Bangladesh’s air pollution problem grows, brick by brick


Four-year-old Nayem often plays atop large piles of coal used to fire kilns at a brick factory at the edge of Dhaka, Bangladesh. The chimneys from such factories contribute to some of the worst air pollution in the world.

Though only a small part of the nation’s GDP, brickmaking plays an outsized role in the spread of air pollution — and disease — in Dhaka and beyond.

Making bricks is serious business in Bangladesh. While exact numbers are hard to come by, estimates suggest the industry here employs more than one million people who churn out 23 billion bricks each year at some 7,000 kilns. Demand for bricks, too, is on the rise, following the growth of the construction industry amid an infrastructure boom.

But whatever the dividends those kilns deliver to this rapidly developing country, the thousands of slender, cylindrical chimneys attached to them exact a heavy and offsetting toll. They punctuate the horizon in cities and towns across Bangladesh — including some 1,000 in the suburbs of the nation’s capital, Dhaka — and they contribute mightily to what is considered some of the worst air pollution in the world.

“The air that touches my skin feels extremely dirty,” said university student Scionara Shehry, “so I use a scarf all the time to shield my hair and face from it when I’m on the roads.”

She is far from alone. During the dry season, when brickmaking is going full tilt, dust and smoke from wood- and coal-fired kilns mingle with clouds of pollution rising from trash fires and vehicle engines, hanging over the city like fog. The kiln operations alone — while representing just 1 percent of the country’s GDP — generate nearly 60 percent of the particulate pollution in Dhaka, according to Bangladesh’s Department of Environment (DOE). Many of those kiln operations — including some 530 sites producing more than 2 billion bricks annually in northern Dhaka — are so-called fixed-chimney kilns, which use inefficient technology with little to no pollution controls.

And these represent only the brickmaking businesses that regulators have managed to count. An untold number of other, haphazardly regulated brickmakers churn heavy clouds of smoke and dust skyward each year.

Worldwide, ambient particulate matter ranks as the sixth leading risk factor for premature death, according to the 2018 “State of Global Air” report, produced by the research nonprofit Health Effects Institute in Boston and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington in Seattle. Those risks are particularly acute in Dhaka, where fine particle pollution like PM2.5 — microscopically small at 2.5 micrometers in diameter or less and a byproduct of combustion — is relentlessly inhaled by residents.

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