This year Dhaka, the Bangladesh capital, ranked among the worst cities of the world in the Air Quality Index (AQI). It topped the list in January and February while in September it ranked second. The densely populated city had a score of 169 between the AQI values of 101 to 200 in September.
The index records daily air quality and an AQI value between 151 and 200 indicates the air is hazardous for health. Fine particles dangerous for health were found suspended in the air. Also lead, cadmium, zinc, chromium, nickel, arsenic, manganese and copper content was extremely high in Dhaka air. The amount of particulate matter 2.5 was found above the acceptable limit.
Usually pollution worsens during the dry season-from October to April-due to less rainfall. But this year, the quality has plummeted even before the onset of winter. According to the World Health Organization, one among the top 10 causes of death in Bangladesh is related to air pollution.
A new study on the adverse effects of air pollution was published in the journal Nature Communications in September. The study found air pollution particles in the foetal side of placentas. The concentration of such particles was highest in the placentas of women most exposed to air-born pollutants in their daily life. There were other impacts including miscarriage, premature birth and low birth weight.
Air pollution affects everyone while the worst victims are the sensitive groups including children. The complications are not only restricted to heart and lung problems along with development complications, but can also have psychiatric effects too. Another research said that the pollution may be damaging every organ and virtually every cell in the human body. Several studies linked air pollution to autism spectrum disorder in children.
Brick kilns, construction work along with emission from vehicles have been identified as the source of air pollution in Dhaka. The minister of environment, forests and climate change blamed various development projects and brick kilns for this.
Just a month ago, he had told the media that steps were taken to address the pollution. He said the ministry had written to the metro rail project authorities to take measures to control dust from spreading. A High Court directive too sought measures to contain dust at construction sites.
Construction work is a common sight for Dhaka residents who go to office and school every day amid dust. There is hardly any area in the capital without under-construction high-rise buildings. Then, there are the digging works forever going on along the roads due to the lack of coordination among our various departments including the road and highways division, the transport department, electricity distribution company, city corporation, gas distribution company, Bangladesh Water Development Board, and Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission and so on.
Is the government taking the air pollution seriously? Or is the issue being shadowed by billion dollar mega projects? What would we do with a spectacular city crammed with mega structures, where coughing, masked people including children roam about in a blanket of haze? Can prosperous, intelligent citizens emerge this way? Mega projects are going on for years and will go on, but what about the stakeholders? Are the health hazards calculated after careful research on the possible impact on public health before such ventures? Or are the people just expendables?
In Bangladesh, students took to the street seeking an end to road accident deaths. They had to come back from there. Pledges were made and provisions were revised, but still roads abound in deaths. The statistics of casualties are the same during the holidays. Laws are flouted and pedestrians are even killed on the footpaths.
Swedish teen climate activist Greta Thunberg, who made the world listen to her, reminds us of the Bangladeshi students. She too wants politicians to take heed, to take note of the dire consequences of climate change and asks them to act now to prevent possible mass extinction. At the 2019 UN climate action summit in New York, the 16-year-old activist told world leaders, "You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words…People are suffering, people are dying…all you can talk about is the money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth.”
She also warned that the future generations would never forgive the leaders for not taking action. Do our leaders heed to such warning? If they did, the air pollution scenario would not worsen. It would be given the highest priority. There is no such tradition here to stress the issue of public health. But are we ready to pay the cost with millions of children at stake?