Study claims air pollution from Payra plant cluster may cause 34,000 deaths in 30 years
The development of a coal-fired power plants cluster in Payra, Patuakhali, is most likely to increase Bangladesh's vulnerability to diseases, according to a study.
The study, the first of its kind, was released on May 5. It said air pollutant emissions from seven plants would be responsible for a projected 18,000 to 34,000 deaths in Bangladesh over an operating life of 30 years.
The international independent research organization, Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA), and Bangladesh Poribesh Andolon (BAPA) jointly unveiled the study, titled "Air Quality, health and toxics impacts of the proposed coal power cluster in Payra, Bangladesh."
The study was prepared after scrutinizing EIA (Environmental Impact Assessment) reports of the Payra and Patuakhali power projects.
"Over 30 years of operation, in the high emissions scenario, emissions from the plants are projected to contribute to 33,636 deaths, of which 4,900 will be due to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, 11,000 due to ischemic heart disease and 2,700 due to lower respiratory infections of which 300 will affect children, 1,800 due to lung cancer and 8,900 due to stroke. 2,400 deaths will be related to NO2 [Nitrogen dioxide] exposure," the study claimed.
Other health impacts include 71,000 asthma emergency room visits, 15,000 new cases of asthma in children, 39,000 pre-term births, 26 million days of work absence (sick leave) and 57,000 years lived with disability related to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, diabetes and stroke, according to the study.
In the low emissions scenario, the projected number of premature deaths due to air pollutant exposure is 17,894, the study noted.
When asked about the study findings, Power Division Secretary Dr Sultan Ahmed said it was too early to comment on the extent of air pollution or other health hazards likely to be posed by the power plants.
"The Department of Environment [DoE] issues clearance for any plant on the basis of proposed model and parameters in which concern over air pollution is also maintained. If the power plants apply, in reality, the technology they proposed in their reports while obtaining clearance [from DoE], it is not likely to cause pollution to a larger extent," he maintained.
In addition, monitoring was essential to maintain environmental standards when the plants came into operation, he said.
"We can talk about pollution after analyzing the impacts on neighbouring areas, only after the plants come into operation," he added.
Meanwhile, Nasrul Hamid, state minister for power, energy and mineral resources, declined to make any comment as he was unaware of the findings of the study.
Air pollution raises vulnerability for Covid-19
In Bangladesh, air pollution is responsible for about 11% of the disease burden from diabetes, 16% of lung cancer, 15% of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, 10% of deaths from ischemic heart disease and 6% from stroke, according to data available from Global Burden of Disease Study 2017.
Citing various research findings, Lauri Myllyvirta, lead analyst of CREA, said past exposure to air pollution had made people much more vulnerable to Covid-19 and was now contributing to the death toll and exerting enormous pressure on healthcare systems from the disease.
BAPA Executive Vice President Dr Abdul Matin, speaking on the findings, said: "We can well assume from the research that the Covid-19 pandemic will worsen in Bangladesh due to the high level of air pollution which will also appear as a threat of such epidemics in future."
According to the study, a cluster of eight large power plants with a total capacity of 9.8GW and combined with very lax emission standards will worsen air quality.
Notably, from among the power projects, a plant being constructed by Sena Kalyan Sangstha was excluded from the research.
Other environment, health hazards
The study said the seven power plants would emit 20,480 tons of sulfur dioxide (SO2) per year in a low emissions scenario and 44,780 tons in a high emissions scenario.
Altogether 55,095 tons of nitrogen oxide (NOx) and 6,000 tons of particulate matter (fly ash) will be emitted by these plants annually. Of that, 1,812 tons will be PM2.5, which could pose a serious threat to lungs and respiratory systems, it estimated.
These plants will generate PM2.5 pollution over a large area, including Dhaka and the Sundarbans, a Unesco world heritage site, while NO2 (nitrogen dioxide) pollution will be dispersed over a wider area than PM2.5, reaching up to the border with India.
These projects would emit an estimated 600-800 kg of mercury per year into the air, of which one third would be deposited into land and freshwater ecosystems in Bangladesh, affecting cropland and fisheries in particular, the study claimed.
Approximately one third of the mercury emitted by the plant is estimated to be deposited into land and freshwater ecosystems in the region, amounting to approximately 290 kg per year in the high emissions scenario, and 170 kg per year in the low emissions scenario, it is feared.
Of the 170-290kg of projected annual mercury deposition, approximately 55-60% take place on cropland, 25% on forest and scrubland, 5% on mangrove and freshwater ecosystems, and 10% on built-up areas.
Impact on Ilish
There are five important sanctuaries for Ilish (hilsa), including its spawning grounds, migration routes and egg and fry areas in the vicinity of the Payra hub, that will be impacted by direct mercury deposition.
Dr Md Anisur Rahman, chief scientific officer of Bangladesh Fisheries Research Institute (BFRI), said the mercury emissions from the Payra hub were a most troubling matter where the national fish was concerned.
He said the deposition of mercury was so high that it could turn Ilish too toxic to eat or sell.
"Even mercury deposition rates as low as 125mg per hectare per year are known to accumulate unsafe levels of mercury in fish," he added.
Chittagong University teacher and Coordinator of Halda River Research Laboratory Dr Md Manzoorul Kibria apprehended that the projected emissions could disrupt Ilish breeding in the sanctuaries near Payra.
Bangladesh as signatory to Minamata Convention should phase out mercury-based products
As a signatory to the Minamata Convention, Bangladesh is committed to phasing out mercury-based products and coal-based power plants by 2025.
Experts said mercury and its various compounds have a range of serious health impacts on human beings. They damage functions of the brain and kidneys along with neurological and digestive systems. Victims can suffer memory loss and language impairment alongside many other well documented problems.
Dr Shahriar Hossain, general secretary of Environment and Social Development Organization (ESDO), said mercury in any form was harmful to the human body.
"Mercury may enter the human body by food chain, inhalation and drinking of water. It may cause various diseases, including cancer," he said.
Shahriar Hossain demanded an immediate reduction of mercury emissions sources in order to avert a serious threat to human health.
"Bangladesh has not ratified the Minamata Convention yet. But as a signatory, the country should abide by the convention," he added.
Energy expert M Tamim said the government's plan of coal-fired power generation had been minimized in the 2016 master plan, compared to the master plan prepared in 2010.
"I think the amount of electricity generation from coal will further come down. The government will continue to explore and place emphasis on natural gas, including LNG [liquefied natural gas], in the days ahead while the global trend of minimizing dependency on coal-based power generation is on the rise," he said.
The energy expert, however, declined to make any comment on the findings of the study right now, saying: "I am confident that the government will shift its stance from the high number of coal-fired power generation. If it does so, pollution will be reduced automatically."