Bangladesh PM2.5 levels 7 times higher than WHO limit: Study

Clear link between heightened pollution and developmental works  

By Jayanta Basu
Published: Wednesday 23 February 2022
Bangladesh air pollution 7 times higher than WHO limit: Study Photo: iStock

Bangladesh, which has shown promising economic growth of late, may have a new cause for concern: Increasing air pollution. 

The average daily level of toxic pollutant — fine particulate matter 2.5 (PM 2.5) — in Bangladesh is nearly seven times higher than the permitted level of the World Health Organization (WHO), according to a new report. 

The PM 2.5 pollution level was found to be maximum in Dhaka and neighbouring cities like Gazipur and Narayanganj, according to the nationwide survey carried out by the Centre for Atmospheric Pollution Studies, a unit of Stamford University Bangladesh.

The average daily concentration of the pollutant was nearly 17 times the WHO limit and over four times of Bangladesh’s PM 2.5 permissible benchmark of 65 micrograms (μg) per cubic metres of air. 

Bangladesh, along with India and Pakistan, are the most polluted countries in the world, with the highest PM 2.5 pollution levels. These minuscule particles can penetrate and lodge deep in the respiratory system and trigger respiratory, cardiac and other diseases, including fatal ones like cancer.

Pollution high despite COVID-19 restrictions

The study, carried out from January-July 2021 in all 64 districts of Bangladesh, found that the average PM 2.5 level in Bangladesh during the period was 102.4 microgram. The WHO-permitted daily limit is 15 μg

The pollution levels could have been worse in the absence of COVID-19, which significantly reduced outdoor activities as well as vehicular load, according to experts. 

The second wave of the pandemic in Bangladesh was from March-May 2021 and part of it overlapped with the study period.

“Out of the 64 districts studied, Gazipur had the worst daily average PM 2.5 pollution (263.45 μg). Dhaka was the second-worst with 252.9 μg, followed by Narayanganj with 222.45 μg,” said Ahmed Kamruzzaman Majumder, head of environment science at Stamford University and project lead.

In a few places, the levels were found to be around 500 μg, more than 30 times above WHO limit and seven times above Bangladesh benchmark. 

Majumder added:

Constant digging of roads and construction, emissions from about 1,200 brick kilns around the cities, pollution from thousands of moderate and large industries as well as from unfit vehicles and burning of garbage are the main reasons behind the high air pollution level within the top three cities in Bangladesh.

Habigunj, Noakhali, Tangail, Coxbazar, Chandpur, Chattagram & Kishoreganj are the other significantly polluted cities in Bangladesh, according to the report. 

The level of pollution was found to be moderate in Satkhira, Khulna in Bagerhat areas falling within the Sundarbans.

Areas like Madaripur, Patuakhali and Meherpur were found to be the least polluted areas, with less constructional work, the researchers found.

The PM 2.5 concentration was the highest in mixed demographic areas (111.9 μg), the study showed. This was followed by commercial areas (111.4 μg), road crossings (110.8 μg), and pollution in domestic, industrial and sensitive areas.

Least pollution was recorded from rural areas (94.02 μg), according to the report. This figure is still nearly 1.5 times of Bangladesh’s daily average limit and six times of the WHO limit.

Developmental works ‘triggered’ air pollution surge

The surge of PM 2.5 pollution in Bangladesh overlapped with the initiation of developmental activities in the country, particularly in the capital city Dhaka and surrounding areas, researchers pointed out.

A clear development-pollution nexus emerges from the initial study, said Majumder. “We find that the PM 2.5 surge mainly started from 2016, almost the same period when several developmental works, particularly major constructions, started in Dhaka and other parts of Bangladesh.”

The construction of the metro rail system, one of the major triggers to particulate pollution, initiated in 2016 at Dhaka. The gross domestic product of the country grew at over 5 per cent per annum for the decade leading up to the pandemic, World Bank data shows.

“Air pollution has spread all over Bangladesh, with Dhaka being the central point leading to high impact on exposed population,” claimed Shorif Jamil, general secretary of the Bangladesh Paribesh Andolan. Jamil demanded provision of appropriate laws and setting up of green courts to counter the rising pollution in the country.

“While the government has its responsibility, common people driving vehicles are often not disciplined and violate norms,” said Qazi Kholiquzzaman Ahmad, an economist and chairman of Dhaka School of Economics.

Indian link denied

“Our research shows that neither Bangladesh receives a substantial amount of pollution from India, nor India from Bangladesh,'' added Majumder, claiming that the pollution in Bangladesh mostly originates locally.

Kalyan Rurdra, chairman of the West Bengal Pollution Control Board, India, had earlier claimed that about 21 per cent of the state’s PM 2.5 pollution comes from Bangladesh, based on a study carried out by the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi.

Anumita Roy Choudhury, an air pollution expert from the Centre for Science and Environment, a Delhi-based non-profit, pointed out that it's high time that a wider air-shade needs to be looked into for tracking and taking action against air pollution. 

“It’s a common thing that polluted air travels from Bangladesh to India, and vice versa,” she said. We actually need to look at regional air-shade, in this case transboundary, and take joint actions; if required, the expert added. 

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