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The cost of pollution Bangladesh cannot afford

Nilratan Halder | September 15, 2023 00:00:00

Each successive study on the state of pollution in Bangladesh is exposing a new and graver dimension of pollution in this densely populated country. The veracity of these authoritative studies is unquestionable. Lately, the first to come is the disconcerting Air Quality Life Index (AQLI) report produced by the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago, which determined that Bangladesh's air quality is the worst in the world. It is so polluted that it affects the health of the country's citizens gravely, reducing their average life span by at least 6.8 years.

Next comes the study titled, 'State of Global Air: South Asia, A Regional Air Quality Snapshot' conducted by the Health Effects Institute, a US-based organisation. According to it, nitrogen dioxide NO2 concentration in five cities in Bangladesh earned them the dubious distinction of their place among the world's top 20 most polluted cities. Its attendant ill is that the concentration of the gas produces ozone and particulate matter. This problem is mainly city-centric but there is no reason to think that it is absent in the rural setting where solid fuels are used for heating and cooking.

The latest of the studies published in the prestigious scientific journal Lancet highlights the deadly impacts of lead pollution in Bangladesh. According to the study carried out by the World Bank under the heading, 'Global health burden and cost of lead exposure in children and adults: a health impact and economic modeling analysis', 140,000 annual deaths are linked to cardiovascular diseases 'among the adults aged 25 years or older due to lead exposure'. This death toll is almost five times higher than the 30,000 such annual deaths the Global Burden of Disease (GBD) estimated in May,2022. The WB's analysis also finds that the country has to sustain an economic loss to the tune of US$10,897 million---3.6 per cent of the country's annual GDP.

Yet, this pales before the enormous loss of IQ (intelligent quotient) points children aged below five years suffer. Their loss ranges up to about 20 million (20,596,306) IQ points. This irreparable damage to their potential cannot be measured in economic terms. But a rough idea is that this loss in combination with other such losses accounts for up to 9.0 per cent of the GDP. So, it is clear that today's children are counting the gravest costs at their very formative period of life. Exposed to lead poisoning, they are at risk of growing with decreased intelligence, learning problems and behavioural disorders. There is no mention of stunted growth but exposure to external lead pollution and intake of the poison with food are sure to constrain their normal growth.

Children living in slums where unhygienic and unsanitary living condition together with a lack of nutritious foods wreaks havoc with early years' growth hardly stand any chance of getting integrated with mainstream society. They either follow in the footsteps of their parents doing the bone-breaking drudgeries in the informal sector or get derailed to anti-social activities including drug peddling. Some of them reluctant to be involved in such crimes take to hazardous professions in areas such as lathe and wielding factories, transport business as helpers or vehicle washing or repair assistants. This brings them to direct and intense exposure to lead and other harmful metals at their early age.

Even those who are fortunate not to come into direct contact with lead and other poisonous substances are not safe from such poisoning. Earlier, it was thought that melamine and plastic utensils caused health hazards because of their chemical reaction with cooked foods stored in them. Now the WB's analysis reveals that aluminium cookware, ceramic utensils, spices and food also are the sources of lead poisoning. These less known sources are on top of the more deadly ones such as used lead acid battery recycling in informal settings, leaded paint, electronic waste, fertiliser and pesticide, cultured fish feed, toys and cosmetics. It seems the list is yet to be complete, because there is no mention of leather processing, recycling of plastic in an informal way with hardly any advanced technology to reduce pollution.

Evidently, the human civilisation at its most advanced stage also produces waste or uses poisonous substances for processing and refinement only to release their residues in the open environment making the living condition ever more precarious. Even there is no guarantee that the so-called safe disposal of radioactive materials or other harmful substances like lead is fully safe. The problem with human society today is that it cannot keep its lifestyle and living simple. Raging consumerism promoted by glitzy, sugar-coated but unrealistic advertisements has distorted outlook and attitudes of the majority young people. Much of the pollution could be avoided if people were ready to forego some of their comforts and luxuries.

This apart, there is a growing sense that in the absence of sophisticated technology, the poor parts of the world are forced to using machines and technologies notorious for polluting the environment. No wonder, South Asia ranks first among the most polluted regions at a time when pollution in other parts of the world has declined. The developed world is on course of transitioning to green and renewable energy-based manufacturing plants, machines and transports whereas countries like Bangladesh still grope in the dark how to meet their energy demands from fossil fuels. Now is the time to look beyond fossil fuels over to renewable sources of energy.

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