying prematurely because of air pollution, say health experts.

 

An estimated 15,000 premature deaths, as well as several million cases of pulmonary, respiratory and neurological illness are attributed to poor air quality in Dhaka, according to the Air Quality Management Project (AQMP), funded by the government and the World Bank.



The World Health Organization (WHO) says vehicular air pollution is a major cause of respiratory distress in urban Bangladesh.

 

“If pregnant mothers come across excessive pollution, it may cause premature death of their children,” said Soofia Khatun, a professor of paediatrics at the Institute of Maternal and Child Health.



According to the National Institute of Diseases of Chest and Hospital (NIDCH), nearly seven million people in Bangladesh suffer from asthma; more than half of them children. Cases of children suffering from bronchitis and chronic coughs have also shot up in recent years, it said.



“Children breathe more air relative to their lung size than adults. They spend more time outdoors, often during midday and afternoons when pollutant levels are generally highest,” said Khondkar Ibrahim Khaled, chief of Kochi Kanchar Mela, a children’s welfare organisation.



Particulates




According to the Department of Environment (DoE) [see:http://www.doe-bd.org/], the density of airborne particulate matter (PM) reaches 463 micrograms per cubic metre (mcm) in the city during the dry season (December-March) - the highest level in the world.



Mexico City and Mumbai follow Dhaka with 383 and 360mcm respectively, the DoE says.

 

WHO air quality guidelines (2005) recommend a maximum acceptable PM level of 20mcm; cities with 70mcm are considered highly polluted. Airborne lead is the worst of the harmful PMs.

 

“By penetrating the lungs and entering the blood stream, lead may cause irreversible neurological damage as well as renal disease, cardiovascular effects, and reproductive toxicity,” Humayun Kabir, head of the medicine department of Barisal Medical College, told IRIN, adding: “Children are especially susceptible to impaired intelligence due to lead poisoning.”



The phasing out of petrol-driven two-stroke auto-rickshaws in 2003 and their replacement with four-stroke versions which use a much cleaner burning fuel (compressed natural gas), significantly decreased the volume of air contaminants. But, according to DoE sources, a sharp increase in the number of vehicles and construction sites in 2004-2008 led to a deterioration in Dhaka’s air quality.

 

The density of airborne fine particulate matter 2.5 micrometers (one millionth of a metre) or smaller in diameter (PM2.5) in the city dropped from 266mcm in 2003 to 147mcm in 2004. However, AQMP statistics from 2007 show 191.83 mcm of PM2.5 (fine particular matter) in Dhaka’s air.



Airborne particulates are considered harmful when they are 10 micrometers (PM 10) or smaller in diameter. PM 2.5 is four times finer than PM10, hence more harmful.

 

Main pollution sources



According to the DoE, old, poorly serviced vehicles, brick kilns (there are currently about 1,000 in and around Dhaka), dust from roads and construction sites, and toxic fumes from industrial sites are major sources of air pollution.



Bangladesh Road Transport Authority (BRTA) said some 15,000 mostly reconditioned and second hand cars were sold in Dhaka in 2008 - up 46 percent from 2007. "Even people in the middle income bracket [US$450-800 per month] can afford cars now," said Abdul Haq, owner of Haq’s Bay, a leading car seller in Dhaka.

 

Environmental activists are encouraged by the creation of the government’s Clean Air and Sustainable Environment (CASE) project in Bangladesh which is funded by the World Bank and expected to start from 1 July 2009. The aim is to adopt sustainable environmental initiatives in key polluting sectors.



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