Survive in the worst-air city in the world

Citizen Voice Desk

Shaporan Haque

As winter days are passing through all of Bangladesh, during these days, if you travel by the capital city of Dhaka, you will experience thick smog everywhere. In the last couple of years, Dhaka has long grappled with air pollution issues and been featured worldwide.

Its air quality usually turns unhealthy in the winter and improves during the monsoon. On the other hand, if you keep a close eye on climate change or the transformation of the environment, you may have noticed that the major city of our country, Dhaka, is almost at the top of the list of the worst air quality cities worldwide.

During the election week, most of the city dwellers traveled to their ancestors’ place and out of the city to exercise their voting rights, where they were listed as voters. As the whole country is in a festive mood and Dhaka city is almost vacant with less traffic, it is supposed that the air quality will improve compared to other days.

But reality is that on January 9, a day after the election day, Dhaka again ranked topped for the second consecutive day with an AQI index of 269 at 9:00 a.m., according to the air quality index. On this day, Dhaka’s air was classified as ‘very unhealthy’, posing serious health risks to residents, whereas neighboring country India’s city Kolkata and capital Delhi occupied the second and fourth spots and Pakistan’s Karachi third on the list, with AQI scores of 238, 199, and 199, respectively.

According to the report, the air quality is considered ‘unhealthy for sensitive groups’ when the AQI value for particle pollution is between 101 and 150, is considered ‘unhealthy’ when it is between 150 and 200, is said to be ‘very unhealthy’ when between 201 and 300 and is considered ‘hazardous’ posing serious health risks to residents when the reading is 301+.

By using the Air Quality Index (AQI), a daily reporting tool, one may find out how clean or dirty a city’s air is, as well as if there are any potential health risks. Particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5), NO2, CO, SO2, and ozone are the five pollutants that make up Bangladesh’s AQI. Avinash Chanchal, the campaign manager for Greenpeace India, once stated in a statement that while access to clean air is denied to people all over the world, breathing clean air should be a fundamental human right, not an extravagance.

The World Health Organization (WHO) states that from smog hanging over cities to smoking inside the home, air pollution poses a major threat to health across the globe. Exposure to air pollution puts nearly all people on the planet (99%) at higher risk of developing heart disease, stroke, cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and pneumonia. Additionally, it is estimated that air pollution kills seven million people annually globally, mostly because of higher mortality rates from heart disease, stroke, lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and acute respiratory infections.

A World Bank report ‘Breathing Heavy: New Evidence on Air Pollution and Health in Bangladesh’ published in December 2022 found that the sites with major construction and persistent traffic in Dhaka City have the highest level of air pollution. In 2019, air pollution was the second-largest cause of deaths and disability in Bangladesh and cost about 3.9 to 4.4 percent of the country’s GDP. It caused about 78,145–88,229 deaths in Bangladesh that year. Dhaka is the most polluted division, while Sylhet is the least polluted. From 2018 to 2021, Dhaka was ranked as the second-most polluted city in the world.

Bangladesh is doing some remarkable tasks to meet the targets of the SDGs, though air pollution is critical for the country’s sustainable and green growth and development. Ambient air pollution puts everyone at risk, from children to the elderly. To reduce air pollution impacts on health, Bangladesh should come up with immediate actions, including improving public health services and response mechanisms, improving air pollution data monitoring systems, investing in early warning systems, and engaging in further research.

The incidence of lower respiratory tract infections was significantly higher among children living near major construction and traffic sites than elsewhere in the country, including near brick kilns, and air pollution also affects mental health. Depression is most reported in locations with major construction and persistent traffic. Over time, climate change and urbanization will further intensify air pollution. Air pollution causes the climate to change, and climate change worsens the air quality. It is high time that the health sector be well prepared to address the imminent health crisis arising from air pollution and climate change soon.

Recently, Thailand registered dire air pollution levels every year, with Bangkok and the northern city of Chiang Mai ranking among the most polluted cities in the world. Its cabinet endorsed a bill aimed at tackling the kingdom’s poor air quality, clearing the way for parliament to start debating the draft legislation.

In Bangladesh, policymakers and decision-makers have prioritized rapid and smart solutions to enhance the capacity of public health services to deliver curative care and to promote cases of preventative health care related to air pollution.

To help the government tackle new health concerns, screening at the community level for chronic coughs and breathing problems in residents of city areas with high levels of air pollution should be implemented without delay. The government should focus on additional research and careful monitoring of air quality data, along with other development partners and agencies.

The writer is working as a communications professional and can be reached at shaporanhaque@yahoo.com.


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