Air pollution, primarily from burning fossil fuels, shortens Bangladeshis' life expectancy by an average of 5.4 years – an impact greater than that of smoking cigarettes, HIV/AIDS, and unsafe water and sanitation.
Residents of Dhaka are at a greater threat as the Air Quality Life Index (AQLI) report released by the University of Chicago on Wednesday says life expectancy of people living here is reduced by 7.7 years from what it would have been had the people's exposure to air pollution been limited to what is suggested by the World Health Organisation.
The concentration of the fine inhalable particulate matter – PM2.5 – that is 24 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair has risen 15.3% since 1998.
With 65.5 micrograms per cubic metre, the country recorded the second-highest average concentration of PM2.5 in the world in 2019. The figure is way more than the limit set by Bangladesh itself at 15 μg/m³ and by the WHO at 10 μg/m³.
The particulate pollution level is at least 3 times the WHO limit in all the 64 districts of the country, as per the AQLI report.
Residents in Khulna and Rajshahi divisions experience the highest level of pollution with a fine particulate concentration seven times the WHO limit reducing their life expectancy by more than 6 years.
Even in Chattogram, where air quality is better than the national average, residents still lose 3.6 life years, reads the report.
According to the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS), the average life expectancy in Bangladesh is currently 72.8 years: for women it is 74.5 years and for men 71.2 years.
"The dual challenges of economic growth and environmental quality faced by Bangladesh today are no different from those once confronted by other countries during periods of industrialisation. Nor is this dynamic limited to the world's wealthiest countries," says the report.
However, Bangladesh was named the world's most polluted country for PM2.5 exposure for the third straight year in 2020 in a March report released by IQAir, a Swiss group that measures air quality levels.
It pointed out that the annual average PM2.5 concentration in Bangladesh's air was 77.1 micrograms per cubic metre in 2020, which is more than seven times higher than WHO's target to keep annual exposure below 10 micrograms per cubic metre.
Preventive medicine specialist Dr Lelin Chowdhury told The Business Standard, "We are not able to control air pollution. As a result, problems related to breathing have continued to rise among the elderly as well as children in Bangladesh. Air pollution is also causing cancer, lung problems and heart diseases. It hampers our quality of life as well.
"There was a time when brickfields were all around Dhaka, which was responsible for 57% of the city's air pollution. The number has been decreasing. But no effective measures have been taken to curb the emissions from fossil fuels," said the joint secretary of Poribesh Bachao Andolon, a voluntary social organisation working for the protection of the environment.
He criticised the non-implementation of policies intended to contain pollution from fossil fuels, while emphasizing the need for an integrated air pollution control programme.
Impacts of air pollution in South Asia
The increase in South Asian air pollution level is not surprising as industrialisation, economic development, and population growth have led to a skyrocketing energy demand and fossil fuel use across the region over the last two decades, according to the AQLI report.
Air pollution is responsible for 58% of total life years lost.
In Bangladesh, the number of motor vehicles roughly tripled from 2010 to 2020 while in India and Pakistan, vehicles on the road have increased about four-fold since the early 2000s.
In Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and Pakistan combined, electricity generation from fossil fuels tripled from 1998 to 2017. Crop burning, brick kilns, and other industrial activities have also contributed to the rising level of air particulates.
Air pollution cuts life expectancy by 5.9 years in India, highest in the region, followed by Bangladesh, Nepal (5 years), Pakistan (3.9 years), Bhutan (2.4 years) Afghanistan (2.1 years) and Sri Lanka (0.9 years).