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The air we breathe is worse than smoking

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Bangladesh has the unfortunate distinction of being the most polluted country in the world. Beyond the statistical figures, this crisis has repercussions on the lives of Bangladeshis, reducing their average life expectancy by 6.8 years.

October 5, 2023, 12:05 p.m.

Last modification: October 5, 2023, 12:24 p.m.

Bangladesh is at the forefront of South Asian countries tackling toxic air, alongside India, Nepal and Pakistan. Photo: MumitM

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    Bangladesh is at the forefront of South Asian countries tackling toxic air, alongside India, Nepal and Pakistan.  Photo: MumitM

Bangladesh is at the forefront of South Asian countries tackling toxic air, alongside India, Nepal and Pakistan. Photo: MumitM

Amid Bangladesh’s bustling cities and serene countryside lies an invisible threat that casts a shadow over the nation’s future: air pollution.

Air pollution is a global threat, but its impact is particularly felt in countries like Bangladesh, where rapid urbanization, industrialization and inadequate regulatory measures have made toxic air an inescapable reality.

The alarming findings of the recently released Air Quality of Life Index (AQLI) report conducted by the University of Chicago’s Energy Policy Institute have laid bare the grim reality: Bangladesh owns the air the most polluted in the world, which weighs heavily on the health of its citizens and on its health. thus reducing their average life expectancy by 6.8 years.

In the landscape of South Asian countries battling toxic air, Bangladesh ranks first, alongside India, Nepal and Pakistan. Each of Bangladesh’s 164.8 million people live in areas where average annual levels of particle pollution not only exceed the World Health Organization’s (WHO) PM2.5 guideline (5 µg/m³) , but also the country’s national standard of 15 µg/m³.

Even in the least polluted district of Sylhet, particle pollution is 9.7 times higher than the WHO guidelines and 3.2 times higher than the national standard.

These ultrafine particles, known as PM2.5, infiltrate deep into the respiratory system, sowing the seeds for a range of health problems. The effects of prolonged exposure to polluted air are devastating; it rivals the health impact of smoking and surpasses the combined consequences of alcohol consumption and unsafe water.

Not only does air pollution exacerbate respiratory diseases like asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), but it also contributes to heart disease, stroke, and even some cancers. Children who grow up in these conditions are particularly vulnerable, facing a future blighted by compromised lung development and increased health risks.

In terms of life expectancy, the report says that particle pollution poses the second most significant threat to human health in Bangladesh, behind cardiovascular diseases.

This reduces the life expectancy of the average Bangladeshi by 6.8 years, a toll that exceeds the impact of smoking (2.1 years) and child and maternal malnutrition (1.4 years) combined.

The severity of the situation is more intense in urban centers. In Dhaka and Chattogram, 74.7 million residents stand to lose an average of 7.6 years of life expectancy compared to WHO guidelines and 6.6 years compared to the national norm if levels of current pollution persists.

The AQLI report delivers a clear verdict: Bangladesh has the unfortunate distinction of being the most polluted country in the world. Beyond the statistical figures, this crisis is impacting the lives of Bangladeshis, affecting the development of unborn children, causing chronic diseases, burdening families with increasing medical expenses and hampering productivity with disrupted work schedules.

But the problem goes beyond borders. Bangladesh’s call for action is amplified by the recognition that transboundary sources, including pollution from India, contribute significantly to the country’s pollution levels. While recognizing this reality, Bangladesh is engaged in an internal battle against sources of pollution within its control.

There is, however, a glimmer of hope in these figures. The report argues that if Bangladesh manages to reduce particle pollution in line with WHO guidelines, residents of Dhaka could gain 8.1 years in life expectancy, while those in Chattogram could gain 6.9 years. Additionally, aligning the country’s pollution concentration with the national standard could add 5.8 years to the life of the average Bangladeshi citizen.

It is no longer just a challenge, but a call for the nation to come together and undertake a radical transformation in its approach to air quality.

Bangladesh needs to strengthen its air quality regulations, ensuring they are strict, comprehensive and rigorously enforced. Industries, vehicular traffic and construction projects must meet emission standards, with consistent audits and sanctions for non-compliance.

The nation should harness the potential of renewable energy sources as fossil fuels contribute significantly to air pollution.

Urban centers must be designed with green spaces, pedestrian-friendly areas and effective waste management systems to combat air pollution. Traditional culinary practices contribute to indoor air pollution.
Promoting modern, clean cooking technologies and advocating for the use of cleaner fuels can significantly reduce this threat.

Industries, in tandem with government agencies and research institutes, must collaborate to develop sustainable production processes that minimize emissions and pollution. The construction sector can play a central role in adopting low-emission materials. Providing incentives for the use of sustainable and environmentally friendly building materials can lead to reduced pollution during construction processes.

Transitioning to sustainable agricultural practices can contribute to cleaner air. By adopting eco-friendly fertilizers, precision farming and agroforestry techniques, Bangladesh can minimize the release of harmful pollutants from agricultural activities.

It is essential to launch broad public awareness campaigns. Educating citizens about the health risks of air pollution and empowering them to take concrete steps to protect themselves can foster a culture of responsible environmental management.

Reliable and easily accessible air quality data can enable them to take protective measures against polluted air. Focusing on providing this data and enabling its practical application can serve as a springboard towards improving air quality and increasing life expectancy.

The study’s findings are a reminder that behind the veil of economic progress, the very air that sustains life becomes a slow, silent assassin, stealing precious years from individuals and plunging families into the depths of grief.

Yet this crisis is an opportunity for transformation. This is a call for collective action, where governments, industries and individuals come together for cleaner air.

The fight against air pollution can be won, we can restore our lost years and breathe new life into the future of Bangladesh. Challenges lie ahead, but they are dwarfed by the potential for cleaner air, healthier citizens and a more prosperous nation.


Tanvir Ahmad is a researcher in climate change and public health. E-mail:(email protected)


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of The Business Standard.

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