Air pollution shortens life expectancy of Bangladeshi by 6.8 years

A woman covers her baby with a fabric to protect the baby as the road is engulfed with dusts in Postagola area, Dhaka.
Prothom Alo file photo

Bangladesh has become the worst country in the world in terms of air pollution. Life expectancy of average Bangladeshis is shortened by 6.8 years due to fine particulate air pollution. Air quality varies in areas of Bangladesh with air pollution shortening lives by 8.3 years in Gazipur, the country’s most polluted district.

This was revealed at a pollution index by Air Quality Life Index (AQLI) by the University of Chicago. The index quantifies the decrease of life expectancy due to exposure to air pollution in countries around the world. The index said average life expectancy has shortened by 2.4 years in the world due to air pollution.

The report said average annual particulate pollution has increased by 63 per cent in Bangladesh since 1998, reducing life expectancy by 2.8 years. The pollution, however, decreased slightly by 2.2 per cent from 2020 to 2021.

The index said China was able to significantly reduce air pollution by the “war against pollution” policy the country undertook. China’s pollution has declined 42.3 per cent since 2013.

According to Department of Environment (DoE), it publishes air quality data of Dhaka city in every two hours while the data of other big cities come a day later. That means the residents cannot avail real time data of pollution, making them unable to take precautionary measures. International organisations and developed countries of the world provide the air quality data through apps that Bangladesh is yet to have.

Different international organisations including Switzerland-based Air Visuals gives update of air quality of big cities of Bangladesh each hour. Experts think the air quality data of Bangladesh is not reliable enough.

DoE’s director (air quality department) Ziaul Haque told Prothom Alo, “We will be able to upload on the website the air quality data of many places of the country including the capital within the next month. We are going to attain that capability. And within a year we’ll be able to give live air quality data through apps like international organisations do.”

Pollution high even in least polluted Sylhet

The report stated that all of Bangladesh’s 164.8 million people live in areas where the annual average particulate pollution level exceeds both the WHO PM2.5 guideline (5 µg/m³) and the country’s own national standard of 15 µg/m³. Even in the least polluted district of Sylhet, particulate pollution is 9.7 times the WHO PM2.5 guideline and 3.2 times the national standard.

“Measured in terms of life expectancy, particulate pollution is the second greatest threat to human health in Bangladesh (closely following cardiovascular diseases), taking 6.8 years off the life of the average Bangladeshi. In contrast, tobacco use reduces average life expectancy by 2.1 years, while child and maternal malnutrition reduces average life expectancy by 1.4 years,” the report states.

The report said in Dhaka and Chattogram, some 74.7 million residents are on track to lose 7.6 years of life expectancy on average relative to the WHO guideline and 6.6 years relative to the national standard if the current pollution levels persist.

The report, however, said that if Bangladesh can reduce particulate pollution to meet the WHO guideline, residents in Dhaka would gain 8.1 years of life expectancy and residents of Chattogram would gain 6.9 years.

“If the country’s pollution concentration were to meet this national standard, this would add 5.8 years onto the life of the average Bangladeshi citizen,” adds the report.

Lack of access to data is big barrier

The report advised Bangladesh to emphasis providing of reliable and timely data, as well as ensure that it citizens can apply this data to protect themselves from polluted air. If such initiatives are maintained properly, air quality of Bangladesh and life expectancy of its citizens can raise, the report observed.

The current PM2.5 national standard in Bangladesh is 15 µg/m³. If the country’s pollution concentration were to meet this national standard, this would add 5.8 years onto the life of the average Bangladeshi citizen. The availability of reliable, timely and ready-to-use data on air pollution is one area where Bangladesh can make significant improvements.3 According to OpenAQ’s Open Air Quality Data: The Global Landscape 2022 report, the

According to the report, Bangladesh does not have fully open air quality data, and making these datasets more fully accessible on a more timely basis would allow Bangladeshi citizens with a variety of skill sets to participate in addressing air pollution

Air pollution has been the biggest hazard to health related problems, and overall, polluted air is reducing life expectancy. India and China, combined with Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nigeria, and Indonesia, together account for three-quarters of the global air pollution burden due to their high pollution levels and large populations.

The AQLI’s latest 2021 data reveals that permanently reducing global PM2.5 air pollution to meet the World Health Organization (WHO) guideline would add 2.3 years onto average human life expectancy —or a combined 17.8 billion life years saved. The impact of PM2.5 on global life expectancy is comparable to that of smoking, more than 3 times that of alcohol use and unsafe water, more than 5 times that of transport injuries like car crashes, and more than 7 times that of HIV/AIDS.

Michael Greenstone, Milton Friedman Distinguished Service Professor in Economics Director, EPIC and BFI at University of Chicago, said global media give more coverage on political news, considering the public heath, media should report on air pollution daily because primary infrastructures are yet to be built in many countries.

Asia and Africa contribute 92.7 per cent of life years lost due to pollution, they lack basic infrastructure for change. Just 6.8 and 3.7 per cent of governments in Asia and Africa, respectively, provide fully open air quality data and just 35.6 and 4.9 per cent of countries in Asia and Africa, respectively, have air quality standards.

There is an huge opportunity to reverse this inequality. While there is a large global fund for HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis that annually disburses 4 billion USD toward the issues, there is no equivalent set of coordinated resources for air pollution.

The entire continent of Africa receives under 300,000 USD in philanthropic funds toward air pollution. Just 1.4 million USD goes to Asia (outside of China and India). Europe, the United States, and Canada receive 34 million USD, according to the Clean Air Fund.

Christa Hasenkopf, director, Air Quality Programs and AQLI, EPIC, University of Chicago, said local and global organizations can apply this timely knowledge and provide information to civil society; and, leaders can set strong air quality standards, build robust policies and monitor their progress to ensure policies are successful.

How China, USA became successful

China’s pollution has declined 42.3 per cent since 2013, the year before the country began a “war against pollution.” Due to these improvements, the average Chinese citizen can expect to live 2.2 years longer, provided the reductions are sustained. The pollution in China is still six times the WHO guideline, taking 2.5 years off life expectancy.

Virtually all, 99.9 per cent, of Southeast Asia’s roughly 673.7 million people now live in areas where particulate pollution exceeds the revised WHO guideline, according to the report.

The African countries of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, and Republic of the Congo are amongst the ten most polluted countries in the world while the most polluted areas across Latin America are located within Guatemala, Bolivia, and Peru.

In the United States, legislative measures like the Clean Air Act have helped to reduce pollution by 64.9 per cent since 1970, extending the average lifespan by 1.4 years. The country built institution infrastructure to implement this law.

Countries in Europe topped the list of best air quality. In Europe, policies such as the European Union’s Air Quality Framework Directive have helped to reduce pollution by 23.5 per cent since 1998, allowing residents to gain 4.5 months. Primarily due to these pollution reductions, the United States and Europe—which make up 15.4 per cent of the world’s population—account for only about 4.1 per cent of the health burden from particulate pollution.

With this new evidence now built into the WHO’s guideline, the 2021 data reveal that 98.4 per cent of people in the Europe are now considered to be living in polluted areas. Meanwhile, in late 2022, the European Commission proposed to bring air quality to the WHO guidelines.