Tannery pollution threatens health of half-million Bangladesh residents

About half a million residents of the Bangladesh capital, Dhaka, are at risk of serious illness due to chemical pollution from tanneries near their homes, according to a report released last year by the Bangladesh Society for Environment and Human Development (SEHD). The report says large numbers of the 8000–12 000 workers at the tanneries suffer from gastrointestinal, dermatological and other diseases that could be related to the pollution and that 90% of them die before the age of 50 vs less than 60% for the country as a whole. About a quarter of these workers are under 11 years of age.

The affected area is Hazaribagh, a community in the south-east corner of Dhaka, where 240 tanneries are located on 25 hectares of land, the report notes. Most of the tanneries are 30–35 years old and use mineral tanning processes that discharge about 6000 cubic metres of liquid effluent and 10 tons of solid waste every day, according to figures from the Bangladesh government and the Food and Agriculture Organization.

Chromium, the SEHD report says, is one of the most harmful chemicals found in the tannery waste because of its carcinogenic potential. Acidic effluents, it adds, can cause severe respiratory problems. Gaseous emissions from the tanneries contain sulfur dioxide that is converted into sulfuric acid on contact with moisture and can damage lungs. ‘‘You only have to see the corrosion of iron that has occurred in buildings and sheds in the area, to realize what these people are exposed to,’’ says Han Heijnen, WHO’s environmental health adviser in Bangladesh.

The SEHD report says that 58% of the tannery workers suffer from gastrointestinal disease (vs 24% for the country as a whole), 31% from dermatological diseases (vs 9%), 12% from hypertension (vs 0.9%) and 19% from jaundice (vs 0.07%).

A recent article in a Bangladesh newspaper, The Independent, says that ‘‘residents in the Hazaribagh area have been complaining for a long time that the tanneries emit bad odour and pollute the air beyond tolerable limits’’.

A local environmentalist group urged the government a few years ago to move the tanneries to a less populated site, Mr Heijnen told the Bulletin. ‘‘The proposal was opposed by industrial interests.’’ Two years ago, the United Nations Industrial Development Organization recommended installing a plant to treat the tannery waste but, says Mr Heijnen, ‘‘beyond debating the matter, authorities have done nothing concrete so far’’. He adds: ‘‘Observers from abroad sometimes fail to realize that these environmental problems, which are serious and widespread, compete with a multitude of other health and environmental problems that have to take priority in a country with very limited resources.’’

Another environmental problem on Bangladesh’s to-do list is arsenic contamination of ground water used for drinking, which a recent article in the Bulletin (Vol. 78, No. 9, 1093–1104) called ‘‘the largest mass poisoning of a population in history’’.

John Maurice,

World Health Organization Genebra - Genebra - Switzerland
E-mail: bulletin@who.int