DHAKA has for long been grappling with air pollution. The pollution continues to remain at a hazardous level despite promises from the authorities concerned for an improvement in the situation. The air quality of the capital, keeping to the Air Quality Index that assesses real-time data worldwide, came to be the worst among all capital cities. With a score of 378, as recorded in the AQI on Wednesday, Dhaka is identified as the city with the most polluted air for the second consecutive year. The score is considered ‘hazardous’ or ‘severely polluted’ and poses threat to not only sensitive groups but the entire population. The State of Global Air 2019 report, which used 1990–2017 data, observed that the entire population has been exposed to a higher level of air pollution to the extent that led to 1.23 lakh death in Bangladesh in 2017. All this while, city authorities as well as the environment, forest and climate change ministry has done very little to contain the pollution.
The factors contributing to worsening air quality as well as public health consequences of long-term exposure to polluted air is public knowledge. In Dhaka, unplanned and open-air construction of roads, flyovers and high rises have the city almost buried in dust. The plying of unfit vehicle with an increased level of carbon emissions has affected the survival rate of plants in and around the city. Many brick kilns set up on the outskirts of Dhaka have been one of the major sources of carbon emissions. An increasing number of citizens, especially children and the elderly, keep showing symptoms of respiratory problems and various forms of skin diseases because of the poor air quality. The toxic metals present in road and household dust include chromium, mercury, lead, copper, nickel, manganese, silver, arsenic, iron, zinc and more. Many of the metals can cause serious illness and health effects, if inhaled or ingested in a high amount. Some research suggest that the children, especially infants, exposed to toxic air are at risk of impaired development. The declining air quality, as public health experts say, is even more concerning during the pandemic as people with long-term exposure to air pollution are less able to fight lung infections and are more likely to die, if infected with the novel coronavirus.
The government can, therefore, no longer look the other way. It must address the declining air quality by reassessing the environmental cost of any development project in the capital. It should take initiatives to ensure that unfit vehicles are not allowed on the road and major construction works are implemented maintaining environmental regulations. While it is important to expedite the enactment of the Clean Air Act 2019, the government must also develop a system to record the burden of illness from air pollution for a systematic oversight of health effects. The issue of air pollution and the economic burden of an impending public health emergency would, otherwise, have a lasting impact on the much celebrated economic growth.